The second time, it turns out, was the charm for Eliot Spitzer. After finishing last in a four-way primary for attorney general four years ago, the Manhattan millionaire lawyer handily defeated his three opponents in the Democratic primary for the same seat Tuesday and immediately set his sights on unseating incumbent Republican Dennis Vacco.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” he told supporters in his victory speech at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here. “But tonight we begin a campaign to return the majesty and dignity of the attorney general’s office. … Tonight the voters have sent a clear message to Dennis Vacco: New Yorkers have had it with your cronyism, patronage and politics.”
He fended off his challengers’ charges that he bought the election with a $3 million, four-month television campaign blitz. Spitzer said the need for such money was unfortunate and called it a “cancer on the system.” But he said it was “an essential ingredient.”
The money — virtually all of it from his own pocket — apparently gave him the statewide name recognition his opponents lacked. He won with 41 percent of the vote, well ahead of his closest challenger, State Sen. Catherine Abate, who received 28 percent. Former Attorney General Oliver Koppell garnered 22 percent and Evan Davis, a former counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo, received 9 percent.
Spitzer, whose father is a wealthy real estate and lawyer, has promised to pour more of his personal fortune into the campaign to defeat Vacco, who has his own $3.1 million campaign war chest. And he promised to recycle the same themes he used in the primary — that Vacco gutted the staff when he assumed office and replaced them with inexperienced and unqualified lawyers.
Vacco, the first Republican attorney general in 16 years, reportedly replaced almost half of the lawyers he inherited and replaced them with lawyers who have ties to the Republican and Conservative parties or to his own campaign contributors. It wasn’t long before federal judges complained publicly that the quality of the lawyers was so poor that they were missing filing deadlines and court dates, and that cases were in disarray.
Spitzer, 39, a former Manhattan prosecutor, spent much of his time courting Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish vote. He said he did so because “you try to reach out to those voting blocs that share your values.” In the end, he garnered 50 percent of the overall Jewish vote, according to Edison Media Research.
Vacco, a former U.S. attorney from the Western District of New York, is expected to trumpet the fact that crime in the state has fallen 40 percent since he took office. His prosecution of ticket scalpers generated publicity for him, as did his crackdown on abuses by health insurers.
In her campaign, Abate, 51, stressed her varied career during 25 years of public service, including city probation commissioner, chair of the State Crime Victims Board, state corrections commissioner and deputy commissioner of the state Division of Human Rights.
Elected to the state Senate from parts of lower and central Manhattan in 1994, Abate said she viewed the attorney general’s seat as a “natural progression [in her career], a culmination of my life’s work.”
In her campaign, she stressed her plans to press a “whole packet of health-care bills that would make sure HMOs make decisions based on health-care needs, not just profit.” And Abate, a co-sponsor of the long-stalled bias crime bill, said that as attorney general she would hold hearings to shine the spotlight on this legislation and then work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get it adopted.
Davis, 54, ran on a platform of uprooting corruption in government and pointedly refused to make personal solicitations for funds. He also put a cap of $2,500 on all donations his campaign accepted — the state’s limit is $3,000.
“I have sacrificed fund raising to take a stand on principle,” Davis said. “An attorney general should set an example [and] not take money from corporations, unions and PACs.”
Davis said he wanted to make the attorney general a watchdog on the lookout for corruption in the Legislature, executive branch or involving a former government official. He said also that he would establish a consumer complaint bureau to handle utility and insurance grievances. And Davis said he would have assembled a team of scientists, lawyers and investigators to enforce the state’s environmental laws.