Eliot Spitzer and Democratic rival Scott Stringer traded darts Friday in their first debate in the city comptroller campaign, with Spitzer saying his opponent had accomplished little in 20 years in politics while Stringer suggested the scandal-tarnished ex-governor belongs more in jail than in office.
Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, and Spitzer, who resigned as governor amid a prostitution imbroglio in 2008, have been immersed in a testy campaign since Spitzer unexpectedly launched his run last month.
If voters were waiting for fireworks at Friday’s faceoff at WABC-TV, they just had to wait about five minutes.
Stringer noted that Spitzer has admitted patronizing call girls while he was in office but was never charged with a crime, although federal prosecutors were investigating an escort service Spitzer used. Stringer characterized the ex-governor — who signed a law that lengthened jail terms for paying for sex — as an arrogant member of an elite that could “escape” prosecution.
“You passed laws that you wouldn’t hold yourself accountable to, and then you come here today and say, ‘That’s OK because I’m powerful,'” Stringer said during the debate, sponsored by the news station, Noticias 41 Univision, the Daily News and the League of Women Voters.
While Spitzer has argued that he held himself responsible by resigning, Stringer said Spitzer “didn’t take responsibility; he evaded it.”
“I made mistakes, but I’ve made a difference,” Spitzer shot back, championing the no-holds-barred stance on investigating big financial firms that earned him the moniker “sheriff of Wall Street” as attorney general, before he became governor.
“What indelible mark have you left on policy?” he asked Stringer, dismissing him as an establishment politician inclined to “go along to get along.”
Stringer said he hadn’t shied from ruffling political feathers, noting that he led a state Assembly committee that investigates whether state agencies are effective. He also pointed to his financial experience as a trustee of a city pension fund.
Stringer was a favorite in the race before Spitzer upended it. Spitzer is betting that voters will forgive the prostitution scandal and focus on his dealings with Wall Street and his vigorous, if often combative, Albany tenure.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released Thursday found Spitzer leading Stringer, 44 percent to 35 percent. The poll surveyed 505 registered Democrats and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
During Friday’s matchup, Spitzer’s staff sent a flurry of tweets challenging Stringer’s claims, while Stringer hammered at the prostitution scandal. He claimed that Spitzer resigned to steer clear of potential charges and that anyone else “who did what Eliot did would be in jail right now.”
Federal prosecutors announced months after Spitzer’s resignation that they wouldn’t charge him. They noted that they traditionally didn’t prosecute prostitutes’ clients and said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to accuse him of financial crimes in his payments to the escort service.
Stringer, an assemblyman for 13 years and borough president for seven, portrayed himself in the debate as a veteran official who knows how and when to collaborate. He would be a steady-handed “steward” of the city’s more than $130 billion pension funds, he said.
“This is a job that requires conciliation, but also independence. I’ve demonstrated both,” he said.
Spitzer, on the other hand, said he’s unafraid to “break some eggs” for the public’s sake.
“Independence, integrity, standing up — those are the critical issues that an auditor and a comptroller should have. Those are the skill sets I have,” he said.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 10; the general election is Nov. 5.