Liz Benjamin: Spitzer's Return

Jul 8, 2013

The biggest question about Eliot Spitzer's decision to throw his hat into the New York City comptroller's race isn't why he's doing it - the disgraced former governor has been dropping not-so-subtle hints about his desire to return to public life for years now.

The questions that still remain to be answered - even after all the talking Spitzer has done over the past 14 hours or so - is: Why this office, and why now, just four days before nominating petitions are due at the NYC Board of Elections?

And also, a question that is perhaps more interesting to political junkies and insiders: Who stands to gain and lose the most from Spitzer's re-entry onto the political stage?

Spitzer spoke to the New York Times last night about re-invigorating the comptroller's office, putting his experience as a hard-charging former state attorney general to use in a position that's often overlooked.

It's also a position from which a savvy and ambitious politician might position himself to run for something bigger - say, state comptroller, or mayor of New York City, or perhaps one day, even governor.

Currently there's one former comptroller (Bill Thompson) and one current comptroller (John Liu) in the crowded Democratic field for mayor. Setting aside their respective faults and potential (or lack thereof) for winning, both of them are considered credible contenders - and Liu would perhaps be even more so, had he not been tarnished by a fundraising scandal.

Spitzer himself has been floated several times as a mayoral candidate, although a Marist poll conducted back in October of 2012 found 57 percent of registered voters wanted him to stay out of the race.

Ironically, the same poll found little enthusiasm for the mayoral candidacy of another former elected official tarnished by a sex scandal - ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner.

At the time, 58 percent of citywide voters said they would prefer to see Weiner remain on the sidelines. And look at him now: He's not only running, but, again, according to the Marist poll, he's leading the pack of Democratic mayoral hopefuls.

So, we know this much to be true: New York City voters either are extremely forgiving when it comes to sexual indiscretions, or they have very short memories and a real penchant for B-list celebrities.

For the record, Spitzer has said Weiner's success in the polls had nothing to do his decision to throw his own hat into the ring. But he had to have at least given a passing notice to Weiner's rise of late. It's hard to miss, given all the press the former congressman has been receiving.

Given Spitzer's past ambitions, his history with Wall Street and the potential powers of the comptroller's office, which include the ability to audit city agencies, it's no wonder that many of the mayoral hopefuls were quick to reiterate their support for the leading contender in the race: Manhattan Borough President and former Assemblyman Scott Stringer.

Stringer dropped from the mayor's race into the comptroller contest last November after it became clear his shot at City Hall was very, very slim.

He opted instead to bide his time in a lower office, pretty much clearing the field of other contenders with the exception, ironically, of the Libertarian candidate, so-called Manhattan Madam Kristin Davis, who claimed the have procured prostitutes for Spitzer back in the day.

It will be fascinating to see what - if anything - Gov. Andrew Cuomo has to say about Spitzer's sudden re-emergence on the political scene.

The animosity and competition between these two hard chargers dates back to Cuomo's HUD days when he and then-newly minted Attorney General Spitzer locked horns over gun control.

Cuomo arguably put the first chink in Spitzer's gubernatorial armor with his investigation of the Troopergate scandal, in which Spitzer misused the State Police in a botched attempt to smear his political nemesis, then Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

At the time, Cuomo's own gubernatorial ambitions were well known, thanks to his short-lived 2002 run, and insiders speculated about his motives in tarnishing Spitzer's reputation.

Spitzer's resignation more or less cleared the field for Cuomo, with the exception of his haphazardly selected lieutenant governor, David Paterson, who so botched his own short-lived stint in the executive mansion that he didn't really stand much of a chance against the ambitious attorney general.

But Spitzer didn't exactly go quietly. He has been lobbing verbal bombs at Cuomo from the sidelines for years now, going so far as to call him the "dirtiest, nastiest political player out there" back in 2010.

Cuomo has insisted he's going to stay out of the New York City mayor's race.

But he just couldn't help himself when asked about Weiner's candidacy during a meeting with the Syracuse Post-Standard's editorial board, saying the "shame" would be "on us" if the disgraced former congressman actually managed to get elected.

Cuomo later said he had made the comment only in jest.

Unlike the mayor, the New York City comptroller doesn't have much sway in Albany. But the office, should Spitzer somehow manage to win it, would give him a platform from which to sound off on all manner of topics.

And, if history is any guide, he might just be able to elevate the profile of the post to a level never seen before - one that requires voters to sit up and take notice, maybe even all the way to Albany and beyond.

And that would certainly be something for Cuomo to be concerned about.

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at

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