The Crusader

Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York, has risen to national prominence by emulating Teddy Roosevelt and fearlessly taking on powerful interests. His aggressiveness has made him a lot of enemies—but it may propel him to the governor's mansion and beyond
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Eliot Spitzer—the man whom Fortune once deemed the "Enforcer" of Wall Street, whom Time once likened to Moses, who was recently slammed by the conservative National Review as "the most destructive politician in America"—is at last alone. It's dusk on a July Sunday at New York's LaGuardia, the most deflating hour at any airport, but most particularly this one, where young management consultants, who moved to the city in anticipation of actually working in it, wait for their flights to Detroit and Atlanta, lifted in spirit only by the promise of a return the following Thursday. It's the time when vacationers, who've had their fill of getting jostled on the 4 or the 5 or the F, are readying reports for their neighbors back home about seeing The Lion King and walking through the NBC Experience store, and looking forward to the prospect of a drive home in the Ford Explorer and maybe some TiVoed American Idol before bed.

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"After Eliot Spitzer..." (March 2008)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

Yet Spitzer, the attorney general of New York since 1999 and perhaps its next governor, goes unnoticed. Perhaps for one of the last times in his adult life he is with them, really with them—in jeans and a union lawyers for kerry T-shirt, his legs crossed and a duffel bag at his side. Reading a book called America and the World, which was sent to him by the Council on Foreign Relations, he occasionally looks up at the planes on the runway, and then to his left, where no one sits, and to his right, where a tanned young man paces in anticipation of a trip home.

A few minutes later, when Spitzer catches sight of me boarding the same flight he's taking, to Buffalo, he stands and, with boarding pass in hand, says, "There's something about flying out on a Sunday night that makes you realize the work week is ready to start."

Whether he consciously set out to do so or not, Spitzer has spent hundreds of the preceding work weeks transforming himself from a relatively obscure elected state official into one of the most loved and hated—and certainly feared—men in America. In February, a month before the Super Tuesday primaries, Spitzer found himself called upon by John Kerry to endorse him in, of all places, New Mexico. Spitzer's rise to national prominence has empowered and given voice to scores of fellow state politicians, reinvigorating the great battle between local and federal power that has been an ineluctable element of American politics since Hamilton and Jefferson.

Make no mistake: Spitzer is the Democratic Party's future. Or, at the very least, a significant part of it. Yes, there's the presidential nominee, who at the time of this writing registered with American voters as either "the other guy" or the one who didn't use faulty information to settle an old score and send U.S. troops into war. But, along with Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, and the soon-to-be Illinois senator Barack Obama, Spitzer represents the cutting-edge model of the post-Clinton Democrat, drawn from a generation of politicians whose formative experience wasn't the civil-rights movement, who are tough on crime, and whose foreign policy isn't shaped by Vietnam.

"He's an extraordinary candidate," says the Democratic National Committeeman Robert Zimmerman, talking about Spitzer's prospects not only for the governorship but also, one imagines, for still higher office. "He's not received in a partisan light. He gets standing ovations in the heart of Republican suburbs and New York City. It's the same response. He has a national constituency and a national message. He's very significant to the Democratic Party, to what we believe in as a country and, quite frankly, what we believe in as Democrats."

Of course, Spitzer hasn't actually declared that he's running for anything. But when—not if—he enters the 2006 gubernatorial race, Spitzer will most likely be faced with what the columnist Mike Royko, remarking on the death of Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley, called "the ingredients for the best political donnybrook we've had in fifty years." That's because looming for Spitzer is not only the possibility of facing the former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the general election (since the current governor, George Pataki, will in all likelihood step down) but also the very real threat of a knockdown primary race with Senator Charles Schumer, who, according to sources within the party, is itching to leave his Washington post for the mansion in Albany. A Schumer-Spitzer primary would be juicy enough, but the prospect of a Giuliani-Spitzer general election is delicious to tabloids in New York, where gossip holds that the two men loathe each other (Spitzer, for his part, denies this).

It's likely that the ultra-competitive Spitzer looks forward to such donnybrooks with relish. "If Eliot decides to run for governor, it won't matter who else is in the race," says Darren Dopp, Spitzer's spokesman, abandoning the conditional in his enthusiasm. "He will use all of his energy and resources to win."

It is 7:00 a.m. on the morning after our flight from LaGuardia when Spitzer (a tall, balding man, forty-five years old, whom three different women with no affiliation to him have recently told me they see as virile and somehow, um, sexy), already awake for two hours, begins his drive from Buffalo's Hyatt Regency to the Chautauqua Institution, in western New York. The institution was founded in 1874 as a gathering place for interdenominational meetings and discussions on religion, science, and the arts: over time it has also become a nine-week summer community for the well-off from northwestern New York and parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Speakers at the institution have included Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

Along the way there's a ten-minute meeting at a bed-and-breakfast with an upstate county executive running for Congress, and a drive past towns such as Westfield, with its statue of Abraham Lincoln thanking Grace Bedell, a little girl who wrote the newly elected President to suggest he'd look cute with a beard, and Mayville, the Chautauqua County seat; the original clerk's office, near where Mayville's two-room courthouse stood, is now Mel's Full-Service Bakery and Café.

"There's almost a midwestern sensibility here," Spitzer says. "You're both geographically and sensibility-wise closer to the Midwest than you are New York City." He pauses for a moment, as if he's just remembered the post he will soon run for, and adds, evidently not wanting to offend future constituents, "But it also feels like upstate New York."

He should know these roads; traveling them made him the Democratic future. In 1994, after working for six years in the Manhattan district attorney's office and a stint in private practice, he took a run at the attorney general's office. He had no previous political experience, and finished last among four in the party's primary. For the next four years he canvassed and crisscrossed the state in his Dodge minivan, showing up in the driveways of local Democratic Party officials, attending every fundraising dinner he could. (A few days before our trip, standing in his office, he pointed to a map of the state that hangs on his wall, explaining that it had been given to him during his successful 1998 campaign. "I said, 'If we win, we'll put this on the wall.' As a demonstration of my parochialism, I actually think looking at a map of New York is kind of neat. You can see the Finger Lakes. I've been to basically every town on that map.")

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