In the 1994 Democratic primary for attorney general, Eliot Spitzer came in last in a field of four candidates. But in his second run for that office, the 39-year-old former Manhattan prosecutor and public interest lawyer seems to be doing far better. Polls place him ahead of Manhattan State Sen. Catherine Abate and former Attorney General G. Oliver Koppel. He led the field with 36 percent of delegates’ votes at the state Democratic convention in May, amid allegations that he used his own wealth to contribute to county leaders who steered their delegates to him.
“Outrageous,” says Spitzer, who acknowledges that he’s spent as much as $1 million on his campaign, far more than the nearly $300,000 he has raised as of his last filing. “I believe in what I’m saying, and am not beholden to anybody else to fund my campaign,” says Spitzer. “The county chairs are supporting me because of my ideology and my track record, and because I’m the one can who can defeat [Republican incumbent] Dennis Vacco.”
In recent weeks, Spitzer has been spending much of his time courting Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. “You try to reach out to those voting blocks that share your values,” he says.
In an interview with reporters and editors of The Jewish Week, Spitzer, an ardent anti-gun and anti-tobacco activist who defines himself as “a liberal with common sense,” said he would assert the attorney general’s “affirmative role” in bringing pro-active litigation that benefits New Yorkers. Following are highlights of the one-hour interview:
The Jewish Week: How do you define the job of attorney general?
Spitzer: There are many functions but three primary functions: No. 1 is defensive litigation. You have to represent the state when the state is sued, the most mundane of the functions. The other two are creative: affirmative litigation, where you choose to initiate litigation whether it’s an environmental suit or a civil rights suit, whatever it may be. No. 3 is legislature activity, where you advance a particular agenda in Albany not because you can vote, not because you’re the chair of a committee but because you can sit down and lobby under pressure. …The issue in this race is ideological, but it’s also one of choosing a lawyer. Let’s hire a good one. When you look at the record of Dennis Vacco and the individuals he has brought into the office you are struck by the notion that he has debased what should be an office of grandeur. He has been a Dennis-come-lately on every major litigation. Rather than be a leader, he has been a follower; rather than be someone who thinks creatively, he’s been an individual who defines mundane litigation. He doesn’t believe in affirmative government. What are some of the Jewish issues you have raised during your campaign?
I bring values inherent in Judaism to my view of the world. Are there particular issues that are important? Sure, … upholding kosher laws or the exorbitant cost of burying within 24 hours when it’s a holiday [due to religious requirements], those are important. But I go back to the larger conception of my belief in certain community values, and a notion of what we, as people of Jewish heritage view as the role of government. … That permeates everything I do.
How do you differ with your Democratic rivals?
There are ideological differences. I’m more centrist among the thinkers of the Democratic primary. … I’m proud to say I’m a liberal, but I temper it with common sense. … I understand liberal values and affirmative government, but I’m willing to step back and say if a social policy is failing, let’s challenge it.
What steps, if any, would you take to promote an anti-bias crime bill?
I’m not sure there’s a whole lot you can do when the majority leader of the [state] Senate says with a certain consistency “I’m simply not going to bring it to the fore.” What you can try to do is enforce other civil rights statutes that in theory subsume the rights that would be extended in the devised bill, whether you found it on the existing New York state civil rights laws, constitutional civil rights statutes … then you’d use the other avenues. Politicians love to pound the table and say we need a new law. But there’s very little we can’t do with existing laws and if you look at the statutes that are out there and you interpret them broadly and creatively you can usually accomplish what you want to do.
How can we stop the spread of guns in public schools?
A million kids brought guns to school last year [nationwide]. Those guns frankly will not be off the streets any time soon. Many are owned legally, they may be parents’ guns. But bullets are not as readily accessible to kids, so let’s make it harder for people to find bullets … An empty gun can’t kill. We can pass a law saying you can’t sell bullets to people who don’t have a gun. … One way is to gain political momentum to impose sanctions on parents, hold parents responsible if kid brings gun to school. … These are different approaches we have to start thinking about.
There was a recent challenge to the state “get” law regarding Jewish religious divorces, which is opposed by some religious groups. Do you support the law? I’d have to look at the precise case … and decide what the right position is. Basically I think what [Vacco] did [in defending the law] was right. [But] it’s a dicey situation. The separation of church and state is a line that has to be constantly redefined, especially since we understand marriage as both a civil component and a religious component.
The same question pertains to the kosher laws, which some say places the state in a position of making religious judgements. What’s your view?
This is an area where you need to have the state enforce and be vigorous in enforcing the laws. The attorney general has the right to enforce the strictures of the kosher laws and make sure … people are not abusing kosher labeling, and I intend to uphold them rigorously. There are so many areas in law where … authority has been invested in people who are non-governmental bodies and the enforcement mechanism is governmental. Look at securities law, where you have quasi-public private entities defining what is proper in security trading and the government will enforce the decision of private organizations. This is analogous to that.
The state is on the verge of passing a religious freedom protection bill, which would force authorities to show a compelling interest in curtailing any religious activity. Are you concerned that this will open the door to litigation against the state?
It will lead to litigation, but I think the bill is appropriate. I find so many laws inevitably lead to litigation, but that doesn’t mean you don’t pass a bill you think is appropriate.
If no settlement is reached with the Swiss banks, what role should the attorney general’s office play in bringing restitution for Holocaust survivors?
It’s hard to predict where we will be on Jan. 1, but in the absence of a settlement you can bet I’ll be an aggressive litigant. The attorney general has jurisdiction through a whole range of banking statutes. I also think [there is] a much more generic issue, not only with the Swiss banks but also with many of the offshore banks, about where their money comes from. These banks are havens that survive because they guarantee secrecy to their depositors. Much of the money they receive is dirty. … [We need] a more concerted effort to ensure banks around the world comply with U.S. standards. Offshore banks work to avoid compliance with those laws.
Next: Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, candidate for governor.