Eliot Spitzer Goes Down

Behind the governor's extreme makeover

New York now becomes Louisiana, the good-time state with the long tradition of governors and other top pols being booted from office in disgrace. Louisiana, however, has the better of it: There, politicians rob the public only of their money. Here, they steal our self-respect.

If there was a crime on the books to describe Eliot Spitzer's most serious violation as he cavorted with "Kristen" in Room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel, it would have nothing to do with prostitution, or illegal wire-transfers, or any other law aimed at preventing people from simply having too good a time.

Rather, it would be something like this: Grand Theft: Voter Dignity. Spitzer sold his image as a straight-arrow, anti-corruption crusader so well that he sailed into office in November 2006 with almost 70 percent of the vote, the biggest margin ever for a non-incumbent governor.

Running on empty: Spitzer pounced on the shortcomings of others.
Richard B. Levine
Running on empty: Spitzer pounced on the shortcomings of others.

He built that reputation by pouncing on the shortcomings of others, vowing to give no quarter in his defense of the public interest. As an attorney general tilting at crimes on Wall Street that he insisted federal regulators were too timid to tackle, he threatened to "put a spike" through the heart of a prominent businessman who defied him. "I will be coming after you. You will pay the price," he screamed at another, an elderly investment banker.

At the time, Spitzer got the benefit of the doubt from most of us who are rightfully resentful of the fat cats whose greed is so rarely challenged by public officials. Back in 1987, I offered the same silent cheers when then–Manhattan U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani had a young Wall Street trader placed in handcuffs in front of his colleagues on the trading floor. Both times, the joy of seeing a little payback dished out to capitalist connivers overshadowed any squeamishness about overzealous words and tactics.

But we ignore them at our peril. If we learn anything from these hard-charging prosecutors turned politicians, it is that the arrogance of power can be an even bigger felony than the ones they indict.

"They build their careers on the pain of others," observed Hank Sheinkopf, the veteran political consultant who has watched the incorruptibles come and go. "Ultimately, they forget their own mortality."

Even his allies found no comfort zone with Spitzer once their own failings were revealed. It was just a little more than a year ago that the newly elected governor was insisting that his former friend and political ally, Alan Hevesi, should get no benefit of the doubt. The state comptroller had been overwhelmingly re-elected on the same ticket with Spitzer, even after voters learned that he had misused a state car and driver to benefit his ailing wife.

Spitzer's office pursued the investigation with the same fervor as one of his Wall Street probes. Hevesi agreed to repay $200,000 to the state, but objected to some findings in Spitzer's report. The governor-elect immediately had a top aide denounce Hevesi, making sure to point out that state workers had driven the comptroller's wife—a woman who, Hevesi had acknowledged, had made several failed suicide attempts—to "salon appointments." The comptroller had "clearly violated his fiduciary duty to the people of the state," Spitzer's aide fumed. "The comptroller cannot deny that fact."

The Spitzer aide offering this righteous denunciation was a young man named Darren Dopp. Within months, Dopp was ousted from his post as the governor's communications director after he strutted into his own scandal, having misrepresented a newspaper's request for data on State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's use of state helicopters.

The most immediate casualty of Spitzer's self-inflicted wounds is that the chances of Democrats retaking the senate from Bruno's Republicans have been diminished considerably. Spitzer broke with past tradition when he announced he was going to help with that effort. Usually, governors sit in the background on these missions, letting others carry the political load. But last month, at the same time that he was negotiating a past credit he insisted was due him by the sex-ring operatives, the governor was helping in a successful Democratic bid to seize a long-time GOP-held senate seat in an upstate district. That special election victory put Democratic control of the senate for the first time within clear reach.

Part of that recipe for success was predicated on procedural rules that let the lieutenant governor—Spitzer running mate David Paterson—cast the deciding vote in the case of any ties in the senate. That alone, Democrats were hoping, would be enough to shepherd long-stalled legislative initiatives through the body. But with Paterson likely to step into Spitzer's job, the post of lieutenant governor would remain vacant for the remainder of the term, and the chances of Democrats winning more seats in the fall are considerably diminished.

Bruno's own future is uncertain, since—in yet another Bayou Country parallel—he is also currently the target of an ongoing federal corruption probe, this one into alleged ties between his work as a consultant and his political role. But this week, Bruno was Albany's happiest man, trying as hard as he could to suppress his glee and offer sympathy to the governor's wife and children. Treading on decidedly thin ice, the veteran lawmaker insisted that "the important thing for the people of New York State is that people in office do the right thing."

The funny thing is that if it had been the 78-year-old Bruno who had been caught in flagrante with a young hooker, he could likely count on a strong residue of public and political goodwill. Not just because he only recently lost his wife of 57 years, but because he has been careful to harvest friends on both sides of the aisle.

Spitzer had no such foresight, or perhaps no such ability. He's the most damaged state politician in recent history, not because his sins of commission are so great, but because he held so many others to the standards he knew he had no intention of holding himself to.

We'll know more in the days ahead, but there is also the possibility that Spitzer's downfall is the work of other prosecutors, this time in Washington, and every bit as zealous as the former sheriff of Wall Street. The Bush-era Justice Department's Public Integrity Section hasn't exactly distinguished itself when it comes to inquiries of Democratic governors, as per the case of Alabama ex-governor Don Siegelman, whose successful prosecution is alleged to have been spurred by ex–White House aide Karl Rove.

If so, it would be one more irony for Spitzer, who never met a corruption case he didn't want to chase.

For what it's worth, here's another odd bit of circular history: As newly elected governor, Eliot Spitzer was most constantly compared with former governor Thomas E. Dewey, another ex-prosecutor whose Mr. Clean image and stellar record of locking up the bad guys vaulted him into the executive mansion, and nearly made him president.

Dewey's biggest catch was his conviction of Mafia godfather Charles "Lucky" Luciano for running a string of city brothels. The 1936 trial made Dewey a national hero. Historians, however, now generally agree that while Luciano undoubtedly profited from the prostitution rackets, perjured testimony was used to convict him. The way the story goes, it was guilt about that case that later prompted Dewey to let Luciano out of prison, allowing him to go into exile in Italy, where the gangster later died.

It's not the worst fantasy to imagine the ghost of old Lucky Luciano prowling the Albany executive mansion, watching the randy young governor, and looking for a little payback of his own.

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