Eliot Spitzer emerged from political exile on Monday, taking his first halting steps back to public life with a campaign swing through Union Square.
But it was more a media circus than a whistle-stop tour for New York City residents, with dozens of reporters, television cameras, and photographers surrounding the former governor as he climbed the subway-station stairs, keeping him from finding the voters for whom he was there to ask for forgiveness.
“For many years I worked for the public as a prosecutor, as attorney general, and also as governor, and I think that the public will look at what we did with respect to cleaning up Wall Street, with respect to cleaning up the environment,” Spitzer said. But his record was nearly drowned out by a bellowing heckler who asked: “WHY WERE YOU LATE? WERE YOU WITH A HOOKER? DID YOU LEAVE YOUR BLACK SOCKS ON? THIS IS JUST ABOUT POWER. YOU WANT POWER.”
As that heckler was countered by another pro-Spitzer shouter, the governor who saw his once promising career flame out in a prostitution scandal, only to reappear in the outer reaches of unwatched cable news, struggled to explain why at the last moment he decided to run for city comptroller. It’s an unglamorous position in the governmental firmament that as of Sunday night had just one major candidate in contention, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
“If you look at the record I had as attorney general and as governor and as an assistant district attorney, in the private sector, as a teacher of government, how the students reviewed my teaching at [City College of New York], the things I care about, then I think people understand that this is a record of service,” Spitzer said. “I hope they do. I am going to make that argument to them, and I will be honored to have their support.”
“ELIOT: WE KNOW YOU WORE BLACK SOCKS, BUT DID YOU WEAR A CONDOM?” the heckler rejoined.
Spitzer rolled his eyes at the interruption, grumbling a perfunctory “very funny.”
Asked later about the heckling, he said: “This is New York. We go to the ball park, we heckle a pitcher who throws one bad pitch. So, you know, I sympathize with the hecklers. We have a little bit of a heckler in each one of us. At a certain point is past the line of decorum, but, you know, this is New York. This is politics. I have skin as thick as a rhinoceros.”
Mostly Spitzer struggled to slip the media horde. Large sweat stains were visible on his shirt and jacket as the heat index approached 95 degrees. He carried a clipboard for signature-gathering, featuring his Fifth Avenue address.
“If I weren’t surrounded by 30 cameras, perhaps I would be able to speak to some real voters,” he said at one point. At another, when asked how many signatures he had gathered, he said, “None. I am talking to you guys.”
At times Spitzer struggled to explain why he was running. He has a new book out this week, but he dismissed the suggestion that his run was an effort to boost book sales, saying he told his publisher he would not run for office at all if it was going to be a distraction for the publishing company’s media strategy.
But Spitzer’s presence at Union Square turned the city’s most famous protest venue into a public spectacle. Tourists passing through stopped to ask reporters what all the excitement was about. Hank Sheinkopf, the sharp-tongued Democratic consultant whose barbed quotes have long made him a favorite of the city political press corps, wandered through the scrum before Spitzer arrived, offering his opinion on the disgraced pol’s chances.
“A very surprising decision by Eliot Spitzer, but a very smart one strategically,” he said. “Why? Never let your enemy know you are coming. While Scott Stringer was having a nice weekend, probably sipping a drink, a lightning bolt entered his head last night.”
With similarly disgraced Anthony Weiner running for mayor, however, Spitzer’s presence on the ballot is threatening to turn the election into a circus—split between a redemption tour and a series of juvenile jokes.
Weiner has surprised political observers by jumping out to an early lead in some polls and now, with Spitzer running, it appears as if the media’s attention has turned elsewhere.
“We haven’t had such an amazing spectacle since Barnum & Bailey Circus performed in Madison Square Park,” Sheinkopf told the waiting reporters. “This is going to be a great brawl, with all kinds of scandal involved. It is not very New York, but it sure is interesting.”
Spitzer was unable to escape the comparisons. Again and again, he insisted that Weiner’s success in the polls did not influence his decision to reenter politics.
“New Yorkers are forgiving,” he said of Weiner. “But I knew that. New Yorkers are good souls and have a sense of forgiveness, but whether that forgiveness extends to me is a whole separate issue. That is why I draw no logical nexus between him and anybody else.”
Still, he offered, “I am always glad to see forgiveness on the part of the public.”
Some voters weren’t so sure.
“It’s the same as with Anthony Weiner,” said attorney Michael B. Rothenberg, 31. “They did a good job, but how do you trust them again?”
But as Spitzer was facing the horde, one woman broke through to tell reporters that it was almost Spitzer’s mistakes alone that led her to support him.
“I support you,” she said. “I forgave you. We all make mistakes. Any perfect person, raise your hand.”
For the record, not one reporter did.
Despite the heat, the sweat, and the fact that he hadn’t been able to reach a single voter, Spitzer did seem to be enjoying himself. Gone was the wooden persona who never quite clicked on cable TV.
Asked how it felt to be “back in the arena,” a nod to his short-lived CNN show, Spitzer looked up at the media throng and said, “Well, it feels a little claustrophobic right now.”