In Comptroller Race, A Nasty Personality Clash

With no real issues in the race, Stringer and Spitzer focus on trashing each other.

08/30/13
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One promises “no drama” if he is elected, noting that “I have not embarrassed my constituents,” while embracing the role of “policy wonk.”

The other says he has a history of results and is a better choice than someone who “wants to be a go-along-to-get along politician and work the game.”

They’re the two Democrats running for city comptroller.

Scott Stringer and Eliot Spitzer are both liberal Jewish Manhattanites of almost the same age with similar names who attend Reform synagogues, and hold similar political views. But in separate interviews with Jewish Week staff members on Wednesday (Aug. 28), they emphasized their differences in the starkest terms.

“The momentum is shifting,” said Stringer, the Manhattan borough president and former assemblyman.

Sure enough, on the day after the interview, a Quinnipiac poll showed Spitzer’s 19-point lead evaporating to put the two candidates in a dead heat, 46 to 46 percent, with just days until the Sept. 10 primary, suggesting the match could get even uglier in the days ahead. (A later New York Times/Siena College poll put Spitzer in the lead, 50-35 percent; the earlier poll numbers could reflect polling done in the immediate aftermath of newspaper endorsements of Stringer.)

Stringer has more reason to be bitter, having his clear path to the Democratic nomination (tantamount to victory) upset by the late entry into the race by Spitzer, the former crusading attorney general who is seeking a political comeback after leaving the governor’s office in scandal five years ago.

But Spitzer has leveled some jabs of his own, accusing Stringer of exaggerating his participation in pension fund investor meetings and going along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successful scheme to run for a third term (although Spitzer says the mayor hasn’t done a bad job.) He’s also jabbed Stringer for having failed as a partner in two Manhattan bar ventures.

Each candidate reluctantly said he would support the other in the general election. (Spitzer confessed to not knowing the name of the Republican candidate, John Burnett.)

And both agreed that they would factor matters of conscience into investment decisions, such as divesting from companies that do business with Iran or investing in Israel, noting that such decisions also make good financial sense. They also both denied viewing the comptroller’s office as a stepping stone for higher office.

But without being prompted, each worked nasty critiques of the other into his narrative.

“After 20 years in government I’m not sure the public knows his name, knows what he accomplished, knows what he stands for,” Spitzer said of Stringer.

Stringer suggested the city would lose credibility with Spitzer at the helm of its finances. “The job of comptroller not just a local job; you manage a $140 billion pension fund, you’re the sixth largest institutional investor, 14th in the world,” he said. “If we’re going to be taken seriously in the capital markets and major institutional players, as is our tradition, we don’t want a comptroller who, when he walks out of the room people are smirking and laughing at him.”

Stringer gloated about the number of union, elected official and newspaper endorsements he has received. “We’ve got every labor union, every advocacy group, women’s groups … validator after validator is supporting my candidacy.”

But Spitzer countered that that he’s won without any endorsements before. “In ’98, my recollection is that when I was elected attorney general, I don’t recall any endorsements from elected officials, just few scattershot here or there.”

He noted that Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is surging in the mayoral primary without any major newspaper endorsements. And that many political endorsements of Stringer were made before he entered the race.

Asked to outline the future direction of the comptroller’s office under his administration, Stringer said he wants to be involved in city contracts with vendors from the start rather than reviewing them afterward to “put triggers in place so we can follow that contract, especially if it’s a large technology contract. Those are the ones that seem to get into trouble.”

And in addition to audits that critique the spending of commissioners and their agencies, he wants to show them how to make them “less bureaucratic” to save the city money.

Asked if he would support Spitzer for another office were the two not in competition, Stringer said, “This has to end. You have the public trust in your hand and people voted for you because they want you watch out for them. … The notion that we’re going to reward somebody who violates the public trust because he has money and resources and big connections is absurd. Most elected officials who engage in this kind of shenanigans end up in jail. But there’s two standards of justice. The rich and the powerful can get away with it while others pay a heavy price, including jail.”

Asked if disgraced public figures deserve a shot at redemption, Stringer said. “Go redeem yourself. But this is about more than just him. This has to be about the people you serve. Our city is very forgiving, but that doesn’t translate into being elected to public office. I didn’t see him out during Hurricane Sandy, for example — that would have been a great opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I want to help.’”

Spitzer said he spent much of the storm time on air at Current TV, where he was hosting a news show. “That was my job at the time.” But he said he also helped friends financially and helped them find places to stay. “I don’t think I want to go out in the middle of Sandy and put out a press release that says, ‘Here I am.’”

In his interview, Spitzer said he was encouraged by the positive reception he’s been receiving on the campaign trail. He insists he did no private polling before making the decision to jump in the race.

“It was only what I picked up from talking to folks on the streets over five years,” Spitzer said. “If you’re in the world of politics and you cannot absorb from the public what the emotive reaction is, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

When pressed in several questions about why the public should place its trust in someone who broke the law and displayed self-destructive behavior in office, Spitzer stuck to the same narrative he has maintained in debates and public appearances.

“I have asked the public to look at the totality of my career, the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “What I accomplished and what if fought for, and where I have failed.”

Asked what guarantee New Yorkers have that he would not again use bad personal judgment while in office, Spitzer said only, “My word. People will look at the nature of the violations, the way I handled them, [that I] looked the public in the eye, resigned, took responsibility, and what I’ve done since then and make an independent judgment.”

Asked if his early success in the race may stem from the public’s sense that he was humbly seeking a job of lower stature than those in which he already served, Spitzer said, “I did say, early on, there was something important about not seeking to reclaim a position that was one of great grandeur and executive authority — which is not to diminish the comptroller’s office. But yes, something about stepping back to a position that some people say. ‘How do you spell it, what does it do, why are you doing that?' … I think that maybe is important.”

He said that during his years in political exile he helped run his family foundation, which funds cutting-edge medical research and programs at City College of New York as well as aids New York institutions such as the 9/11 Memorial, the Museum of Natural History, the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial To The Holocaust.

“What I did was for a purpose and was not designed to be press related,” he said. “I’d like to think the things I’ve done were of some utility. I worked with a bunch of charities and helped them do things that are useful and important.”

Asked if other revelations may emerge about his private life, he said, “There are no other secrets. What people will choose to publish is up to them.”

He said he would not answer further questions about the state of his marriage or his relationship with his daughters. “I’m running for office; nobody else in my family is running for office. I’m running for office because I understand capital markets, I understand what a yield curve is and when I’m asked at a debate about issues of great significance, I don’t need to answer that I’ll hire someone who understands it.

“I haven’t run two businesses into bankruptcy. I think these are more material distinctions that the public seems to care about more than my personal life.”

Spitzer said he did not intend to use the comptroller’s office in a prosecutorial way as he did while earning the reputation as the Sheriff of Wall Street, but will hold companies that receive investments accountable.

“This is not an effort to sort of find out what is going on in the capital markets, to find wrongdoing that can then be prosecuted,” he said. “What this is about is protecting the pension funds and using the position of ownership as it should be used. There has been tremendous failure in the capital market in the last 30 or 40 years on the part of those who own equity … a shift in power from those who own the companies to the executive suite. Management has been permitted to escape without any real check.”

He added that he would scrutinize the city’s $25 billion annual education bill. “How do we spend it and what are we getting back? Why do we have substandard education for our kids?”

Given the “steamroller” reputation he gained in Albany, a term he did not deny using to describe himself, Spitzer may find it hard to work collaboratively with other elected officials and commissioners.

But defending his record, he said, “When I was attorney general we did more and got more accomplished with 50 states joining us, the SEC, the Department of Justice. … We transformed an office that in its prior incarnation stood for virtually nothing. … We did that by using litigation power, intellect and when appropriate, diplomacy.”

On potentially working in government with people who endorsed his opponent, Spitzer said, “You have a drink, run five miles, burn off whatever frustration you have. Close the door on that.”

Asked to assess the Bloomberg administration, Spitzer said, “The third term was a bad idea,” suggesting that the mayor and Council should have taken another referendum before the people — who twice voted for term limits — to ask for an extension. The backroom deal was a violation of democracy.”

But he said on the whole, “I have agreed with much of what he’s done,” crediting the mayor for his willingness to try new ideas, and not be afraid that they won’t succeed.

“The economy has moved forward,” Spitzer said. “Have all have benefitted equally? No. Have we put sufficient attention into the needs of schools that are still suffering? No. Whoever the next mayor is, attention must be paid to those who have not benefitted.”

Asked the same question, Stringer said the city has “come a long way since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, obviously post-9/11 the mayor gets a lot of credit for getting our financial house in order. In recent years we’ve gotten a lot of one-shot budgeting from Albany; we need to be more aggressive in getting back the money that we need from Washington and Albany. We need to look at how we grow the economy post-[the] Wall Street [crash]. I don’t see that sector coming back the way it was.”

While not ruling out a run for higher office in the future, Spitzer (who told The Jewish Week in October, 2011 he would not seek office again) said he was not planning another run for governor. “I didn’t come naturally to politics. I was going to be a lawyer, a businessman, do many different things. I ran for attorney general because I thought you could do that and be a lawyer for the people. … Each position I sought was something I thought I would be able to contribute to.”

Stringer said that although he initially eyed the mayor’s race before switching gears to the comptroller’s race, he was committed to serving out a term if elected and seeking re-election in 2017.

“I’m very excited about this job,” he said.

adam@jewishweek.org

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05/20/2014 - 14:18

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