“In our case against Merrill Lynch, we filed the charges on Monday, and on Friday, I think it was, David Komansky, who is the CEO of the company, at a shareholder meeting publicly apologized for their behavior. That was a remarkable moment,” the New York attorney general said.
“Not that weren’t many, many hills to climb, beyond that, many battles fought thereafter, but that was a critical juncture,” he told the Echo. “It was acknowledgement that we were correct with respect to the facts that we had alleged.”
Spitzer had gone where no state attorney general had before. He’d taken on a national institution – Wall Street. The fight has made his name nationally and his gubernatorial campaign in New York State an unstoppable juggernaut.
However, putting corporate America in his prosecutorial sights also drew fire, notably from the Wall Street Journal.
“They were writing editorials every week that portrayed me as though the worst thing you can imagine,” Spitzer remembered. “I was destroying capitalism. I was everything bad you could imagine.
“And I kept saying to them: ‘No. You guys don’t understand: if there’s no integrity in the system, it will collapse of its own weight. We are preserving it.’
“They still think I’m the worst thing that ever happened,” said the 47-year-old politician. “The Wall Street Journal editorial page has its own unique position on the political spectrum; so my view is: you’re defined by your friends and your enemies.”
Spitzer explained his legal battles in the context of Democratic Party values. “We believe that the market works because we can require a degree of integrity, transparency and fairness,” he said.
“If it is completely unbridled, if you permit CEO’s to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars that isn’t theirs to the detriment of workers, ultimately the capital markets will fail,” he added.
He said he’s a strong supporter of the market, “but not the market that permits insider trading, not the market that permits bribery and theft, which is unfortunately what the Wall Street Journal time and time again defends. Anything that their favorite CEO’s can get their hands on is fine with them.”
Spitzer’s office exposed, for example, how companies gave individual small-time investors what they knew to be bad advice in order to curry favor with major corporate clients.
“My view is there needs to be integrity, people have to be honest in their dealings and you have to ensure, through providing the avenue to opportunity, people can participate. Then the market will work,” he said.
Spitzer’s victory was a vindication at a deeper level. He first entered the political fray in 1994, when he was one of four Democrats aiming to succeed the retiring Robert Abrams as state attorney general. He came last in the primary.
Political commentator Joe Conason suggested in the New York Times last month that there was a time when many “underestimated him [Spitzer] not only as a politician but as a person.”
In “Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer” author Brook Masters shows, according to Conason, “how the same personality that once struck observers as presumptuous and callow has come to be seen as bold, innovative and resolute.”
Masters places Spitzer in the reforming tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, who, on his road to the White House, was governor of New York from 1898 through 1900.
Like Roosevelt, Spitzer was born into an affluent family in New York City, and one, too, that encouraged a life of public service. Bernard Spitzer, who worked in real estate, and Anne Spitzer, a teacher, figure prominently in most accounts of their son’s life.
The candidate himself said in a more general vein: “The role of the parents in establishing the value structure for kids is something we have strayed from – it is so essential.”
After Harvard Law School, Spitzer got a job with a major law firm but, as Masters reports, his brief stints in private practice have tended to bore him. He jumped at the opportunity to work in the office of Robert Morganthau, the Manhattan district attorney.
Spitzer first came to the media’s attention in 1992 with a prosecution that put an end to the Gambino crime family’s grip on garment trucking.
Of that job with the DA’s office, he told the Echo that he thought it was more fun that a lawyer was entitled to have. “I loved it,” he said.
As for politics, Spitzer had always been interested in its “substance.” It’s a word he used in connection with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an “intellectual and political hero,” who he believes was ahead of his time on many issues. “He was a remarkable individual,” he said.
“I never thought I would run for office,” Spitzer recalled. “It was not that I disdainful of it by any means. I just didn’t think that’s what I’d end up doing.”
But when Attorney General Abrams indicated that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection, he thought: “That’s a job I can do something with.”
Spitzer, though, would have to wait another four years before he got the opportunity. He won the primary that time and narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Dennis Vacco in the general election. Now, a further eight years on, he’s a household name.
Asked if people in Ireland had heard of him ahead of his visit there in 2005, he said: “Anybody related to the financial services sector is aware of what we’ve been doing. I gave a lecture in the Smurfit Business School when I was there. It was better attended that I thought it would be. It was a wonderful opportunity to explain it, so I enjoyed that.”
He and his wife Silda Wall, whom he met at Harvard Law School, brought their three teenage daughters on the trip. “They loved it; they had a spectacular time,” he said.
“The time that we can find with them is so precious and you struggle,” he added. “The moments you have you hold on to.”
The night before the Echo interview, he had picked up his eldest, who’s 16, at JFK Airport after a six-week stay in China and was planning to meet her later that day. “We’ll go out and run a few miles together and I’ll go out to dinner with her.
“Right now, as you can imagine. I work pretty much seven days a week
— long hours between doing the job and campaigning.”
And, that work rate is likely to continue, if he’s elected.
“People will see unending energy and effort on my part,” he said. “And I hope that that can drive us forward in a very different way and generate a different style and a different sense about what the governor is all about.
“Governors too often get disengaged from the public,” he said. “George Pataki has been distant; he has been isolated — there’s a sense he doesn’t get involved day to day, has not been as participatory as he might have been.”
Spitzer said at the end of four years, he will measure success by “whether we have first begun to change the way state government operates. Right now it’s so dysfunctional that is does not even know how to confront the issues.
“Second, have we begun to bring back an economy that is failing us most dramatically upstate, but even here in the city we are not in the position we need to be long term?
“And third have we turned an educational system and health care system around; because those are two critical pieces of the machinery that are broken?”
Spitzer said: “The sort of changes we’re talking about, both in terms of governance and in terms of state policy, will only become real if a governor engages the public by continuing to build support for the change we’re talking about and that means getting out, talking to the public in a different way, whether it’s on TV or traveling to towns and villages.”