Cash Machine

It was a hot-ticket event for some of New York’s top Democratic donors—a fund-raising party in mid-September at the Fifth Avenue home of Eliot Spitzer. As guests sipped their wine and took in the Central Park views, some of Manhattan’s most powerful white-shoe lawyers mixed with high-profile Democrats like Mark Green and Carl McCall. Spitzer’s dogs, Jesse and James, chased one another around the crowded apartment, adding to the atmosphere of urbane mirth. And the guest of honor at this high-powered fête? A white-haired, soft-spoken upstate politician named Bill Johnson, who was seeking the job of Monroe County executive.

It wasn’t exactly the sort of glamorous political contest that well-heeled Manhattan donors typically pay to be a part of; many of Spitzer’s guests had never heard of Johnson. But they came anyway—because Spitzer asked them to. By the end of the night, Johnson left with some $50,000 in campaign checks—and a sizable stash of newfound goodwill toward his host.

Very quietly, Eliot Spitzer has been forging a new role for himself in state politics: party builder. The attorney general, who is running for governor in 2006—sorry, may run—has been spreading money around the state, doing everything from buying new equipment for upstate party organizations to helping fund campaigns for local candidates in all corners of New York. The money comes from his political-action committee, Spitzer 2006 (note the clever omission of which office he’ll seek).

In the past year, Spitzer has given out around $150,000 in such donations, people close to him say, and this largesse will be reflected in campaign-finance filings to be made public on January 15. In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s donations to state candidates last year totaled $50,000.

Why is Spitzer, who’s won national attention with crusades against everyone from Wall Street billionaires to midwestern polluters, spending time and money strengthening the local Democratic Party in New York? The easy answer is that he’ll amass chits and loyalty for a gubernatorial run. But Spitzer says there’s more to it than that; he’s more interested in helping the state Democratic Party engineer a long-term turnaround.

“In the past year, Spitzer has given out around $150,000 in state donations,people close to him say.”

“Obviously, it would strain credulity if I said this weren’t based to a certain extent on statewide races I plan to run down the road,” Spitzer says. “But this needs to be viewed in a larger context. We are now nine years into a period of Republican control of the governor’s mansion and State Senate, and people are saying, ‘Wait, things aren’t working.’ There’s an opportunity for Democrats here, but we need a strong party infrastructure to communicate our message: that we are the party that best understands the upstate economy and the needs of rural New Yorkers. That’s important not just to me, but to Hillary, Chuck, and all other officeholders in New York.”

It’s impossible to overstate the amount of hope New York’s Democrats are placing in Spitzer. They haven’t had an elected official with any stature or charisma as party leader since 1994, when Mario Cuomo was unseated by George Pataki. Since then, the party has been rudderless and ineffective, lost in a wilderness of internecine squabbles; Democrats have lost a total of six mayoral and gubernatorial races in a row. With Spitzer’s 2006 candidacy all but certain, the party faithful are eagerly hoping that as governor, he’ll reenergize the party.

Still, Spitzer insists that he hasn’t decided whether to run. “Obviously, I’m doing what needs to be done to lay the foundations,” he says. “But I won’t make a decision until next summer or early fall.”

While Democratic support for Spitzer has coalesced at an early point, he may still need all the chits he can get. That’s because there may be two formidable obstacles standing between him and the governor’s mansion: Chuck Schumer and Rudy Giuliani. The difficulty of running against Rudy, who is said to be eyeing the 2006 race, is clear. Meanwhile, Spitzer, who will announce a nearly $4 million war chest in mid-January, may have to wage a nasty primary fight against Schumer, a relentless campaigner and fund-raiser who remains popular throughout the state. Schumer has refused to rule out a gubernatorial run, leading many Democrats to speculate that he’s tired of being overshadowed by the attention paid to his junior partner, Hillary Clinton.

Skirmishing between the Spitzer and Schumer camps has already begun, but Spitzer is undaunted. “If I decide to run, it will not matter to me one iota who else is planning to get in,” he says.

Spitzer’s party-building efforts seem intended in part to lock down support around the state before Schumer’s intentions are known. And these early efforts may already be paying off. “Spitzer’s people have gone out of their way to be helpful, and Chuck’s folks aren’t around as much,” says one upstate county chairman. “Chuck is a great senator—he’s good for the Democratic Party and he works his butt off. But we also have Eliot, who can win as governor—so let’s let him do it.”

Although Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Schumer have done their share of party building, the senators tend to do events for local county organizations rather than send them checks. That’s because campaign-finance laws limit the cash federal officials can send to political groups. But the laws don’t apply to statewide officials, giving Spitzer a huge opening to spread the wealth and stake out a leadership position.

Last March, Spitzer quietly sent out a letter to county chairmen around the state, asking them to send requests for funding for local races or for get-out-the-vote efforts. Requests flowed in. The Spitzer camp bought a new computer and get-out-the-vote software for the party in upstate Cortland County. They sent $10,000 to Erie County for the county-executive race. They sent nearly $20,000 to operatives in Suffolk, helping Democrats win a county executive in a county long controlled by the GOP. And they made scores of other donations. They focused particularly on areas where Democrats are poised for long-term gains, such as upstate urban swing districts or suburban counties that were once GOP strongholds but are trending Democratic. “We’re not just buying tickets to the annual county committee dinner,” says Cindy Darrison, one of Spitzer’s top operatives.

Such aggressive party building, of course, is hardly associated with occupants of the attorney general’s office. Party leaders tend to be more prominent elected officials such as governors (Cuomo) or, occasionally, senators (see D’Amato, Alfonse). But as we’ve seen since Spitzer took office in 1999, his seemingly infinite reserve of ambition, both for the post and for himself, has allowed him to transform the once-obscure job into a position of immense reach.

Now Spitzer is expanding his self-assigned mission yet again. “I’m supporting folks who are trying to build up the party,” he says, “so we can win the critical races around the state that matter to us.” Like the governor’s race of 2006.

Cash Machine