What’s a Spitzer Democrat?

Illustration by David Wong

The votes are in, the expected has been confirmed, and the small yellow-walled ballroom off the Waldorf-Astoria lobby is crammed with pols and pals bidding a fond farewell to Freddy Ferrer. This is also the last time Eliot Spitzer will serve as a warm-up act.

Before Spitzer introduces the defeated mayoral candidate, however, he’s preceded to the microphone by a wearying parade of party dinosaurs who shout at a roomful of old-school Democratic faithful. Finally, the party’s next great electoral hope strides briskly to the podium. Baldish and jut-jawed, Spitzer isn’t conventionally handsome; his attraction is more chemical. Even when addressing a wake, as he is tonight, Spitzer exudes an uplifting electricity. “We have much to be proud of,” he says. “Freddy Ferrer ran a race with dignity and principles. One hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.’ Freddy Ferrer deserves that credit.” There are audible sighs as Spitzer finishes and Ferrer arrives to make his concession speech. There’s also a nearly palpable group thought in the room: Can’t we just fast-forward to a year from now, when we’ll be celebrating a big win?

Chances are very good that many of these same people will gather in a much bigger room next November for a much happier celebration, for Governor-elect Spitzer. Yet they’ll also be in for something of a surprise: The savior of the party might not be the kind of Democrat they assume he is.

One year away from Election Day 2006, Spitzer is in fantastic political shape. He’s built an impressive record as a corruption-fighter during his seven years as state attorney general; combined with his media savvy, Spitzer’s battles against corrupt Wall Street giants, double-dealing insurance companies, and out-of-state acid rain have fueled a celebrity image as the crusading champion of the little guy, an image that extends far beyond political circles. Spitzer’s timing seems perfect: Twelve years of George Pataki have left the electorate eager for a fresh face who’ll challenge Albany’s stagnant culture, the state Republican Party is in disarray, and polls show Spitzer crushing every declared or likely Republican contender. Spitzer is well on his way to reaching his goal of raising $20 million in campaign money by year’s end. And his support stretches across a breathtaking range of the state’s Democrats, from naral’s Kelli Conlin (“Eliot has been a superstar on reproductive rights”) to the considerably more conservative Reverend Floyd Flake (“I don’t have real issues with him on any points; we’re pretty much aligned”).

The diverse backers are one sign Spitzer doesn’t fit into a snug ideological package. True, he checks off most of the traditional progressive-Democrat boxes: for abortion rights, affirmative action, gun control, and gay marriage; against tax breaks for the rich. Even so, Spitzer was intent on using the city’s mayoral race as an opportunity to cement his left flank. He believed Ferrer could be a good mayor, but locking in liberal supporters for Spitzer’s gubernatorial race was why he endorsed Ferrer so early—way back in February—and why Spitzer continued to be a frequent presence at Ferrer’s side even as Bloomberg opened up an overwhelming lead in the polls.

Spitzer will continue to tend his Democratic base, but his early and thorough backing of Ferrer gives him the time and freedom to move far beyond it. In a sense, Spitzer has plotted a reverse of Pataki’s 2002 strategy. Running for a third term, Pataki made sure he first solidified his Republican credentials, then went aggressively after reliably Democratic blocs, like Latino voters and unions representing public employees. A few days before Spitzer put in his final smiling appearance at Ferrer’s side, he made a stop that attracted far less attention but may be more important to his campaign for governor. Spitzer traveled to Ellenville, one of many small, economically depressed towns in the Catskills, to address a meeting of the Association of Fire Districts. One of the group’s leaders, a Republican, came out saying he’s considering voting for Spitzer.

The candidate has sought out dozens of similar meetings, in towns that are usually Republican strongholds or before groups, like chambers of commerce, that usually lean to the right. But Spitzer’s travel schedule is about more than campaign tactics. It’s about his potential to change what it means to be a Democrat in New York. He has defied the orthodoxy on several issues already: He has long been in favor of the death penalty, and he was an early and vocal advocate of the war in Iraq. Those positions could cause Spitzer headaches if he’s challenged by Tom Suozzi in a Democratic primary. The Nassau County executive would probably run to Spitzer’s right, particularly on property taxes, increasing the temptation for Spitzer to chase liberal primary voters. Yet if Spitzer makes it to Albany, his centrism would be potent.

The next governor will likely confront a nasty platter of problems. The state budget deficit will have ballooned after election-year giveaways by the State Legislature. Add to that the $23 billion that courts say the state owes city schools; Pataki is doing everything he can to hand off the bill to his successor. The state’s Medicaid system is riven by hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims, but that’s a minor problem compared to the looming demographic time bomb.

Spitzer keeps reminding everyone that his hero is Teddy Roosevelt—a calculating pragmatist who used the governorship as a stepping stone.

On the campaign trail, Spitzer has been uttering phrases that warm the hearts of conservatives. “In his speeches against Proposition 1, which would have shifted some budgeting power from the governor to the state legislature, Spitzer used the phrase ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ which I thought was very clever. And it has the added advantage of being true,” says Manhattan Institute budget expert E. J. McMahon. “There’s a strong risk that the next governor is going to inherit a lot of problems. The upside is that if it foments a crisis, you can maybe get the legislature to do things it wouldn’t do normally.” Faced with a major mess, Spitzer could rewrite the definition of a New York Democrat, in part by confronting some of the core Democratic constituencies. He could take on the state’s unions over exploding pension costs. And if Spitzer really wanted to be bold, Medicaid is ripe for revolution. Might Spitzer be willing to experiment with Florida-style privatization, where people have the option to set up “health savings accounts”?

Spitzer, as the prohibitive front-runner, is wisely avoiding many specifics right now. Still, his willingness as attorney general to push boundaries and entertain unconventional ideas provides real hope. Spitzer as governor would likely be more Bill Clinton triangulator than Mario Cuomo partisan. Not only would that be a good thing for the state, it would be a boon for the entire party. Besides, Spitzer keeps reminding everyone that his hero is Teddy Roosevelt, who was iconoclastic and calculating. “As New York governor, Roosevelt was a middle-of-the-road politician who was very cagily conducting himself with a view to the presidency,” says biographer Edmund Morris. But now we’re really getting ahead of the story.

online E-mail: Chris_Smith@nymag.com.

What’s a Spitzer Democrat?