The Multiple-Eliot Problem

Illustration by Michael C. Frey

It’s not easy being Eliot Spitzer. True, he has a gargantuan lead in the polls, he has ten times more money than his competitors, and he has 1,000 times their celebrity. It’s good to be the front-runner, but the role comes with plenty of tension. Spitzer is playing multiple, complicated games at once. He’s still the state attorney general, and every legal move he makes is scrutinized for political motivations. He’s also required to be purely political, laying out what he proposes to do as governor in a series of speeches and mending fences with some fellow Democrats. But at the same time Spitzer is embracing powerful political supporters, he has to be careful not to become a captive, so entangled in endorsements that he can’t reshape Albany if elected. For a man whose greatest triumphs have come from being on the attack, the new, tough test is showing he knows how to change speeds.

Two recent scenes illustrate Spitzer’s challenge. The first: High noon on a Friday in early March, an unexpectedly warm day, with bright sun and strong winds. Twenty reporters and ten TV cameras form a ragged semi-circle on the Eighth Avenue sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk out into the yowling yellow clot of cabs crawling north past Madison Square Garden. The cameras stare at an empty microphone stand. Spitzer paces five feet away. He is here today to announce a new initiative in the battle against tax-dodging Internet cigarette sales. In the past year, he’s succeeded in pressuring DHL, UPS, and credit-card companies to stop facilitating the sales, but the good ol’ U.S. mail continues to send along the smokes. So the backdrop for today’s photo op is the post office. The grand marble façade of the Farley Building is shrouded in a billowing, dingy-gray fabric to contain construction dust, making it look like an abandoned Christo project.

This event is part of Spitzer’s day job, but it has a significant political subtext. The man keeping Spitzer waiting is Senator Chuck Schumer. This is apparently the first time the two men have ever appeared at a joint press conference. It’s an unexpected twist in the state’s juiciest political soap opera. Aides have spent hours crafting answers to the gossipy questions reporters are sure to ask: Eliot, have you forgiven Chuck for banning you from speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? Chuck, does your appearance here today mean you’re going to stop flirting with Eliot’s enemy Tom Suozzi? The most substantive clash came in late 2004, when Schumer was considering running for governor. Spitzer didn’t defer, signaling he was willing to take on the higher-ranking Dem in a primary. The episode stoked what a fellow pol neatly summarizes as “a contest to be Über-Jew.”

Schumer’s status has soared thanks to his masterful leadership in killing the Dubai Ports World deal. Today he’ll describe the federal legislation he’s introducing to close the cigarette-sale loophole. When Schumer emerges from his car, he’s talking on a cell phone. Spitzer strides over immediately and stands dutifully in front of Schumer for a long minute while the senator finishes the call. Aides to both men hover nervously. There’s the handshake! Yes! Chuck has his arm around Eliot’s shoulder!

“How do you want to do this?” Spitzer says, glancing at the waiting media scrum, graciously giving Schumer the upper hand.

“I’ll do anything you want,” Schumer says, deftly passing the protocol baton back to Spitzer.

“You go first,” Spitzer says.

And so Schumer does. He places his speech on a music stand, then turns and asks his press aide for a rubber band. Spitzer’s eyes widen, impressed, as Schumer binds the papers to the stand to keep them from blowing away. “I’m learning,” Spitzer says with a grin. Moments later, his expression is more of a resigned smirk when Schumer finishes reading the first page and hands it to Spitzer without even looking at him.

Spitzer has to be careful not to become so entangled in endorsements that he can’t radically reshape Albany when elected.

After both men praise each other, the floor is open to questions. Dubai, Dubai, Dubai, Dubai. Schumer fields them all; Spitzer stands mute for ten minutes, perhaps the longest he’s ever been silent in front of this many reporters. And then it’s over. The Schumer and Spitzer aides exhale. Not a single question about Chuck and Eliot’s relationship! Thank you, United Arab Emirates!

The following Tuesday, Spitzer walks into a union hall as imagined by Donald Trump: Every visible surface is covered in marble. Incongruously, at 2:30 in the afternoon the room is suffused with the breakfasty smell of bacon wafting in from a nearby cafeteria. This is the headquarters of Local 32BJ, one of the few remaining electorally potent unions in New York. Its 60,000 members are doormen, office cleaners, elevator operators. This time Spitzer’s backdrop is two dozen carefully arranged black and brown men and women in bright-purple 32BJ T-shirts.

Spitzer is here to participate in a ritual he’s performed almost every day, in every corner of the state, since officially announcing for governor in December 2004: accepting an endorsement from a mainstream political group. Teachers, health-care workers, sheriff’s deputies, carpenters, firefighters, sheet-metal workers, clergy, mayors, gays, blacks, abortion-rightsers, environmentalists … And then there are the endorsements, just as plentiful, that have come in the form of checks from lobbyists, developers, and Wall Street players.

After accepting the latest seal of approval, Spitzer exits to cheers and backslaps, then spends a few minutes in the building lobby shrewdly dodging reporters’ questions about what he’d do at ground zero. Back in the union hall, behind closed doors, the membership is voting to authorize a strike when their contract with residential-building owners expires April 20.

The trouble with endorsers is that they tend to want things when their candidate wins. “People know me well enough to know an endorsement doesn’t give any additional persuasive capacity next January when it comes to policy,” Spitzer says. “[Unions] have endorsed me because I’ve been standing up more generally for working men and women. It isn’t just the Wall Street cases. Take today’s H&R Block case. Quite frankly, the membership of [32BJ] is probably the demographic that H&R Block was preying upon: taking lower-income individuals and putting them into an investment that stripped them of the marginal savings they’ve been able to make. It’s a philosophical alignment—I understand the problems and share a worldview.”

Where Spitzer sees a confluence of philosophy, skeptics see pandering to voter-rich blocs of minorities and seniors. Spitzer has been careful to preserve the integrity of his cases as attorney general, but those pressures are small compared to what he’ll face if he wants to be an independent governor. Then again, if he can make nice with Schumer after years of friction, maybe Spitzer really is capable of revolutionizing Albany from within.

“Chuck and I get along great!” Spitzer says. “Couldn’t you tell from the body language? We were just about hugging each other.” Just about.


The Multiple-Eliot Problem