Suddenly the public light shines as never before on Scott Stringer, Manhattan's borough president -- the man most likely standing between the famous and well-funded ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and a political comeback.
Stringer, 53, seemed to be cruising virtually uncontested to the Democratic nomination for city comptroller -- a potentially powerful position with wide sway over pension investments, contracts and economic reporting. When Spitzer made his eleventh-hour plans known Sunday, the Stringer camp seemed back on its heels, with surrogates and other elected officials offering the first comments in his place.
"We heard rumors of Spitzer from some of his former campaign people, but everyone doubted he would do it," said a Stringer associate. "They said it was so late, how could he get all the petition signatures?"
It was midafternoon Monday by the time Stringer greeted news media for questions on a sidewalk outside a Fairway supermarket on Broadway near West 74th Street. "I heard you were looking for me," a smiling Stringer said, his wife, Elyse, beside him in a black maternity blouse. He mentioned their young son, Miles, was with a baby-sitter -- family values on display.
During this 18-minute exchange -- his first since the Spitzer news broke -- Stringer cited integrity and reliability and a need to both stand up to and collaborate with other public officials (nudge, nudge, hint, hint). Of Spitzer, he said it would be surprising that a candidate who purportedly backed public campaign -finance limits wouldn't abide by it in this race.
A longtime Stringer ally told Newsday before the appearance: "Certainly it makes it a totally different race now. It was a walk; now Scott's got to run. Scott's a scrapper. In a way, I think he'd prefer to have an opponent -- but I don't know this is the opponent he'd want to have. Spitzer can spend 10 million dollars" by shunning the spending limits.
By all accounts, Spitzer plans to make a maximum power base of the comptroller's office -- as he once did the state attorney general's office, where he parlayed the "sheriff of Wall Street" title into national clout and an ultimately abortive governorship.
To this, Stringer talked generally about reforms to be made. He cited investigative reports he's released as borough president since 2006. "I will bring in the next generation of leadership of this city to do good work." It was textbook campaign talk, about schools and housing and the middle class, suggesting that his would be a conventional candidacy to contrast with an unconventional one.
Stringer's surrogates have begun hitting Spitzer as arrogant and lacking judgment based on his well-documented past.
This is a municipal world in which the novelty candidate, Kristin Davis, running as a Libertarian for comptroller -- known as the former Spitzer madam -- may have more name recognition than the Republican candidate, John Burnett.
Stringer insisted "it's not about name recognition -- it's the record and vision you have for the office."
"Bring it on," said the man who went from unnoticed shoo-in to scrambling underdog in less than a day. "We're ready."
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