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We Heart Eliot


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 governor.

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.

“New 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, people celebrate.

“There’s 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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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