Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer is outfitted with a pocket square during a shopping trip in Harlem (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
NEW YORK — Eliot Spitzer does not like to shop nor does he particularly enjoy talking about fashion. But there he was on a recent Friday afternoon receiving a full-on fashion critique at Harlem Haberdashery, a trendy men’s clothing boutique located in the heart of the city’s most historic black neighborhood.
“I buy one suit every six months, and that’s it. They are all the same,” Spitzer told the store’s manager, Louis Johnson, motioning to the navy-and-white-pinstripe suit he was wearing that day.
Johnson, a stylish man who was wearing a black shirt with a ruffle detail, gave Spitzer a look that suggested he didn’t quite know whether to believe him.
“As long as you flip it with a different accessory and a different shirt, and you know, a pocket square,” Johnson said.
But Spitzer quickly indicated that wasn’t the case. “I wear the same shirt, the same tie, the same suit,” Spitzer said, shrugging.
“It makes it easy in the mornings,” he added, mentioning that if he could jog in the suit he would probably wear it during his morning run, too.
Johnson looked momentarily horrified.
But the ex-governor wasn’t exactly kidding. The pinstripe suit has been Spitzer’s uniform since he launched a surprise campaign for city comptroller two months ago in a bid for political redemption five years after he resigned from office after confessing that he had cheated on his wife with prostitutes.
Spitzer was wearing the same pinstripe suit on the blistering hot July afternoon when he first began collecting signatures to get on the ballot — a circuslike event where he was mobbed by dozens of reporters and repeatedly heckled by detractors.
He wore the same suit four days later when he surprised critics by delivering the signatures he needed to qualify for the election. And in the nearly two months since, Spitzer has worn the same suit all over town — to community meetings, to church gatherings, to debates, to concerts, to interviews and, on this particular Friday, a walking tour of Harlem. It’s been his suit of choice as he presses voters to give him another shot.
Spitzer’s push for redemption hasn’t sat well with the city’s political establishment. Ahead of the Sept. 10 primary, virtually every Democratic lawmaker in the city has lined up behind his opponent, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a little known city official who had been running unopposed in the primary.
Since the ex-governor joined the race, Stringer has become the cause of the moment for anyone who cringes at the idea of a Spitzer comeback. Celebrities including actresses Scarlett Johansson and Lena Dunham have thrown glitzy fundraisers for Stringer. And earlier this month, Stringer won the endorsement of all three of the city’s daily newspapers — which, in rare unity, argued that Spitzer does not deserve a second chance as an elected official.
But in spite of all the political animosity towards Spitzer and the almost daily trail of negative stories about him in the tabloids, the ex-governor appears to be getting a different reception from actual voters.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll found Spitzer leading Stringer by 19 points, 56 percent to 37 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. One of the biggest reasons for his lead: Spitzer has a major advantage among black voters, who, by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1 prefer him to Stringer.
It’s a lead that even Spitzer himself struggles to explain.
“I don’t break it out by demographics. I just think I am doing well with folks who know I worked hard for a lot of years on their behalf,” Spitzer told Yahoo News.
One reason for the significant gap is that black voters seem to be more forgiving of Spitzer’s ethical lapses. The Quinnipiac poll found that only 13 percent of black voters believe his prostitution scandal “disqualifies” him from office, compared to 29 percent of white voters.
Observers of the race have suggested black voters are more open to Spitzer’s push for redemption in part because they have seen so many of their community’s leaders embroiled in scandal. They also cite Spitzer’s name recognition and his record of fighting Wall Street as another reason for the strong racial gap between him and Stringer.
But Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, has another explanation.
“They see him as the middle finger candidate at a time in the city where the black population is less satisfied with how things are going,” Muzzio said, citing issues such as the “stop and frisk” police policy and the economic disparity in the city ushered in during the tenure of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
And that does seem to be some of the allure. Last week, as Spitzer went on a walking tour of Harlem, it was hard to not to notice the reception he received as he paraded down Lenox Avenue, reporters in tow. Unlike July, when Spitzer was repeatedly heckled and mocked for his sex scandal, here the ex-governor was a hero. Both men and women ran up to him to shake the candidate’s hand as he marched down the street.
“You’re a good man!” one man declared, as he grabbed Spitzer in a firm handshake.
“Nobody’s perfect!” said another, as Spitzer beamed.
At one point, a black woman went out of her way to shake Spitzer’s hand. Afterwards, the women, who declined to give her name, explained why she was an admirer of the ex-governor.
“If everybody wants him out of the race, he must be doing something right,” she said.
And that’s part of the argument Spitzer has made in recent weeks as he has worked to deepen his advantage with minority voters. He has invested a lot of time campaigning in black churches and in heavily minority neighborhoods such as Harlem, where he has pointed repeatedly to his record of standing up to the establishment in favor of the little guy.
Last Friday, Spitzer held a roundtable with minority business owners and community leaders at Sylvia’s — the legendary soul food restaurant in Harlem. He told the group he wanted to help make city regulations easier to help minority-owned businesses.
“That’s something I am truly interested in,” Spitzer said, adding that it wasn’t only an issue he was campaigning on because it is “politically advantageous” for him to do so.
At the same time, Spitzer has become more at ease on the campaign trail — eager to be seen as more than only a stiff in a suit, which had been a frequent criticism of his earlier tenure in politics.
Now, with only weeks to go before voters decide whether he deserves the second chance he’s pressed so hard for, Spitzer operates with the air of a man who doesn’t quite take his image so seriously — perhaps a side effect of having been so publicly humiliated.
And that’s how reporters came to observe Spitzer being schooled on his fashion choices last Friday, as his staffers giggled in the background. Johnson had decided to pull an intervention after Spitzer professed ignorance about pocket squares — asking whether they should match ties.
“NOOOO,” Johnson replied, leading the ex-governor over to a case of designer pocket squares. Soon, he was stuffing a red polka-dot square into Spitzer’s front pocket, showing him how to make it puff out just-so.
“Is this not my look?” Spitzer asked, as his campaign aides laughed.
Soon, he was at the cash register with three squares, priced at $80 apiece. His haul included two different polka-dot versions — a pattern he confessed to loving but rarely wearing.
“This is a unique experience,” he said as he waited at the cash register.
Down the street, he told another voter that he’d just been shopping for new clothes. “You already look sharp,” the man said, prompting Spitzer to laugh.
“I can be sharper,” Spitzer replied.