The worst anti-Spitzer argument ever

The New York Times and others claim his candidacy is bad for democracy. An alternative scenario is far worse

Topics: eliot spitzer, The New York Times, New York City, comptroller, 2013 Elections, Democracy, ,

The worst anti-Spitzer argument everEliot Spitzer (Credit: Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

A lot of people, especially in elite media and political circles, don’t want Eliot Spitzer to run for New York City comptroller. They have all sorts of reasons, some more valid than others. Some are offended that he had sex with a prostitute, some pretend they’re offended he had sex with a prostitute, and some hate the guy because he was an aggressive prosecutor of financial misconduct.

But another explanation catching on goes something like this: Eliot Spitzer’s candidacy is bad for democracy.

Here’s the New York Times editorial page this week:

There will always be candidates for public office who are ethically compromised, temperamentally unsuitable and politically incompetent, but if they insist on running anyway, who has the right to tell them not to?

Then the editorial basically goes on to do just that (emphasis added):

That said, Eliot Spitzer’s bid to recycle himself by running for New York City comptroller is unnerving on many levels, and not just because he has suddenly decided to undo the buckles of self-restraint that used to keep disgraced ex-politicians (for soliciting prostitutes, in his case) from re-entering the public sphere.

….

Mr. Spitzer, like Mr. Weiner, is a political animal who clearly finds it hard not to have an audience. That’s understandable, but did they have to bring us all along on their journeys of personal ambition?

New Yorkers, like all citizens, deserve serious and thoughtful political campaigns, but between Anthony Weiner, the former sexting congressman, and Client 9 (the name given to Mr. Spitzer in the federal investigation of the escort service he used) and the self-described madam who ran that escort service and now claims she’s going to run against her former customer, the stage is set for a summer of farce.

If he makes it on the ballot, he will doubtless discuss issues and ideas like the policy wonk he is. But he will also use his money and name recognition to suck all attention from the other candidates, especially the capable Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer, who deserves better treatment.

Voters will have to do their best to tune out the noise.



The Times ed page has cultivated an image over the years as a kind-of self-appointed protector of democracy and good governance. This is a good thing, in theory – we need that – but the application of these principles has been a bit, shall we say, situational, from blessing Mike Bloomberg’s term limit reversal (after voters had twice voted for it) to effectively overlooking his many campaign finance perversions.

Anyway, the Times here is arguing that Spitzer’s running will undermine the sanctity of this political campaign by creating “noise,” depriving voters of “serious and thoughtful political campaigns,” and making it harder for Scott Stringer, another fine candidate in the race.

But at the risk of nitpicking, Scott Stringer is not just “another candidate” in the race. He is also: “the only other candidate.” Which means that Spitzer’s entry would change the race from one man running unopposed for a significant citywide office overseeing $140 billion in assets held by the city’s five pension funds – to one in which another candidate “will doubtless discuss issues and ideas” (by the Times’ own admission). In other words, we’d go from no campaign to a rigorous one.

Moreover, when the Times says that Stringer “deserves better treatment,” what does that mean — the status quo in which he has no race at all? As former Spitzer aide John Kenny writes in an ambivalent post about his former boss, in which he says he’s not sure whether he’d support him:

It’s hard to see how Scott Stringer’s 13 years in Albany as a state assembly member and 7 years as Manhattan Borough President qualify him to be comptroller. Maybe he’ll convince me and the broader public by September 10th, but a competitive race that makes him have to do so seems like a positive. His stealth, unopposed candidacy, apparently enabled by his former mayoral competitors who were glad to get him out of that race, is bad for democracy.

That last point is worth explaining. Stringer, the one now complaining about Spitzer’s last-minute entry into the comptroller’s race, himself big-footed someone when entering it. The capable Manhattan borough president had been essentially running for mayor for months, while a field of lesser-known candidates like City Council member Dan Garodnick sought the comptroller position. But when polls showed Stringer with little chance of winning the big prize, he abruptly switched races, entered the comptroller campaign, and cleared the field. This was certainly his right, and no judgment is implied. But for Stringer to now complain about a higher-profile late entry swooping into the race and shaking up the field seems to omit a bit of his own personal history.

But that’s just what he’s doing, and like the Times, he’s got another “this is bad for democracy” argument (though his is less bad than theirs):

If Eliot Spitzer cared about democracy, he would participate in the City’s campaign finance program and not use his personal fortune to try and buy this election wholesale.

Stringer, of course, is right that all candidates should engage in public finance programs that keep private money and influence out of the races. I didn’t notice Stringer making this argument when Barack Obama opted out of the federal program, but I strongly share his sentiment now nonetheless. Still, it is a bit odd that a candidate who is determined to run unopposed – and will exercise his absolute right to challenge all of Spitzer’s petition signatures in an effort to keep him off the ballot – is invoking “democracy” as a key talking point of his campaign.

In effect, Spitzer’s entrance into the race takes it from one good candidate cruising to the office, without having to speak to voters or make a case — to two good candidates having to work hard, meet the voters, and make their best case.

The Times and Stringer can argue that this is bad for democracy. We’ll see if voters buy it.

Blake Zeff is the politics editor of Salon. Email him at bzeff@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...