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

When Spitzer, along with two members of his office staff and me, finishes the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from Buffalo and reaches the closed-off grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, a hard rain has begun to fall. In the distance, beyond leafy paths, in a grand amphitheater built in 1893, where Franklin Roosevelt delivered his "I hate war" speech and where Spitzer will speak today, a choir makes itself heard.

By the time Spitzer is introduced as "the people's lawyer" by Chautauqua's president, Thomas Becker, one thing is clear: this is Spitzer country. Surveying the 3,000 or so people sitting on the yellow wooden benches of the amphitheater, one sees the core of Spitzer's constituency: educated, older, and largely white upper-class men and women—the sort of people who made the mistake of turning on CNBC one day and believing, really believing, that would change the way our dogs ate.

With thunder in the background, Spitzer delivers not a speech but a sermon. He attacks the free-market-is-everything theories of the "Chicago School" of economics. He evokes Teddy Roosevelt, and the need for government intervention against self-interested actors who would distort the market for their own ends. And then, wrapping the audience more and more tightly in his grip, he tells the story of his negotiating with an unnamed investment bank—which is clearly Merrill Lynch—to try to reach a settlement before things escalated to litigation and a public fight. He says the negotiations weren't going well because he had demanded that the investment bank make its e-mails public, to reveal the truth of how the company had been operating. Everything else was on the table, he says, but he wanted the e-mails.

"The last phone call I got from the lawyer representing this investment bank went as follows," Spitzer says. "He said: 'Eliot, be careful. Be careful,' he said. 'We have powerful friends.'" There is a collective oooooh from the audience members. He has confirmed their deepest suspicions and reaffirmed their collective intellect. They weren't stupid or greedy—just deceived by bad, bad men. And because he can, he reaches higher, moving beyond Wall Street to what he calls "the crisis of accountability."

"It is government," he says. "It is the media. It is the not-for-profit sector. It is the CIA. It is our religious denominations. If you think about it, over the last four or five years there is hardly an institution that has not somehow been affected by this crisis of accountability. It makes you wonder what happened … What we are going through right now is an effort to resuscitate these values, and we do it the same way we did it with street crime. We become intolerant of even petty offenses in an effort to restore the moral regime we all know that we should live by."

Spitzer gets a standing ovation. He is a rock star now, and as such he is met after the speech by a group of people wanting a piece of him. Standing in the back entrance of the amphitheater, he gets an autograph request. One man, wearing Birkenstocks, has been a corporate lawyer for five years, he says, but now "I'd like to switch sides." Another man asks if Spitzer speaks to Harvard clubs. Spitzer says he prefers Princeton clubs, but yes, he'll address the Crimson.

Another groupie, a middle-aged man, comes up to him and says, "I'd like to say two things: that you stay in your ethics and that you run for President." "The first is more important than the second," Spitzer responds. "Trust me."

By the time Spitzer returns to Buffalo, the storm that thundered in the background while he spoke at the institution has fully dissipated. That's too bad—because to see the empty streets of that city in broad daylight can sink a person into despondency. Once the nation's eighth largest city, Buffalo has half the population it once had; much of the day you can see an empty trolley move from one end of downtown to another, passing empty storefronts. Buffalo is the home of great early-1900s architecture; most of its office space now lies fallow, the steel mills that lined Lake Erie are gone, and much of the waterfront is contaminated. The city's last flicker of renewal came four years ago, when the founder of Adelphia Communications, John Rigas, pledged to move a chunk of his company's operations to the city, bringing 1,000 new jobs and a fifteen-story waterfront office tower. Adelphia has since declared bankruptcy. In July, Rigas and one of his sons were found guilty on eighteen counts of bank fraud, securities fraud, and conspiracy. That tower was never built.

Buffalo is a forsaken place. And yet it is the second largest city in New York, and Spitzer has work to do there: a check-in with some of his deputies in the regional office; a press conference, with the U.S. attorney Michael Battle, to honor a Niagara Falls policeman for his work on Internet spamming and child pornography; a meeting with labor-union leaders in the local office of the AFL-CIO, which occupies a couple of fluorescent-lit rooms on the eighth floor of the Ellicott Square Building, designed by Daniel Burnham. At its christening, in 1896, the building was the largest office structure in the world.

"Mr. Governor," says John Kaczorowski, the president of the Buffalo Council of the AFL-CIO, as Spitzer enters the room. Thin, with a ruddy complexion, Kaczorowski has the eyes of many labor leaders I've met over the years: sixty-two going on 360. He worked for thirty-five years at a GM engine plant; for the past nine years he's held this job, representing 100,000 workers whose very livelihood and existence, one feels, could evaporate at any moment.

No, we're not in Chautauqua anymore. We're in a small office, crammed with fourteen labor leaders from the region, representing both public and private employees—men and women who can't afford to spend their morning hours attending grand lectures on the business of ethics or the ethics of business. It matters to them not at all which Ivy League clubs Spitzer is willing to make speeches at.

After some introductions Spitzer is given the floor by Kaczorowski and cuts quickly to their shared concerns.

"The thing I need to be asking is what can we be doing differently in terms of cases?" he says. "What can we be doing to help the economy here? We've all got that major need to keep the jobs, find others to come in. So on one hand, we're always looking for more cases to make, litigations, that's our day-to-day job. On the other hand, not just because I'm thinking of running for a different office in '06, what can we do to get jobs here, keep the ones we've got, and somehow take away the argument it's cheaper to do it somewhere else?"

With that Spitzer has opened the floodgates. There are complaints about the price of electric power—which, whether at residential or commercial rates, is among the highest in the nation. There are complaints about the fiscal clampdowns of the city's Control Board, put in place by the state to rein in Buffalo's finances, and about the price of gas, and about hospitals and nursing homes that are shutting down.

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