Eliot Spitzer’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination for city comptroller has brought the former governor’s over-active loins back into the political spotlight. But it’s not exactly like he’s returning from spending time in a penitentiary.
As with any wealthy and politically well-connected white male in American society, disgrace wasn’t so bad for Spitzer. He landed a column at Slate, his own shows on CNN and Current TV, and a regular slot on NY1. Along the way, he also made several high-end Manhattan real estate deals, overseeing his father’s development empire.
But such a “steamroller” can’t stay put, and the establishment isn’t happy with his reemergence. Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer learned that he actually may need to work this summer; prior to Spitzer’s 11th-hour announcement, Stringer—a non-entity’s non-entity—was poised to sail through the Democratic primary without opposition for comptroller. Beyond just Stringer, Spitzer threatens the coalition of business leaders and unions who were happily preparing for a safe, reliable Democrat to assume the office of comptroller and then not stir up any trouble.
As attorney general (1998 – 2006) and then governor (2007 – 2008), Spitzer so zealously pursued wrongdoing in the financial sector that he became known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street.” So it’s not surprising that business leaders—led by Home Depot’s Kenneth Langone—are reportedly organizing to thwart his bid. The city’s Chief Financial Officer affects finance and real estate greatly, as the comptroller manages the city’s five pension funds and has the power to rein in city spending. Unions are upset largely because Spitzer is known for butting heads with other power brokers, and labor values caution when it comes to pension money.
But the comptroller should be unpredictable and shouldn’t be nice about it. The city charter grants the mayor enormous power, decreasing greatly the ability of the legislature to check the executive, so an independent comptroller with 700 employees is supposed to be a check on outside contracts, excessive spending, and operational bloat. Yet powerful unions including the United Federation of Teachers, Local 32BJ of Service Employees International Union, and the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council are already out to undermine Spitzer’s candidacy. The question is, why?
A simple answer might be that Stringer is not going to rock the boat. The common view of Stringer is that he is generally progressive on most issues, and the worst people can say about him is that he’s a political hack who knew he had no shot at City Hall, so he jumped into the lonely comptroller’s race. As the labor activist Jonathan Tasini observes, unlike Spitzer, Stringer has no signature progressive accomplishments. “Ask Stringer’s supporters to think of one original idea he has had, an idea that actually went from start to finish, which took on and took down an established power,” Tasini says, skeptically.
Wouldn’t labor want someone like Spitzer, someone who might take on an administration when it’s flushing money away? Well, the comptroller can rub labor the wrong way, as most recently illustrated when the outgoing incumbent John Liu proposed merging the pension funds, which would save money but also reduce the influence of union trustees. Most labor leaders prefer a docile figure like current mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, who during his two terms as comptroller (2002 – 2009) approved seven spending increases for CityTime, a privately operated payroll initiative that outraged municipal unions. Despite his complicity in the boondoggle, Thompson still earned the backing of the U.F.T., Teamsters Local 237, Transport Workers Union Local 100, and the Uniformed Firefighters Association. Meanwhile, the comptroller who initially exposed the waste in the program, John C. Liu, is considered a long-shot candidate for mayor.
The sudden nervousness among financiers about Spitzer’s entrance is not surprising, but it also says a lot about what kind of candidate Stringer is. That organized labor shares those perspectives speaks volumes about the state of the city’s labor movement as well.