Can Eliot Spitzer Stay Progressive?

He’s famously fought Wall Street corruption, Con Edison, and the insurance industry. But now that Spitzer is New York’s 54th Governor, can he take these values to Albany and (eventually) the White House?
Can Eliot Spitzer Stay Progressive?

He’s famously fought Wall Street corruption, Con Edison, and the insurance industry. But now that Spitzer is New York’s 54th Governor, can he take these values to Albany and (eventually) the White House? Late Tuesday night, Eliot Spitzer took the stage in a crowded Manhattan ballroom to be greeted as New York’s governor-elect. Clinging tightly to the Plexiglas podium, sweat rolling down his face, he stood in front of his family and a hand-painted American flag backdrop. “At times in my life, I have been known as the people’s lawyer,” Spitzer told the cheering crowd. “And I fully intend to serve this state as a people’s governor.” The state’s progressive advocacy community is thrilled that Spitzer has ended 12 years of Republican control under Governor George Pataki. But on some issues—-especially housing, welfare reform, and development--Spitzer’s exact positions remain unknown. Hopes are high, but most progressives say they have a healthy sense of realism about what Spitzer will be able to accomplish in New York’s difficult statewide political arena, especially in light of his campaign pledge not to raise taxes. Many answers will come in this first year, which will be closely watched across the country; in New York, it’s widely assumed that Spitzer—like Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt before him--is using Albany as a stop on the way to the White House. “If a Republican wins in ’08, then it will be a wide open in 2012. And governors make great presidential candidates,” says Cornell University government professor Walter Mebane. “It’s inevitable that he’ll try. He’s an ambitious guy.” Born 47 years ago in the Bronx, Spitzer attended two of New York City’s best private schools before heading to Princeton, Harvard Law, and a white-shoe corporate law firm. In 1994, he shocked coworkers by seeking the Democratic nod for attorney general. Despite heavy financial backing from his father, a real estate magnate, Spitzer finished last in a field of four. In 1998 he tried again, edging out the Republican candidate after a six-week recount. In 2006, things were different. Spitzer won with just under 70 percent of the vote. This overwhelming mandate allows him to “say his support came from every precinct,” including traditionally conservative Upstate, according to Steven Brams, a professor of politics at New York University. Such a margin will prove handy in negotiating with Albany, and will boost his prospects as a presidential contender, Brams says. For the past several years, Spitzer’s interest in the governorship was well known, his campaign war chest overflowing, and his poll numbers intimidating. The campaign was surrounded by a sense of inevitability. “It’s a little like Richard Nixon’s rose garden strategy in ’72,” says Brams, with one key difference: Spitzer is not an incumbent, and he has no record in executive or legislative office. Instead, he had stellar name recognition and statewide good will from eight years as attorney general. And there’s much reason for that good will. Spitzer transformed a sleepy office into an aggressive litigation team. His office’s lawsuits and threats--to rein in Wall Street corruption, force General Electric to clean its contamination from the Hudson River, and end inside dealing in the insurance industry--made him the most prominent state official in the nation. But being governor is different. “Attorney general is a great position [in which] to be progressive. It’s one of the best positions, in that you can use the courts to step around the political process,” says Richard Kirsch, the executive director of Citizen Action of New York. As the 54th governor of New York, Spitzer will have a larger bully pulpit, but not the large staff of motivated lawyers that allowed him, as attorney general, to move simultaneously on many fronts. As governor most people expect that he’ll have to concentrate on a far more limited portfolio. And he’ll be held responsible for coming up with solutions to long-standing problems, such as the moribund Upstate economy, while facing challenges new to him, like balancing the state’s budget and working with a Republican state Senate and a Democratic state Assembly often derided for cronyism. Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign slogan was “Day One: Everything Changes.” One change aimed squarely at the current Legislature is Spitzer’s promise to veto any state redistricting plan not drawn up by an independent commission. On this, Cornell’s Mebane has his doubts: “Just getting that done alone would take all his capital.” But Spitzer has other goals. He’s released a property-tax reform plan designed to lessen the burden on middle-income homeowners. Frank Mauro, who heads the progressive Fiscal Policy Institute, has been crunching New York budget numbers for over more than years. And in all that time, he says, he’s “never seen anything approaching this level of detail from a campaign.” But not all advocates have been as pleased with the level of detail Spitzer has offered. “A lot of the Spitzer campaign materials have been focused on the positive stuff. He hasn’t had to get into specifics,” says John Stouffer, legislative director for the New York Sierra Club. Spitzer’s record as an environmental litigator, not only on cleaning up the Hudson but also in other areas such as suing the federal government to regulate smoke-belching Midwestern power plants responsible for acid rain in New York, easily won him the group’s endorsement. But Stouffer is concerned that the governor-elect may not be on the environment’s side when it comes to big development programs. Spitzer has said that he considers a plan to build a new high-voltage line through the state’s historic Adirondacks “dead,” but he hasn’t spoken against other major construction projects that give environmentalists pause, such as controversial proposals to build a 6,860-unit housing and commercial development in western Brooklyn and a NASCAR track on Staten Island. “Those are issues that we’re going to have to be out there fighting. We can’t expect that Spitzer as governor is going to be fighting on these issues, or even making the right decisions,” says Stouffer. Housing activists are perhaps the progressive group most sanguine about a Spitzer victory. Spitzer has said that he’ll provide more funding for public housing in New York City, institute an effective fine-collection system, and step up code enforcement. But he’s hesitant to endorse other proposals that housing activists insist are essential to stem losses of regulated and controlled housing, such as returning regulatory powers to New York City’s elected officials, or adjusting key portions of the state’s rent laws before they come up for renewal in 2011. By that time, advocates say, tens of thousands of regulated units will be gone. “We’re very aware of the fact that he comes from a real estate family, and that he has a lot of friends in the real estate world and that he’s sympathetic to them, and that they have access to him,” says Jenny Laurie, director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. Poverty activists say they are sure that Spitzer will be an improvement over Pataki, who they say actively worked to move and keep poor families off welfare, often into jobs that kept them poor. Bich Ha Pham heads the statewide Hunger Action Network. She wants to see New York adopt welfare reforms used in other states, such as expanded workforce education and wage supplements. “I would say on welfare issues, we haven’t heard much from him,” says Pham. “I think the main thinking is why put something on the record--especially if it’s not a 100 percent wining position with the public--if you don’t have to.” In socially liberal New York, Spitzer has been forthright in his support for same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, which has thrilled progressive activists. Along with Deval Patrick, the just-elected governor of Massachusetts, “he will be the first governor of any state to support marriage equality. That’s incredibly significant,” says Joe Tarver of Empire State Pride Agenda. Mary Alice Carr, spokesperson for NARAL’s New York chapter, says that her organization expects Spitzer to work to make New York a bulwark of state-level abortion rights in the face of what may be an anti-Roe Supreme Court. Spitzer’s overall philosophy isn’t always clear, according to Bertha Lewis, who works mostly on poverty and social justice issues as director of ACORN, the community-organizing group, and as a cochair of the state’s Working Families Party. “He’s conservative on some issues and liberal on others…sometimes I can’t pin him down,” says Lewis. “People say he’s going to govern to the right, because, you know, he’s not a flaming liberal. Because we’ve seen those situations before.” But in the end, she’s pleased. Under New York’s unique fusion voting laws, Spitzer’s name appeared on ballots statewide as a candidate of both the Democratic and Working Families parties. And like many other progressive advocates, she says that Spitzer has promised her organization a place at the policy-making table once he’s in office. “New York has a tradition of enacting progressive legislation ahead of the rest of the country, a history that had been abandoned,” says Richard Kirsch, executive director of New York Citizen Action. “We’re hoping he’ll bring that back.” For now, New York’s progressive advocacy groups are celebrating, and waiting for the real work to begin. Spitzer has announced that he’ll be giving a major address on education in mid-November, with other policy addresses to follow. The country’s punditry will be watching to see what kind of Democrat Spitzer turns out to be.