Eight years after he entered elected office by the narrowest of margins, Eliot Spitzer was elected New York’s governor on Tuesday with an overwhelming mandate from voters, the state’s first Democratic executive in 12 years and the first Jew to hold the office since Herbert Lehman 64 years ago.
Spitzer beat Republican John Faso, a former Assemblyman from upstate Kinderhook, with more than 70 percent of the vote, leading a Democratic surge that also swept state Sen. David Paterson into the lieutenant governor’s office, Andrew Cuomo in Spitzer’s place as attorney general and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton into a second term on Capitol Hill. Even scandal-plagued state Comptroller Alan Hevesi overcame a Republican challenge, although he still faces legal and political problems regarding his ability to hold the job.
Spitzer, 47, is the son of European immigrants who lived a life of privilege after his father, Bernard, rose from a humble life on the Lower East Side to become a wealthy real estate developer. Eliot was educated at Harvard and followed a career path that seemed to have public service in mind early on, working on Capitol Hill and later in the Manhattan DA’s office and private law firms before running for attorney general.
He has promised to bring to the statehouse the same crusading vigor with which he ran the attorney general’s office, vowing to reform the often-gridlocked way Albany does business as passionately as he cleaned up Wall Street corruption.
"Our agenda is not without ambition and the road ahead will not be without difficulty," Spitzer said in his victory speech Tuesday night at the Sheraton. "The New York we seek will require a new brand of politics." Channeling John F. Kennedy, he added "a politics that asks not what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for us."
His widespread support from voters across the spectrum and around the state may give him the political support to deliver.
"The good news is the overwhelming mandate," said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Spitzer’s narrowly victorious 1998 campaign, which he won by about 21,000 votes. "The bad news is the expectations are going to be very high. There is no question he will fight to meet those expectations. He means what he says."
But Spitzer, who promised in his commercials that on "Day 1 everything changes," faces some early challenges. The most pressing is the political fate of Hevesi, who faces possible criminal prosecution for ordering a state employee to drive his wife to personal appointments. Two weeks ago, Spitzer withdrew his endorsement of Hevesi in the face of criticism from Faso that the attorney general had two standards: one for misbehaving corporate CEOs and another for his friends.
Spitzer will soon have to decide whether to push Hevesi to step down, something the comptroller has indicated he has no intention of doing. The matter will largely be influenced by legislative leaders, including Speaker Sheldon Silver, formerly the top Democrat in the state.
There has been much speculation about how Silver, who was an early supporter of Spitzer’s campaign, will interact with a Democratic governor, a factor he hasn’t contended with since 1994, the final year of Mario Cuomo’s administration and Silver’s first at the helm of the Assembly.
Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s set ways of doing things in Albany may pose another challenge to Spitzer’s agenda. Editorial writers and good government groups have been calling for less secrecy in government, such as required disclosure of outside income by legislators, as well as more tort reform.
While Spitzer has indicated that he’d like to see more public aid to private schools, Silver last year blocked a tuition tax credit aimed at private school parents in favor of a tax credit for all children that was more palatable to teachers unions and other public school supporters. Spitzer on Sunday told Orthodox Jews in Borough Park he wants to increase the level of state funds for non-public schools.
In an interview Tuesday, Silver said he anticipates "having a great relationship with [Spitzer]." He noted a list of accomplishments of the legislature over the objection of Republican Gov. George Pataki, with whom Silver sparred continuously, and suggested more could now be accomplished with "a real partnership in governing."
He also cited cooperation with Spitzer as attorney general on matters such as redrafting the state’s kosher protection law after it was struck down by federal courts.
As for Hevesi, Silver said Pataki "made a mockery out of the process" by declaring that the comptroller was entitled to a fair trial while seeming to prejudge the outcome. As to his own view of Hevesi’s future, Silver said "I can’t ignore 35 years of public service and the fact that he stepped out to bring justice for Holocaust victims and his tremendous performance managing the pension fund over the last four years." He also mentioned Hevesi’s investment in venture companies in Israel, something he said was criticized by Republican challenger Chris Callaghan.
As Spitzer begins to form an administration, observers, supporters and friends said he would be deeply motivated by an ideologically driven sense of righteousness and a desire to improve the state.
"I honestly believe that he is repulsed by injustice," said Jerry Goldfeder, a prominent election lawyer who has helped Spitzer.
"He believes in public service and really believes he can make things better," said political consultant Sheinkopf. Cynthia Darrison, an aide who has been raising funds for Spitzer since 1999, said she felt the Governor-elect was deeply motivated by attachment to his family. "His interaction with his three daughters is very important to him," she said. "It keeps him grounded. He knows they are not impressed by headlines. He wants to do what’s right for their sake."
Suri Kasirer, a former aide to Mario Cuomo and now a top consultant and lobbyist, said she felt Spitzer has "a very different philosophy and different view of the world than Pataki and he knows there is a lot of work to be done in Albany, from developing downtown [Manhattan] to development upstate."
A former aide to Pataki, Jeff Wiesenfeld, said Spitzer "has made clear that he wants to chart a new and different direction [for the state] and his victory gives him a right to a mandate."
A major challenge, Wiesenfeld suggested, will be coping with demands to increase spending. "Whatever people say, George Pataki eliminated the situation, through his fiscal stewardship, where you could have a governor walk into a $5 billion deficit as we did in 1994. Now you have to have a balanced budget and a reserve fund.
"Bringing costs under control when New York is one of the most generous [states] in the union, and getting a handle on those fixed costs will be very difficult for [Spitzer]. I’m sure he will make every attempt to do so."