Eliot Spitzer Is Not Easy to Work With. Just Ask George Pataki

Matt Berman
National Journal

Don't be embarrassed if, before Sunday night, you had never really heard of New York City's Office of the Comptroller. Now, though, with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer hoping to launch his post-scandal political comeback by running for the office, the office won't be so obscure. And if Spitzer wins, that could be a real drag for the next mayor of New York.

The problem a Comptroller Spitzer poses for the next mayor of New York isn't the "Comptroller" part—it's the "Spitzer." That's not because the office isn't used to scandal. The current comptroller (and New York City mayoral hopeful) John Liu has been surrounded by allegations of campaign-finance abuse for years. And it's not because the Office of the Comptroller, which traditionally oversees city spending, is a bureaucratic behemoth. It's because if Eliot Spitzer made one thing loud and clear during his first run in New York politics, it's that he is loud and clear. And as New York Gov. George Pataki learned when Spitzer was his attorney general, that isn't easy to deal with. 

When Eliot Spitzer started his short-lived career as governor, he came ready to inject energy into New York politics. "Like Rip Van Winkle, New York has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by," he said in his Inaugural Address. During much of that Rip Van Winkle decade though, Spitzer was serving as attorney general under Republican Gov. George Pataki. And while that may have been Spitzer's last direct barb at Pataki, it certainly wasn't the first. And if Spitzer does manage to win the race for comptroller, it could be a sign of what's to come.

When Spitzer first became attorney general in 1999, he picked a fight with his new client (as Spitzer often referred to Pataki) over the environment, laying out an unconventional plan to use his office to go after polluters and take on more environmental cases. As The New York Timesnoted at the time,  the environment had "largely been the domain of Mr. Pataki" for five years. To help lead the initiative, Spitzer hired an environmental lobbyist who was a loud critic of Pataki, described by his office as a "bomb thrower." "If there is some element of competition—and I don't see it that way—well, look, it's generating great policy," Spitzer said.

In 2003, Spitzer went after Pataki's energy-deregulation policies, blaming him for the 2003 New York blackout. Pataki, who generally tried to have an amiable public relationship with the attorney general, called Spitzer "utterly wrong."

Then there was the battle over the issue most closely tied to Eliot Spitzer: ethics. Spitzer, who had already announced his campaign to succeed Pataki as governor, harshly criticized Pataki's anti-corruption agenda in 2005:

It's not my job to grade others. But what I would say is that the governor has a responsibility to lead, not to follow. The governor has a responsibility not to wait for others to push ideas, and then come in and embrace them after the fact, and be hands-off with respect to whether or not they pass.

Spitzer also accused the governor of doing too little, too late to rein in lobbying for state contracts. At that point, Pataki had not yet decided on running for a fourth term as governor. But a week later, he was officially out.

It's not necessarily shocking to see a Democratic state attorney general go after a Republican state governor. But in these moments and others, Eliot Spitzer made a point of finding ways to both expand the role and the visibility of the attorney general's office. If Spitzer winds up as New York City's next comptroller, there's every reason to think he'd do much of the same.

Already on Monday, Spitzer has given apossibleagenda to WNYC's Brian Lehrer that takes a much more expansive view of the office. Referring to what he did as attorney general, Spitzer said that "what we did to that office in terms of reenergizing it, re-envisioning it, is something that could and should be done to the comptroller's office." Spitzer also used his first radio interview since announcing his campaign to suggest he would go after Jamie Dimon's role as both CEO and chairman of JPMorgan, saying, "George Washington was a great president, but we did not eliminate checks and balances even though we thought he was a great president."

For a low-key mayor, an aggressive comptroller may not be the worst thing in the world. But for an equally ambitious Mayor Anthony Weiner? The Pataki-Spitzer fireworks could end up looking like an adolescent pyro-whimper.