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

"One time Dershowitz gave us his Celtics tickets," recalls Cliff Sloan, one of Spitzer's Harvard classmates and now general counsel for the online versions of Newsweek and The Washington Post, "and the Celtics were playing the Knicks [at Boston Garden]. And here we are in the middle of this very pro-Celtics crowd, and Eliot was on his feet cheering for the Knicks. He was angering everyone around us, especially the regulars—but he was unbowed in his full-blown enthusiastic support of the Knicks. Eliot's just fearless."

Perhaps the best thing Spitzer got out of his time at Harvard was Silda, a fellow law-school student, whom he married two days before the stock-market collapse of 1987. She is tall, blonde, and discreetly pretty in the manner of, say, a young Blythe Danner, and comes from an America that to the vast majority of New Yorkers seems as foreign and remote as Mars. The product of small-town North Carolina life, Silda arrived in Cambridge from an all-women's school, Meredith College, in Raleigh. Today she runs, without salary, a foundation she created for city children, and she can speak passionately, with a precision that matches her highly articulate husband's, about everything from parenting to international law. She is, in short, perfect first-lady material, though outwardly reluctant to contemplate that role.

"That's going to be Eliot's decision," she says of a run for governor. "We'll see where that ends up falling out. I think he'd be great. It's not something I'm pushing for anyway."

One could certainly sympathize if Silda were to approach her husband one day and say, "Enough." After all, she was five months pregnant with the couple's third child when Spitzer announced his 1994 campaign. And she was a completely sleep-deprived mother when Spitzer began one of the strangest political campaigns in New York history, four years later. After he emerged the winner, with only 41 percent of the vote, in a three-way Democratic primary, in 1998, the New York Times editorial page half-heartedly (at best) threw its support to him over his Republican opponent, Dennis Vacco. The Times wrote that Spitzer had "misled the public about how his father's wealth was used to support about $9 million in loans that financed his campaigns in 1994 and 1998," adding, "We endorse Mr. Spitzer because Mr. Vacco's performance and his key policy positions make him an even worse choice." Not the most ringing endorsement.

Even from his own party support for Spitzer was only lukewarm. After being prodded into endorsing him on the steps of the New York Public Library, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan walked away, according to a source close to Spitzer, murmuring, "Nice kid. He's gonna get killed."

Spitzer didn't get killed. But on election night his lead was so slight that Vacco would not concede; instead he waited forty-one days, through a vicious, tenacious recount. (In the end Spitzer won by 25,000 votes.) Vacco, now in private practice, says of his onetime nemesis, "I think he's done a credible job."

After he won his battle with Vacco, Spitzer didn't wait long to pick another. In 1999 and 2000, his first two years in office, he led coalitions of northeastern states in suits against midwestern utilities whose pollution had drifted into their air. He has continued to attract attention with the battles he's picked. When the Bush Administration's Environmental Protection Agency tried to roll back the standards set by the Clean Air Act, Spitzer led a group of states to halt it. Most recently, when it was revealed that GlaxoSmithKline, maker of the antidepressant Paxil, had hidden studies showing an increased risk of suicidal thoughts in teenagers when they began using the drug, Spitzer sued, saying the company had not used fair disclosure when recommending the drug to doctors.

In answer to those who say Spitzer is interested only in creating a national name for himself, his supporters point to the fights he has picked locally, in New York. He took action against Manhattan's Gristede's grocery store—successfully demanding back pay and more than minimum wage for its deliverymen. He represented eighteen day laborers in a suit against a contractor in Southhampton, and he brokered an agreement with many of New York City's Korean grocers to raise the wages of their largely Mexican work force from around $3.50 an hour to minimum wage. ("He tries to speak Spanish," says Arturo Sarukahn, Mexico's consul general in New York. "He needs practice, but he's not bad. He's articulate enough to make these day laborers, who are mostly undocumented and who are afraid, feel comfortable.")

For his part, Spitzer says he is not some rogue force, picking fights willy-nilly: rather, he is merely following the model of another New York public official, whose portrait is prominent on his office wall. "I don't have Teddy Roosevelt's picture up there because I have any illusions of grandeur," he says. "It's because I believe he's the one that came closest to getting it—that the market needs those boundaries."

"The three areas where we have been most active, quite frankly, are where he was most active," Spitzer continues. "Trust-busting is analogous to what we've done on Wall Street. He was the first one who understood that preserving our environment and passing it on to the next generation was something we should do. And he believed in protecting labor—not because he said we have a right to a particular wage at X dollars an hour, but preserving labor in the sense of holding businesses to a certain minimum threshold, which is why the labor cases are the ones I feel most passionately about."

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Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent.

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