Eliot Spitzer may be one of the luckiest guys in the history of American politics. I know… that may sound rather odd for somebody who once held not entirely ridiculed aspirations of being the President of the United States and then became best known for ticking off hookers with unusual requests, but his recent run at returning to the public payroll was inadvertently helped more than he could have ever possibly imagined by sharing the stage with Carlos Danger. (Come on… when you’re on the stage with Weiner, you’ve got to look a bit better. Or at least less noticeable.) He’s pulled into a lead in the Democratic primary race to be New York City’s next comptroller, which should – in theory – be a free pass to victory. But John Fund makes some credible arguments this week which could show a path to failure that nobody is talking about yet.
In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, Spitzer leads Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer 56 percent to 37 percent in the Democratic primary, with all of his lead coming from his 68 percent to 21 percent edge among African-Americans. Among white voters, Stringer leads by ten points. “Everyone seems to be against former governor Eliot Spitzer except the voters, especially black voters,” says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Spitzer is all over the TV screens, building on his better name recognition.” Tellingly, a July Quinnipiac poll found 66 percent of white voters thought Spitzer’s scandals were a legitimate issue in the race, as opposed to 43 percent of black voters.
Why is Eliot Spitzer, of all people, leading that broadly among the Big Apple’s black voters? Fund points out that the numbers in his polling lead may be weaker than the top lines indicate. But even if he does pull off the expected primary win, he may have more trouble in the general election than one would generally predict in a New York City race.
Should Spitzer win the Democratic primary, there is one more hurdle he has to clear — a general election in which he would be opposed by Republican John Burnett. In a city that’s 7 to 1 Democratic, that race would normally be a cakewalk, but Burnett — with the help of city matching funds to buy ads — could make a race of it.
Burnett isn’t your ordinary Republican. Born in 1970, he grew up in East New York. He got his undergraduate degree at New York University by taking night classes while already working on Wall Street, and then got an MBA from Cornell. His Wall Street experience includes everything from work as a margin analyst at Dean Witter to a job as a global wealth portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley. He is also a member of the board of the Urban Resource Institute and has served as treasurer of New York’s subcommittee of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation.
Let’s get the media lede out of the way up front. Burnett isn’t just a NY politician. He’s a black Republican, which will immediately open him up to attacks from the New York Times et. al. for being a “token” for the GOP. But he wasn’t just drafted as a random non-white face to brush up the party’s image. He’s a guy who overcame adversity from more humble roots, got a great education and made something of himself. He’s also come up with some wild and crazy ideas, like reforming the city’s bloated and crippling public sector pension program. He’s not an empty suit, either. He’s got more than 20 years experience in actual budget management, audit and compliance work, which is pretty much the definition of the comptroller’s job.
This isn’t to say that New York is safe from the Return of Client Number Nine and the Traveling Hooker Show .But it’s worth watching.