Two Scandal Scarred Politicians with One Message
First, Anthony Weiner vaulted back from an embarrassing sexting scandal to become a top mayoral contender. Now, Eliot Spitzer has sprinted onto the comeback campaign trail in New York City, where this fall's races are turning into a mini-Olympics of political redemption.
So Weiner, just two years after a tweeted underwear photo spelled the end of his congressional career, jumps into the race for the nation's biggest mayoral job less than two months before the deadline to get on the ballot? Well, Spitzer embarked Monday on something just as audacious, if not more so: Only four days before the deadline, he launched a bid to become city comptroller, asking voters to look past the prostitution scandal that cost him the governor's mansion five years ago in one of politics' steepest falls from power.
While the two Democrats insist they're not looking at one another's examples, they're drawing from a common playbook: ask voters for forgiveness, tell them you've changed and focus on what you can do for the city.
"What I'm looking for is a chance to be heard. I want the voters to listen to what I've done, look at the record that I developed as attorney general, as an assistant district attorney, as governor, and say, `This guy understood the public interest,"' Spitzer said at a Manhattan subway stop during his first public campaign appearance, where a heckler and some Spitzer supporters tried to out-shout each other while the candidate talked up his plans to make the city's top financial office into a muscular watchdog.
"New Yorkers, as good souls, have a sense of forgiveness," he added. "But whether or not they forgive me is a whole separate issue."
The limits of forgiveness are becoming a theme in this fall's New York City elections, which also feature former Democratic state assemblyman Vito Lopez, a onetime power player tarnished by a sexual harassment scandal, running for a City Council seat.
Not that New York is the only political climate undergoing a season of rebounds: Republican former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose extramarital affair spurred his resignation in 2009, was elected to Congress this spring.
But the prospect of both Spitzer and Weiner - who were some of the state's best-known and most driven politicians before their respective downfalls - on the same ballot, at least in September's primary, could give the contest an undertone of being a referendum on how much and how soon voters can be asked to excuse.
Will it matter that Weiner's undoing was only two years ago, while Spitzer's was five? That the former congressman has stayed out of the public eye, while the ex-governor kept himself visible as a TV commentator? That Weiner lied about misdeeds that were cringe worthy but not criminal, while Spitzer's scandal involved allegations of illegal behavior, though he was never charged with any crime?
Voters' response so far has been fairly encouraging for Weiner: he's polling at or near the top of a crowded Democratic mayoral field. As for Spitzer, New Yorkers expressed mixed feelings as they digested the news of his re-emergence.
Cleonie Sinclair wedged her way through the media crush to shake Spitzer's hand on her lunch break from her medical records job. "I forgave you, and we all made mistakes," Sinclair told him after hollering back at a heckler.
Sinclair, who's in her 50s, feels Spitzer was effective in his prior posts, "so I can't just take one mistake and turn it against him forever." But Diane Abrams, who was passing through a park elsewhere in Manhattan, said Spitzer shouldn't be asking voters to put him back in a prominent office.
"It's just kind of crazy," said the publishing editor. "He let a lot of people down. I think he let a whole state down." Spitzer said he thought about entering the race for months and decided just this weekend, leaving him only four days to collect 3,750 voters' signatures needed to get on the ballot. A scion of a real estate family, he plans to finance his own campaign.
He promised to amp up the office of comptroller, which invests the city's $139 billion in pension funds, analyzes the budget and audits agencies and programs.
Spitzer - known as "the sheriff of Wall Street" for taking on some big financial firms as attorney general - says he'd use the pension funds' shareholder stakes to force changes in how corporations operate; he believes corporations shouldn't let one person be both CEO and board chairman, for instance.
In a phone interview Monday, Spitzer said he would also use the comptroller's voice to make sure policies are working, "not just that the paper clips are counted."
But political analysts say Spitzer will need to walk a fine line between maintaining the "steamroller" persona that propelled him into the governor's office and signaling to voters he knows he made a mistake.
"He's got to be a different model of Spitzer," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist. "And this model has got to be as competent and less arrogant and be prepared to say, `Look, I screwed up, forgive me, because I think I can do this job."'
Spitzer's arrival shakes up what had looked to be a predictable comptroller's race. Democratic Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a former state assemblyman, had raised more than $3.5 million while his lesser-known opponents had yet to report any fundraising or spending.
"Bring it on. We're ready for this," Stringer said at a news conference Monday. His campaign manager has said Spitzer is trying to "buy personal redemption with his family fortune."
Republican candidate John Burnett, meanwhile, said New Yorkers deserve better than "a disgraced former governor" as comptroller.
And another contender, Kristin Davis, may make it difficult for Spitzer to avoid questions about his past. She was convicted of promoting prostitution and claims to have provided call girls to Spitzer, which hasn't been proven.
As for Weiner, when asked whether Spitzer was someone he could work with as mayor, he said yes but declined to comment further. "I think everyone was surprised, but it hasn't changed my life at all," he said.