Stringer’s Bid for NYC Comptroller Upended by Spitzer

With union backing and no significant competition, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was cruising toward becoming New York City’s next comptroller. Then Eliot Spitzer said he wanted the job.

A day after Spitzer’s July 7 announcement, his appearance in Union Square created a frenzy as reporters, supporters and hecklers jostled to get near the former New York governor who resigned five years ago in a prostitution scandal. As spectators shouted questions and taunts, Spitzer pledged to remake the comptroller’s office into the type of Wall Street watchdog he became as state attorney general.

“Stringer thought he’d have a nice summer off, enjoying a Fourth of July weekend, when a lightning bolt went through his brain,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant not involved in this year’s race who helped Spitzer win his first term as attorney general in 1998. “Now he’s in the fight of his life.”

Stringer’s formerly uncontested Democratic campaign, which stood in contrast to a seven-candidate brawl for the party’s mayoral nomination, now has all the makings of a similar dogfight. What’s at stake is a job with the power to audit the mayor and all city agencies, scrutiny over a $70 billion budget and stewardship of pension assets valued at $140 billion.

Spitzer leads Stringer 42 percent to 33 percent among registered Democrats, with about a quarter undecided, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC 4 New York-Marist poll released last night. Sixty-seven percent said the former governor should be given a second chance. More than 40 percent said they had never heard of Stringer, while more than 80 percent had an opinion of Spitzer.

Manhattan Booster

Stringer, 53, a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, is a career politician who served in the state Assembly for 13 years before his election as borough president in 2005. His job makes him a trustee of one of five city pension funds and gives him a voice in borough zoning and land-use planning. He also appoints members to local community boards and acts as a booster for Manhattan commerce and quality-of-life issues.

Spitzer, 54, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Manhattan assistant district attorney, was elected governor with 69 percent of the vote in 2006 after becoming nationally known for prosecuting financial-industry abuses as state attorney general. He served just two years and three months of his four-year term before he was caught consorting with high-priced prostitutes.

Hours after Spitzer’s news conference on July 8, Stringer held one of his own in front of an Upper West Side supermarket, telling reporters that Spitzer’s candidacy came as no surprise.

What Surprise?

“I always thought that Spitzer could consider this race,” he said. His spokesman, George Arzt, said the campaign had heard rumors of a Spitzer candidacy before the announcement.

A year ago, Stringer was trying to drum up support in a field of several Democratic aspirants seeking to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including the current comptroller, John Liu. The mayor, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is barred by law from seeking a fourth term.

Stringer gave up his mayoral quest in November to announce his candidacy for comptroller. He called on political allies to pressure would-be competitors from seeking the job, Sheinkopf said. Since then, Stringer has amassed scores of endorsements from elected officials and at least 20 unions.

In a city where Democrats hold a 6-to-1 voter registration edge over Republicans, Stringer’s November election was almost assured -- the party has held the post since 1945. If Spitzer meets a July 11 deadline to get 3,750 valid Democratic signatures, the two will compete in a Sept. 10 primary.

Former Madam

On the Republican side, John Burnett, 43, a former compliance officer for Morgan Stanley and other securities firms, is seeking the nomination.

Adding to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding Spitzer’s entry into the race is the possible candidacy of Kristin Davis on the Libertarian line. Davis, a 36-year-old self-described former madam who says she procured escorts for Spitzer, spent four months in jail for promoting prostitution, according to her website.

Stringer says his 20 years as a politician have given him “the skill set to work collaboratively” with the mayor to sell New York’s creditworthiness to bond-rating firms, and to improve performance of city agencies.

“At the same time, you have to be fiercely independent to take on city agencies, take on City Hall,” he said July 9 during an interview on WNYC radio. “That’s what I’ve been doing as borough president.”

No Steamroller

Stringer contrasts himself with Spitzer, who described himself as a “steamroller” and made enemies prosecuting Wall Street executives and threatening recalcitrant lawmakers as governor. On March 12, 2008, cheers erupted from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when traders got news of Spitzer’s resignation.

The end of Spitzer’s governorship began with an article in the New York Times two days earlier reporting that a federal wiretap caught him planning to meet a prostitute in Washington after arranging for her travel from New York. As a prosecutor, Spitzer charged members of a prostitution ring with crimes.

The election raises the question of whether voters will remember Spitzer as the sheriff of Wall Street or as a hypocrite who flouted the law he swore to uphold, said Robert Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University.

Weiner Effect

Spitzer entered the race after Anthony Weiner did well in public opinion polls as a New York mayoral candidate, two years after he resigned from Congress following the disclosure that he sent lewd photos of his crotch to women via Twitter.

“The lesson he learned from Weiner is that from the moment he enters the race, he’ll immediately draw a lot of press attention,” Shapiro said. “Spitzer’s banking on using that moment to show his command of the issues and remind voters of his accomplishments. At the same time, he will paint Stringer as a hack.”

Stringer’s campaign may have gotten off to a bad start against Spitzer by not attacking the ex-governor’s illicit conduct, Shapiro said.

Instead, Stringer has made an issue of Spitzer’s decision to pay for his campaign out of his family fortune and opt out of the city’s campaign-finance system, which offers public matching funds to candidates who agree to the program’s spending cap.

“I’ve always been unbossed and unbought,” Stringer said on several occasions since Spitzer became his rival. “I have real integrity. I believe in the campaign-finance system.”

Wall Street

Spitzer’s retort is that his self-financed candidacy gives him independence. That means he owes no favors to unions that have opposed efforts to streamline the city pension system or to politicians who have signed on to Stringer’s campaign.

“If Spitzer reverts to being the egotist that brought him down, he will fail,” Sheinkopf said. “If he is able to present himself as a more humble model, he has a shot.”

Stringer faces a dilemma on accepting support from Wall Street and criticizing Spitzer as someone who targeted the financial industry, which the city depends on for jobs, economic vitality and government revenue. As attorney general, Spitzer crusaded against biased analyst research at investment banks, late trading in mutual funds and bid-rigging in the insurance industry. He obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.

For Stringer, taking such a position would run the risk of alienating his liberal Democratic base, Sheinkopf said.

“What had been a leisurely summer has become a tireless battle for survival for Stringer because his entire career has been politics,” Sheinkopf said. “Anyone who’s had a headache that doesn’t go away knows what Scott Stringer is going through.”

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