Eliot Spitzer, next governor of New York. We’ve been pretty
darn sure of that for so long it seems odd to write about,
even in the sensory barrage of a campaign’s climax.
It’s a rare occasion—I can’t think of another time recently
when a good progressive candidate, not an incumbent, seemed
a shoo-in. Barack Obama, maybe, but I didn’t get to vote for
him. It’s pleasant. I almost don’t want to think about Spitzer.
Let something come easy for once.
Now I know, there will come the time, very soon, when he needs
to be held accountable. When we, his adoring public, have
to not give him a free pass. When we see how his go-get-’em
prosecutorial style adjusts to the different demands of being
The fact that many people attribute much of the success of
his attorney general’s office to the hiring and supporting
of talented lawyers rather than patronage hacks bodes well
for that transition.
On the other hand, already he’s raising hackles in the Assembly
among those Democrats who feel they’ve been carrying the torch
through the dark years and resent being lumped in as part
of “that dysfunctional Legislature.”
Not to mention the question of whether he’s overpromising—an
odd thing to do for someone running a noncompetitive race.
Will he find enough government fraud and waste to handle huge
budget items like school-funding equality? If so, why didn’t
he go after it as AG?
Eliot doesn’t have the charm of Bill Clinton—if we love him
for what he’s done, he can fall far and fast if he fails to
live up to our hopes.
Stepping back, though, the meta-fact that he is so
popular, given who he is and what he’s focused himself on
doing, promises to buoy me for quite a bit longer.
Pataki’s been around so long, losing his luster and his approval
ratings, that it’s possible that the voters just want to clean
house as they do periodically. There’s probably some of that,
but it’s not all. There’s less attention on the departing
administration than one would expect in that case, and more
actual, honest-to-god enthusiasm.
Yorkers like their politicians on the national stage, when
it’s for the right reasons,” observes Joseph Caruso of Siena
Research Institute, “and Spitzer, in his role as New York’s
Attorney General, has certainly been the focus of positive
stories in newspapers and newsmagazines across the country.”
So we like our pols ambitious and famous, eh? Well, perhaps.
But there’s that bit about for the right reasons.
The fact is, Spitzer has been on the national scene for reasons
having nothing to do with gay marriage (for or against), sex
scandals, wiretapping, Terri Schaivo, Jack Abramoff, “fighting
terrorism,” Iraq or flag burning. It hardly seems possible,
but there it is.
Ringleading other state attorneys general to sue the federal
government over weakening environmental protection. Going
after predatory lenders. Sticking it to Wall Street, big insurance
companies, and the like. Although there certainly are some
dirty details, the table of contents of What Made Eliot
Famous, as it were, is refreshing beyond belief.
But still the point I keep coming back to is this is Spitzer’s
chosen image. He wants to be known as the guy who goes after
abusive corporations. The guy who won’t roll over to when
the federal government goes soft on protecting us. The candid,
blunt, policy-wonk, non-appeasing candidate.
To be fair, the fact that he has done something about it too
is essential. “It’s not just the question of having the guts
to do it. More people in politics have the guts than the public
realizes,” points out Assemblyman Jack McEneny. “But when
you’re up against major firms with best and brightest lawyers,
it’s not enough to have courage. You need skill. . . . You’ll
look like an idiot if you go up against a bevy of corporate
lawyers who can talk circles around you—you look like you
were grandstanding for nothing.”
But even just the list of priorities, talking points, is light
years ahead of folks like Sweeney and Pirro, who are reduced
to focusing on personal attacks on their opponents, not to
mention national figures, like oh, say, the president, who
are still trying to ride on waves of fear about terrorism
and theocracy dressed in family-values clothing.
So for me, Spitzer’s popularity represents hope not just for
what he will do for New York, but hope that the electorate
hasn’t entirely lost its mind. That the Enron debacle and
a thousand smaller acts of corporate malfeasance haven’t gotten
entirely forgotten under grandstanding of other sorts. That
voters haven’t entirely forgotten how to recognize their own
self-interest amid the thicket of ploys to get them to vote
their identities or their fears instead. That when someone
actually bites the bullet and goes after these sacred cows,
a tremendous amount of populist anger in the U.S. now against
the rich and powerful,” notes Richard Kirsch of Citizen Action.
And rightly so.
Vote Spitzer in with a big mandate. Hold his feet to the fire.
And have a few nights’ good sleep.