Meet the New Eliot Spitzer

Chastened by his fall and energized by running a campaign on the fly, the former New York governor is trying on a more modest, self-deprecating version of himself. He tells Lloyd Grove about his brutal media grilling and whether he’s really out to get Wall Street.

“Tell Hank the next time he wants to serve me, he can do it himself,” Eliot Spitzer joked with a sheepishly grinning process server.

It was late Monday afternoon on the 22nd floor of the Crown Building, the ornately gilded Fifth Avenue headquarters of the Spitzer Engineering real estate empire. Embattled insurance mogul Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who at 88 is four years younger than the Spitzer family’s landmark skyscraper, had just sent legal papers to formally notify his archnemesis, Eliot, that he’s suing him for defamation.

Yet “defendant” is simply the latest title in the dizzying arc of Spitzer’s personal narrative. An imperially slim 54-year-old in a starched white shirt and somber tie, he has been the “sheriff of Wall Street” as New York’s take-no-prisoners attorney general; then the hard-nosed governor who famously dubbed himself “a fucking steamroller”; then the unwilling star of a call girl scandal after The New York Times outed him as “Client-9” in a federal investigation of a prostitution ring; then a political and social pariah; then a cable-television talk-show host; then an executive in the billion-dollar real estate and construction business founded by his father; and, as of this week, the unlikely prohibitive frontrunner in the Democratic primary race for New York City comptroller.

“My pleasure,” Spitzer jauntily told the process server, who had thanked him for being so accommodating about signing and dating the official form acknowledging receipt of Greenberg’s toxic documents.

Greenberg had filed his lawsuit in New York Supreme Court mere days after Spitzer announced his surprise candidacy July 7 (“HERE WE HO AGAIN!” shouted the New York Post). Greenberg claimed that his onetime tormenter had wrongfully accused him of corruption and fraud, on television and in print, as part of a “longstanding malicious campaign” to trash his reputation.

But the octogenarian plutocrat—who headed the insurance behemoth AIG until Spitzer forced his resignation in 2005, three years before the catastrophic financial meltdown that resulted in a multibillion-dollar federal bailout of AIG and other firms—is hardly the only Wall Street tycoon who nurses a grudge against the ex–attorney general.

Greenberg’s lawsuit, in other words, is rich in populist potential. As the process server headed for the door, I kidded Spitzer, “Where’s your camera crew? Wouldn’t this be good for a television commercial?” At which Spitzer laughingly called out to the departing functionary, “Hey, can you come back?” Turning to me, he added, “You’re right! That would have been awesome ... Awesome!

Eight days into his improbable comeback crusade, Spitzer was fired up and ready to go. Jumping up and down from his chair, he is talking a mile a minute about his seat-of-the-pants campaign and his philosophy of corporate governance—indeed, he has just published an e-book on the subject, Protecting Capitalism Case by Case—while his longtime public-relations adviser, Lisa Linden, sits a few feet away and listens.

Predictably, Spitzer’s quest has been linked to the mayoral candidacy of his “tabloid twin,” disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner (also a frontrunner!), who famously tweeted photos of his private parts to women he never met. This week’s cover of New York magazine conflates the duo into a single monstrous creature, the terrifying Weinerspitzer, with Weiner’s physiognomy on the left and Spitzer’s on the right.

“It was a little off-putting,” Spitzer acknowledged. “The way the two merge, it looks like a Frankenstein character, right? You know which side I liked better. I don’t want to be mean to Anthony. But I can say this: I have never run for office based upon my having a pretty face.”

Spitzer 2.0 is relentlessly self-deprecating. When I asked about reports that his time in the wilderness has made him more mature since he resigned as governor in March 2008, he laughed and said, “That may have been a low threshold.”

What about that notorious “steamroller” remark, which he made in 2007 to an uncooperative state legislator, who took it as a threat? “I wish I’d never said that,” Spitzer answered, “because it created a complete misperception of what we were trying to do. We went up there [to Albany] to work with everybody.”

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And is Spitzer really the bully of Wall Street’s dark imaginings?

“If you’re Hank Greenberg or some of these other folks, maybe I was tough to deal with, because I was standing up for principles that hadn’t been respected in a long time, and I didn’t think they were playing straight,” he told me. “Having said all that, I never had a fight with anybody who was perceived or was in fact weaker than I was or below me in any hierarchy. There is a difference in life if you fight up or fight down, and I never fought down.”

By conventional standards, Spitzer’s return to the fray has been brutal, with the candidate running a media gauntlet of searingly intrusive questions about his character flaws and his former entanglement with hookers, the state of his marriage to lawyer-philanthropist Silda Wall Spitzer, whether he can be trusted not to lie again to the public, and whether he is really and truly a changed man.

“It has been difficult, it has been painful, but it was a necessary part of the process,” Spitzer told me about his reaction to the grilling, which included an emotional appearance on MNSBC’s Morning Joe—in which the normally unflappable politician ended up in tears—and even a trip to Los Angeles to be a guest on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, not the usual venue for a New York City comptroller candidate. “How could you be this stupid?” Leno demanded. “It was something I understood, expected, anticipated,” Spitzer said. “The questions were properly asked. I think at a certain point I’m also entitled to say I’ve now answered them, and now I want to have a conversation about the substance of the office.”

Spitzer might get there eventually in the eight weeks before the September 10 primary election, but for now the character issues loom large. The campaign of his opponent, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, has been quick to make not-so-veiled references to “integrity” and accuse Spitzer of trying to “buy personal redemption with his family fortune.”

Spitzer—whose net worth has been estimated at $50 million and whose father, Bernard, is 10 times richer—has a history of funding his political races with family money. He told me he “will spend enough so that the public can hear my voice and we can have a fulsome debate and conversation,” but refused to estimate how many millions he’ll throw into the battle. “My opponent has a lot of organization stuff,” he added. But Spitzer argued that once enough money is spent on television for voters to “sufficiently internalize” the message, “there is a point of diminishing returns ... This notion of ‘buying elections’ doesn’t work.” He’s running 15 points ahead of Stringer overall in the new Quinnipiac poll and is beating him by substantial margins among black voters and, amazingly, even among women.

But there remain questions about a man who made public hay out of going after prostitution enterprises, which he did as attorney general in 2003, while privately rolling in the hay with prostitutes. Can Spitzer be accused of hypocrisy?

“I was, I have been, and I will be,” he replied with a pained expression. “I think it’s a question of looking at the totality of one’s career, and that’s the best I can answer. The only footnote I would add is that to the extent we did bring prostitution cases, they were really organized-crime cases, where these were part and parcel of structural cases that were being made ... I tried to do what was right. We passed a human-trafficking law when I was governor, something we were very proud of.”

Spitzer burst out laughing when I asked if he thought, as someone who aspires to the office of comptroller with responsibility for overseeing the city budget, that legalizing prostitution in New York City would provide much-needed tax revenue. “I’m not sure I’m going there right now,” he said amid giggles.

Compared with governor, city comptroller is obviously a downwardly mobile plunge, but Spitzer said he has long appreciated the ability of the office to shape public policy, impose accountability on the budgetary process, and, with its critical role in managing more than $100 billion in public employee-pension funds, wield influence on Wall Street and how large corporations govern themselves.

Spitzer told me he would be an activist comptroller who would attend stockholder meetings on occasion and offer his two cents, whether solicited or not, on who should be appointed to the boards of various corporations in which New York City’s pension funds hold stock. “In my book, I say that ownership trumps regulation and ownership trumps prosecution as a way to get good governance in corporate America,” Spitzer said.

Acting as his own campaign manager and chief strategist, Spitzer is putting together an organization on the fly and has recruited many veterans from his 2006 governor’s race, including prominent ad maker Jimmy Siegel. Two of his daughters and Silda, his wife of nearly 26 years, helped gather the 27,000 signatures to qualify him as candidate (the third daughter is on a trip to Mongolia, he said), and he said his family is supporting his political comeback.

But he has steadfastly refused to confirm or deny reports that he and Silda are living apart. “There’s a point at which our private lives are our private lives,” he argued. “There are boundaries beyond which it’s fair to say, ‘That’s enough’ ... This is sort of what politics has become. It’s too bad. I suppose I’m not in a position to complain about it."

In due course, Spitzer’s PR rep, Linden, peering at her BlackBerry, interrupted to announce the release of the new Quinnipiac poll. But she only had a few of the internal results.

“Is there a head-to-head?” Spitzer asked.

“I don’t have it yet,” she answered.

“There’s gotta be a head-to-head there, which I’m marginally curious about," Spitzer said with a tiny grin. "Am I winning?”