The Govercutor

As Eliot Spitzer’s car pulls away from the curb in downtown Buffalo on a Monday afternoon, it’s one of the very few vehicles in sight. The only thing bleaker than the late-November dirty-gray sky is the surrounding streetscape: Boarded-up storefronts alternate with empty coffee shops and graveyard-quiet, half-vacant office towers.

The town’s desperation is personified a moment later, as Spitzer’s car stops at a red light. Immediately to the right is a city bus. Spitzer’s black Impala is unmarked, so when the bus driver leans out the window and starts gesturing frantically, a grimace on his face, it appears there must be a problem. Spitzer rolls down his window.

The bus driver’s expression isn’t a grimace after all: It’s a plea. “Run!” he says to Spitzer. Begs him, really.

“Thanks!” Spitzer says, smiling. The light turns green and Spitzer’s car pulls away. Suddenly he’s deadly serious. “I didn’t stage that,” he says.

No, the staging comes this week. Spitzer will make official what’s been blindingly obvious for at least two years: He’s running for governor. Though he’s guarding the details of where and when he will make the announcement (in a Dean-ish touch, Spitzer is fond of using his Website to break news), Spitzer is happy to say where he won’t do it. New York’s political class had circled Thursday, December 9, when Spitzer 2006 holds a sold-out, $1,000-a-head lunch at the Sheraton on Seventh Avenue, as the sure date and setting. “That’s not the right way to do it,” Spitzer says. “Fund-raisers are uniquely inappropriate fora—is that right, fora?—from which to speak to the public at large. I mean, I just don’t like the idea that people who have paid to get in hear something before the general public does. So I doubt I would say anything there that has not been public.”

Spitzer is an unlikely populist, as his parsing of noun plurals indicates: He’s the 45-year-old son of a Manhattan real-estate mogul, a product of Horace Mann, Princeton, and Harvard Law School who lives on Park Avenue. But he’s an astute politician. And in two terms as attorney general, Spitzer has made his professional reputation by casting himself as the people’s lawyer, fighting on behalf of the little guy against everyone from smart-ass Merrill Lynch tech-stock hustlers to an overcharging vitamin cartel. The amazing, righteous run has landed Spitzer on magazine covers and made him the hottest stock in New York’s Democratic Party.

In mid-November, the last impediment to Spitzer’s Albany dreams fell away when Chuck Schumer took two plum assignments in Washington rather than launch his own bid for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Even though it’s long been assumed Spitzer would run for governor, and even though he’s been laying the groundwork for years—buying computers for the Erie County Democratic organization, contributing money to local candidates all over the state—something shifted for Spitzer the day of Schumer’s decision. In Buffalo last week, at a meeting of area business leaders, he was quizzed about economic development, the eternal gridlock in the State Legislature, energy deregulation, even how he’d dole out state printing contracts. No one said a word about Dick Grasso or any of the other highlights of Spitzer’s years as attorney general. Despite Spitzer’s pretzel-ish locutions about not being a candidate just yet, this was a campaign road test, the beginning of his attempt to remake himself from avenging prosecutor to plausible leader of an entire state government.

His timing couldn’t be better. New York is bluer than ever, disgust with state government is peaking, and Republican dominance of state politics is crumbling. Yet instead of adopting the conventional buzzword, that Albany needs “reform,” Spitzer has selected “accountability” as his theme. It’s a savvy choice: Accountability connects to what he’s done as attorney general, no one is against it, and it sounds less prissy than reform.

‘When you’re an A.G., it’s sort of a binary choice: good and bad,’ says Spitzer. ‘As a governor, you’re really making triage decisions.’

And Spitzer, naturally wonkish, has to guard against appearing elitist. He has a tendency to try to prove he’s the smartest guy in every room. At Daemen College, in suburban Amherst, there’s a luncheon meeting of executives from local charitable organizations. The woman who precedes Spitzer to the microphone gives the attorney general a gushingly complimentary introduction. Spitzer responds by chiding her. “Let me just clarify one thing,” he says sharply. “You said one thing that was ambiguous, maybe many things that were ambiguous in the introduction, many things that I could respond to, maybe I will in a bit. You said I met my wife at Harvard Law School. She was a classmate, and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. She’s not here, but I just don’t want that lingering intimation that I met her when she wasn’t a student.”

Maybe Spitzer is just awkward at self-deprecation, but there’s also a weirdly ascetic quality to him. He wears a plastic runner’s watch with his suave pinstripes, and rises at five each morning to run around the Central Park reservoir. Most days he seems to exist on a diet of bottled water and ambition. Though he can come across as egghead-y—dropping in references to Tocqueville, lapsing into Latin legalisms—Spitzer’s ferocious intellectual energy doesn’t prevent him from playing hardball: In a nasty debate two days after the 1998 murder of a Buffalo-area abortion doctor, Spitzer claimed that incumbent attorney general Dennis Vacco bore a share of moral responsibility for the killing. Two weeks later, Spitzer beat Vacco by a mere 26,000 votes.

Spitzer begins his day in Buffalo by roasting a group of incompetent former executives of the state Canal Corporation, a public authority that handed a real-estate developer rights to build along the Erie Canal without bothering to solicit other offers. The three key Canal Corporation officials were blatant patronage hires.

“These public authorities are to government what the off-balance-sheet partnerships were to Enron: It’s where you hide stuff,” Spitzer says. Which would make George Pataki the Kenny Lay of the Erie Canal scandal, but Spitzer isn’t willing to criticize the governor directly. Yet. “There’ll be a time and a place for everything,” he says with a thin smile.

Pataki hasn’t said whether he’ll run for a fourth term in 2006, but it’s worth hoping he’s Spitzer’s opponent, if only for the temperamental contrast: the lean and laconic-to-the-point-of-sleepy Pataki versus the relentlessly, almost insufferably, brainy Spitzer. Rudy Giuliani, who hasn’t ruled out running for governor, looks increasingly happy to count his money until the 2008 presidential campaign. John Sweeney, a Republican congressman, is a likely contender, and could cause Spitzer serious matchup trouble: Sweeney is a plainspoken Irish-Catholic upstater with blue-collar labor-union roots who has reeled in federal anti-terrorism dollars for the state.

In his current job, Spitzer makes CEOs quiver with rage and influences the flow of American commerce; being elected governor would, in some ways, be a power demotion, and Spitzer briefly seems conflicted, almost wistful. “When you’re an A.G., it’s sort of a binary choice: good and bad. You charge wrongdoers and vindicate the rule of law. As a governor, you’re really making triage decisions. It calls for, in my view, tougher judgment calls.” So why does he want the job? “The future of New York State as a viable economic entity, as what we like to think has always been the epicenter of intellectual creativity, as the entry point for immigrant groups who see this as the land of opportunity—all that is at risk if we just continue on the trajectory we’re on. You don’t want to see what the state would look like 30 years from now—in terms of jobs, in terms of our balance sheet, in terms of our capacity to keep our kids here.”

Spitzer’s run for governor also has implications for the national Democratic Party. He spends a considerable amount of time and energy these days, particularly in front of corporate groups, explaining that he isn’t a grandstanding enemy of the free market; he’s really the financial world’s best friend. “I believe in the market more devoutly than anybody I know,” he says. “But I want to get rid of those barnacles that attach themselves to the bottom of the boat and that, over time, slow you down. What I’m dedicated to is a market that runs on the simple rules of integrity, transparency, and fair dealing.” In Spitzer’s view, John Kerry lost because he failed to sell the Democrats as the party that rewards hard work instead of cronyism. This is how the Democrats can win the values argument: not by becoming holier than the Republicans, but by becoming the champions of moral capitalism. If Spitzer can make it a winning notion in New York, there might be hope for his party after all.

And for Buffalo too. As Spitzer meets with union leaders and county Democratic bosses down the hallway—“talking raw politics,” he says later—I wait in the Erie County Democratic Committee’s offices. They’re practically a museum of losing candidates: An old black-and-white poster of the 1970 Arthur Goldberg–Basil Paterson ticket along one wall, curling snapshots of Kerry tacked to a bulletin board. Two staffers chat over lunch. “My 18-month-old niece?” one woman says. “I’ve taught her to say Eliot Spitzer.”

The Govercutor