Max, can you say ‘Vote for my daddy’?” asks Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president and, until two weeks ago—when former governor Eliot Spitzer announced his candidacy—New York’s only Democratic candidate for comptroller.
Max, Stringer’s 19-month-old son, sits at the dining-room table in Stringer’s modest apartment on the Upper West Side. It’s seven in the morning, and the little boy’s lips and chin are smeared with yogurt and bits of strawberry and blueberry pancakes. The expression on his face is all ecstasy.
“Voaddefoouwwdaaaddiiee!” he says, then goes back to his breakfast orgy.
Over on the couch, Stringer bursts with elation. He’s not only a proud father marveling at his young boy’s ability to follow directions; Max, so innocently devouring his yogurt and strawberries while wearing a VOTE FOR MY DADDY T-shirt, is also an integral part of Stringer’s campaign strategy. Soon, little Maxie; his infant brother, Miles; and his mom, Stringer’s wife, Elyse Buxbaum, will be making appearances at subway stops to support Stringer for comptroller, the office that oversees the city’s finances and pension plans.
When Stringer decided to run last November, it was seen as a shrewd move, the kind of cautious political calculus Stringer is known for. The career pol had originally set his sites on Gracie Mansion, but after realizing his name recognition was too low in a crowded field, he moved to the virtually uncontested comptroller race.
Now that his competitor has not only national recognition but also a vast personal fortune of campaign funds, Stringer has been forced to fight like a starved wildebeest to preserve his political existence. One recent poll shows Spitzer ahead by fifteen percentage points.
Which helps explain why Stringer and his picture-perfect family have invited a reporter and photographer to breakfast, to see in person his infant Spitzer-buster. By holding up little Max in front of the camera, Stringer hopes to seize the moral high ground over Spitzer, whose career-bungling cavorting with prostitutes is the most notorious of his political liabilities. So much attention has been paid to Spitzer’s dalliances that part of Stringer’s challenge will be to point out that his governorship was troubled long before he resigned. “He’s just a guy who could not manage the previous office he held,” says Stringer, who thinks he’ll be better at the job of comptroller because he’s managed big agencies before and his motivations are different.
“I’m not running to cleanse myself,” he says. “I don’t need to do this for my own personal redemption.”
Next to the couch, a campaign aide is going through the morning’s papers, appearing to relish some needed good news that Spitzer’s wife, Silda, is now living eighteen blocks away from her husband, whom she has yet to publicly support. It is all more ammo for the Max attack. “When they see you, Max, game over,” Stringer kvells. “We’re ready.”
Paterfamilias is a new look for Stringer, whose first true love was clubhouse politics. The son of a city councilwoman and cousin to Bella Abzug, the liberal congresswoman, Stringer was practically nursed on the campaign trail. Until recently, he had convinced himself he would never have kids, saving all of his attention for public life. For years, his only permanent companion at home was Otis, an African Grey parrot he trained, much like Max, to say “Vote for Scott.”
He was 50 when he married Buxbaum, then 38. His account of their courtship sounds like game theory. “We struck up a conversation, got together, we broke up, we had a courtship. We called it … what was it?”
“You chased me, you chased me, you chased me, until I caught you,” she says.
“I definitely married up,” he says. Otis, his parrot, is gone, though. When Buxbaum moved in with him, she made Stringer choose between her and the bird. Otis now lives with a relative in New Jersey.
“I now have a wife,” he says, and the conversation veers back to the race. He settles in to consider his greatest vulnerability against Spitzer, which is a problem that’s plagued him throughout his career.
“I don’t think my personality comes through,” Stringer says. “Other candidates, you talk about it as the Big Personality, where I’m more the Big Report. This campaign is going to focus a lot on my family and my own public persona in a way that my twenty-page reports have not, and that is going to be a legitimate challenge for me.”
The upside of Spitzer’s entry into the race is that it has raised Stringer’s profile, which, if he survives the campaign, will help him in 2017.* But what good is the attention if Stringer comes off as boring or not likable? He isn’t the kind of pol you would want to have a beer with so much as the guy you go see to win a liquor license. (He’s actually served “with distinction” on the city’s “Franchise and Concession Review Committee.”)
“Everyone gravitates to the football star, right?” he says. “I’ve gotta make wonk sexy.”
How is he going to pull that off? “I have no idea,” he says, “but I gotta do it. I gotta show that I got the special sauce. I gotta show my special sauce!” Max scampers around the apartment. “Max, what do you think?”
*This article has been corrected to show that Stringer's higher profile could help him in 2017, not 2016.