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Spitzer: a reformer blinded by zeal

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer first battled his way into public life in 1998, squeaking into the office of attorney general only after a six-week recount and questions over the financing of his campaign.

The Democrat's road to statewide office a decade ago offered clues to the man's strengths and weaknesses: He was a figure of ambitious public goals, and his bullish personality and determination to prevail raised hackles and led, at times, to ethical shortcuts that Spitzer tolerated little in others.

His resignation Wednesday came as his credibility had suffered crippling damage. Only two days ago, revelations surfaced that the 48-year-old, who once had pledged to clean up Albany, had been involved in a high-priced prostitution ring.

"What he forgot to understand was that he was mortal," said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on the 1998 campaign for attorney general but has since parted ways with Spitzer.

As he announced his resignation Wednesday, Spitzer was left to observe that he looked at his 15-month governorship "with a sense of what might have been." Some observers called the implosion tragic, both for the man and for the public whose mandate for reform swept Spitzer to victory last year with almost 70 percent of the vote.

Once considered potential White House material, Spitzer failed to achieve much of the progressive agenda that drove his run for governor.

"He really does care about policy and making the world a better and more progressive place," said Brooke Masters, author of Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer, a 2006 biography. "He wanted to accomplish things. Giving that up, he's a governor who did nothing."

Spitzer's inauguration 15 months ago was a high point in the career of a man whose crusades against the banking and insurance industries earned him the nickname "the Sheriff of Wall Street."

The son of real estate tycoon Bernard Spitzer, he was born in 1951 and grew up in Riverdale, N.Y., with the advantages that wealth confers. Spitzer was a brainy athlete who honed his lawyerly chops during lightning-round political debates over the family dinner table.

Elected student body president at Princeton, he earned a law degree at Harvard, where he meet his future wife, Silda Wall.

Spitzer then worked in private practice and put in a stint at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, where he prosecuted racketeering cases.

Spitzer failed to secure his party's nomination for attorney general in 1994, then won the job in 1998 after a fierce contest with incumbent Dennis Vacco. Members of that campaign team remember Spitzer as strong-minded and decisive, sometimes to a fault.

"It always amazed me that Eliot never said he was wrong," said political consultant George Arzt. "He just goes straight on to the next thing. He would never apologize."

Spitzer's transformation turned on a well-financed campaign paid for, in part, by loans from the elder Spitzer. Vacco said the loans violated state laws. Spitzer eventually conceded that his father financed much of the campaign, but it remained unclear whether the maneuvers were illegal.

Spitzer outlined an ambitious agenda for the office, saying the attorney general should protect the public interest as well as fight crime. During his tenure, he filed aggressive legal actions on behalf of consumers and against federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, that he saw as failing to protect New Yorkers.

"I was really impressed with his firm moral compass," Arzt said. "He ran a great office."

Still, the tactics that served Spitzer well as a prosecutor — among them, using the threat of public humiliation to settle cases — hampered his bid to transform Albany's culture.

The prostitution scandal broke as the governor was working to regain political ground lost during his first year in office, when clashes with legislative leaders and a series of political missteps short-circuited his efforts at reform.

By December, Spitzer's approval ratings had dropped to 36 percent, an astonishing plunge from 75 percent when he entered office.

Even if Spitzer is never convicted in the Emperor Club prostitution case, he still could lose his law license, legal experts said.

Disbarment is automatic for any lawyer convicted of a felony under New York State law, but patronizing a prostitute is only a misdemeanor. If a lawyer is convicted of a federal offense, then state lawyer disciplinary officials hold hearings to see if the crime is similar to a New York crime.

Spitzer: a reformer blinded by zeal 03/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 8:36am]
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