Spitzer and Polish: Attorney General’s Image Sparkling

Posted January 27, 2004 at 5:47pm

The morning before New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D) was set to announce that the state was coming down hard on some big-time Wall Street firms, he told a friend, “It will get attention for 24 hours.”

He was off by about three years.

Spitzer is riding such a rocket of publicity for his do-gooding that he has been touted recently as a candidate for vice president. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark has said he’ll consider the AG for VP if he becomes the Democratic White House nominee.

“It’s fun, but I don’t believe it,” Spitzer says of the speculation. “You enjoy victories like this for about 10 seconds, then you go back to work.”

Still, it begs an obvious question: How does this happen? How does a mid-level elected official — albeit one from the media capital of the world, and one who is almost certain to run for governor in 2006 — so spectacularly enter the public consciousness beyond the borders of his own state?

“He’s done notable work in a job where, technically at least, he’s just a civil lawyer,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Spitzer has certainly done notable work in areas of the law that resonate with millions of people — whether it’s busting Wall Street profiteers, taking on the mutual fund industry, going after polluters, or enforcing labor and consumer protection laws. These moves don’t just affect the citizens of New York, but people across the country.

But a range of political observers said that Spitzer, 44, wouldn’t be getting so much attention nationally if federal regulatory agencies and Congressional oversight committees were doing their jobs. Spitzer himself refers to “regulatory voids, in some cases by ideological design.”

On top of that, Spitzer has a personal story — a rich kid who has dedicated his life to public service — and a generally affable personality that are almost too good to be true.

Spitzer’s fame would be the envy of any state attorney general — and probably even most Washington, D.C., movers and shakers. But the attorney general and his lieutenants insist that his raised public profile is not a product of self-promotion.

“People think I’m a genius because the [press] coverage is so good,” shrugged Darren Dopp, Spitzer’s Albany-based PR man.

Modesty aside, Spitzer has found time to slip into Washington on occasion during the past several months — sometimes to testify on Capitol Hill, but also to meet with editorial boards, columnists and other opinion-makers. He even hosted a fundraising luncheon here not too long ago.

Spitzer has hired Chris Lapetina, a D.C.-based Democratic consultant, on a part-time basis to shepherd him on his visits to the nation’s capital.

Lapetina said it has been easy to set up meetings for Spitzer — usually, he’s invited. Pundits from across the country are interested in his work.

“Everybody says, ‘This guy from New York is doing something that affects my readers in Oklahoma, or my national readers,’” Lapetina said. “There aren’t so many state politicians that are doing this sort of thing.”

These chats have paid off. Two weeks ago, Spitzer was featured on the cover of The Washington Post business section two days in a row. And it was syndicated columnist Mark Shields who first floated the idea of Spitzer being tapped as the Democratic presidential nominee’s running mate.

Shields called Spitzer “the sheriff of Wall Street” — a “macro” running mate choice who would appeal to all the small investors whom Karl Rove is so desperate to win over for the Republicans. Spitzer, Shields wrote, would “convince ordinary Americans that [Democrats] are really on their side, committed to fighting for them.”

Spitzer called his informal chats in D.C. “an intellectual discourse …. These are very smart people who’ve thought a lot about issues for a long time.”

Lapetina said New York politicians are always going to attract more attention from the national media and other powerbrokers than their counterparts from other states. But he said that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) fame has also helped Spitzer.

“There’s a nexis, in media, in fundraising, between Washington and New York,” the consultant said. “Hillary is a good example, that New York politics can be a national story.”

New York prosecutors — which Spitzer technically isn’t — have captured the imagination of national pundits before. Tom Dewey (R) was a crime-busting district attorney before being elected governor of the Empire State. He then became the GOP nominee for president in 1944 and 1948.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), who may harbor presidential aspirations of his own, first catapulted to public attention as a local prosecutor, then as the No. 3 official in former President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, then as a corruption-fighting U.S. attorney in New York.

Spitzer, however, is rarely accused of over-hyping his work. Many Giuliani critics recall his well-publicized trip to the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan with then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) in 1986 to buy crack. Giuliani wore a vest with the Hell’s Angels insignia on it.

“Cases are driven by the facts, not by the PR around them,” Spitzer said.

For all his rising national fame, one recent New York poll must have been sobering to Spitzer. It found him trailing Sen. Charles Schumer (D) in a hypothetical 2006 Democratic primary for governor by a substantial margin.

Other than amassing a huge war chest for his re-election this year, Schumer, it must be said, has taken no steps toward running for governor — unlike Spitzer.

But Spitzer professes to be unconcerned about what his political future may hold.

“I’ll let others speculate on that,” he said.