Forward Thinking

Client 9 vs. Mr. Clean

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

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Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer returned from political exile Sunday night, throwing New York City Democrats into a frenzy as he announced an ultra-late entry into the race for New York City Comptroller.

Spitzer will face Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who was running uncontested in the Democratic primary.

Both candidates are Jewish, but that’s where the similarities stop. Where Stringer is an earnest progressive with a young baby, Spitzer is a hard-charging disgraced governor dragging a long trail of scandals. Yet while Spitzer, thanks to his prostitution scandal and short-lived governorship, is one of the best-known political figures in the state, Stringer has a low profile.

Spitzer is a “well known, well-defined candidate running against a well-liked but generally not well-defined candidate,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York-based Democratic political consultant. Stringer, Stavisky said, is “all of a sudden in a war, when he was expecting to spend quiet summer with his newborn child.”

Spitzer served as Attorney General from 1999 until 2006, when he was elected governor on a good government platform. He resigned as governor after just over a year amidst revelations that he had hired high-priced hookers while in office, breaking New York State law.

Stringer, a former New York State assemblyman and current Manhattan Borough President, is a longtime city politician with a strong base on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Stringer comes from an Manhattan Jewish political family: his cousin was Jewish feminist Congresswoman Bella Abzug, his mother was a member of the New York City Council. He enjoys close ties to Upper West Side Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who he worked for in the 1980s, and whose Assembly seat he won after Nadler was elected to Congress.

In his months running unopposed for Comptroller, Stringer has swept up institutional support, with endorsements from unions and elected officials. A New York Observer article in February referred to Stringer’s “endless endorsement pile.”

Yet Stringer is famously unimpressive on the stump. An October 2011 profile in Capital New York, written before he dropped a plan to run for mayor, described Stringer as “a short, doughy, 51-year-old with the affect of a hall monitor.”

Spitzer, meanwhile, has name recognition that Stringer can’t hope to match. That could make a difference in a race that will appear on the bottom of the primary ballot in September.

“Time will tell whether institutional support for Scott Stringer will overcome the fact that Eliot Spitzer is universally known,” said Stavisky.

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