9 Jul 2013

Sex, scandal and politics: can New York forgive and forget?

New Yorkers are prepared to forgive: or are they? Former governor Eliot Spitzer is trying to return to politics – five years after he resigned amid a prostitution scandal. And he’s not alone.

Eliot Spitzer with fan (reuters)

It’s not quite the governor’s mansion where he resided for less than two years – but Eliot Spitzer is making his first foray back into political life since the sex scandal that brought him down.

The 54-year-old Democrat is making a late bid in the run for city comptroller, declaring he wants to turn the chief financial officer role into a far more activist position. He told the New York Daily News: “I love public service. I believe in it, and hope I will be given a second chance.”

Spitzer resigned in 2008 amid a scandal over a high-priced prostitution ring, when he was publicly named as “client number 9” by prostitute Ashley Dupre. In a bizarre twist, he will be running against Libertarian challenger Kristin Davis, known as the Manhattan Madam, who was linked to the scandal.

He needs 3,750 signatures to make it onto the ballot by Thursday, and pledged to fund the campaign out of his own pocket. Davis, who was jailed for three months for her role in running a high-end escort service, said she was looking forward to the encounter.

I love public service. I believe in it, and hope I will be given a second chance. Eliot Spitzer

“I’ve been waiting for my day to face him for five years”, she said. “I came out (of jail) penniless and nothing happened to him. The hypocrisy there is huge.”

Spitzer told reporters he was well prepared for questions about the scandal. “Life has peaks and valleys. The peaks are more fun, but the valleys are more educational.”

The comptroller post might seem like something of a step down for the man who once controlled the entire state, dubbed the “sheriff of Wall Street” and the “steamroller” for his aggressive political tactics.

Political steamroller

Buzzfeed cites the former Goldman Sachs chairman John Whitehead, who claimed that after he criticised one of Spitzer’s prosecutions, he received this warning: “I will be coming after you. You will pay the price….You will wish you had never written that letter”.

But this low profile race could be the ideal opportunity to make a bid for redemption, in a suitably humble guise. “I would not be in this race if I did not think I could win”, he said on Sunday night.

Since his departure from politics, the former governor has carved out a media career as a political commentator, writing for Slate magazine and hosting political programmes on CNN and the progressive Current TV.

But Spitzer isn’t the only Democrat seeking a similar route to the top. Anthony Weiner, who is running to be mayor of New York, was also forced to resign two years ago, after he was caught tweeting inappropriate photographs of himself to a number of women – none of whom were his wife – and lied about it afterwards.

Sexting for beginners

Wiener was widely ridiculed after his online antics were revealed: there is even an exhibit dedicated to him in the New York museum of sex. Yet that was then: this is now, and days after he entered the mayoral race he was riding high in the polls.

His wife, former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, has been helping to run his campaign, speaking out publicly for the first time this week to appeal for financial donations.

Perhaps, for Wiener and Spitzer, the worst is already out there: although Wiener told local television last month that if reporters wanted to try looking, “I can’t say that they’re not going to be able to find another picture, or find another…person who may want to come out on their own.”

And there is precedent: South Carolina’s former Republican governor Mark Sandford, who quit after he tried to cover up a visit to his mistress in Argentina, managed to get elected to Congress.

Not that the Republicans are in particularly forgiving mood, declaring that Spitzer’s run showed the “Democratic culture of corruption is alive and well”.

Sex, votes, rock and roll

For Spitzer, however, whose scandal involved something rather more serious than sexting a lewd photo of his nether regions, the opportunity to recapture that political prominence he once enjoyed must seem invaluable.

Three years ago, he told Time magazine of his daily frustration with being out of the public eye. “When you have nothing to do all day, you eventually start yelling from the rafters.”

According to the magazine, he was “one of the most driven politicians in America, a rocket powered by ambition and hubris”. New York comptroller may not seem like a big deal. But it could be the foothold he’s been searching for, all these frustrated years.

And all that depends on just how far New Yorkers are prepared to forgive – and forget.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News