As he celebrates one of the narrowest political victories in New York state history, Eliot Spitzer finds himself frequently explaining why he spent more than $7 million of his family’s wealth to capture a job that currently pays $110,000.
The answer, he says, is simple. “In my view this is about as stupendous a position as one can imagine,” says the Democrat of the attorney general’s office.
In the 1994 Democratic primary for the same job, Spitzer finished second, losing to Karen Burstein. In between, he was reportedly offered another top legal post, director of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, by Gov. George Pataki, but declined the administrative job, according to the Daily News.
“I love being a lawyer, love representing the public,” Spitzer told The Jewish Week recently. “I don’t think there is any better job in the world as an attorney than to represent the public of the state of New York, in areas as diverse and with as much potential as civil rights, antitrust and the environment.”
As of Tuesday, Republican incumbent Dennis Vacco had yet to concede. But Spitzer was ahead by about 21,000 votes, with 20,000 paper ballots uncounted, making it impossible for him to lose. Vacco has not cooperated with Spitzer’s transition team, and has been in virtual seclusion since Election Day. The Board of Elections will certify a winner on Dec. 15.If it is Spitzer, then the 39-year-old former prosecutor, who lives in Manhattan, will be the latest Jewish man to hold New York’s top legal job. Although Jews have been elected to every statewide office, they have been elected attorney general more often than governor, senator, or comptroller. At least five other Jews have held the office in this century.
Spitzer, however, is the first Jewish candidate to unseat a sitting attorney general since 1954, when Republican Jacob Javitz defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., a Democrat. Some say the triumphs of Spitzer and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn,Queens) in the Senate race are significant because Republican strategy, aimed at upstate voters, seemed to play off Jewish stereotypes of tax-and-spend New York City liberals.
“This means that there are no impediments to Jewish candidates, finally, after so many decades of struggling for an equal playing field,” said Judith Hope, chair of the state Democratic Committee, who believes the statewide victory of two Jews in the same year is unprecedented.
A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Spitzer has served as a prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office and a counsel to former Gov. Mario Cuomo on youth crime. In 1992, he founded a public interest law center, the Center for Community Interest.Spitzer describes himself as non-observant, although he belongs to the Reform Temple Emanu-El of Manhattan, where the eldest of his three daughters attends Hebrew school. But Spitzer says he has a healthy respect for Jewish values and tradition. “I would say that my values are very much a product of a household in which both parents who raised me were more observant than I have been,” he said.
During his campaign, Spitzer showed a keen interest in Jewish issues, particularly those of Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities, where he spent a great deal of his time campaigning.
“When he visited some of the yeshivas in Williamsburg, he was more interested in talking with the teachers and principals about the kind of issues where he could be of help than he was in getting the message out that he was a candidate,” said Councilman Kenneth Fisher of Williamsburg, a Jewish Democrat and one of Spitzer’s key allies. “He’ll be a very visible attorney general who will be good for the Jewish community.”
But Spitzer, who was scheduled to celebrate his victory Thursday night at the Waldorf Astoria, will not be able to claim much of a popular mandate. The final vote tally may give him a margin of less than 1 percent (“No one is going to call me Landslide Spitzer,” he conceded).
During the race Spitzer faced questions about his self-funding of the campaign, and refused to disclose until late in the race that his father, Bernard, a Westchester real estate magnate, had loaned him much of the money.
Attacking Vacco for a lack of enthusiasm for activist litigation, Spitzer has repeatedly promised to “bring dignity back to the office.” He blasted Vacco for “politicizing” his office by hiring aides based on political connections rather than qualifications. This opens the question of whether Spitzer will fire those assistants and bring in hires of his own, who are bound to be closely scrutinized by the media. Spitzer may have to tread carefully to avoid being hoisted by his own petard.
During the Democratic primary race, Spitzer attacked one of his rivals, G. Oliver Koppell, for revoking a rule that required assistant attorneys general to have two years of legal experience before their hire.
But Spitzer told The Jewish Week he will now make no commitments as to whether he’ll reinstate that rule. “I have not made a formal decision to that effect,” said Spitzer. “I am leaning strongly toward reinstating it.”
Doing so, however, might impede his ability to reward volunteers in his campaign, or the numerous county party bosses whose support he courted, whose friends and relatives may seek jobs.
But political observers say Spitzer’s lack of reliance on favors or large political contributions from outsiders allow him a greater-than-average degree of independence.
“If you want to name the political organization who elected Eliot Spitzer, his name is Eliot Spitzer,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “The guy funded his own campaign.”
During the campaign, Spitzer tangled with Vacco over the role of the attorney general, leading Vacco to produce commercials — featuring Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — mocking Spitzer’s assertion that the job did not entail fighting crime. Spitzer insisted that the attorney general’s office is “the people’s law firm,” intended to defend the state against civil suits, initiate pro-active litigation and advocate legislation on behalf of the taxpayers.
“There is an enormous criminal jurisdiction for the attorney general,” said Spitzer. “You just need to understand what it is. I’ll use that power as aggressively as possible.”
Although Vacco has been harshly criticized by some Democrats for failing to step aside gracefully rather than challenge the validity of thousands of mostly minority ballots, Spitzer said he did not begrudge his predecessor’s fight to stay in office. “That is his right, although I don’t know if I would handle it the same way. The public deserves to have confidence in the outcome and they will have that when all is said and done.”