John Burnett, the Republican candidate for New York City Comptroller.

John Burnett, the Republican candidate for New York City Comptroller. Credit: Handout

So that's that.

Eliot Spitzer's on the ballot.

The only thing standing between him and the New York City comptroller job is affable but seriously underqualified Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who, until Spitzer's entry into the race on Sunday, was expected to be a shoo in for the position.

And surely the wealthy and uber-connected Spitzer -- he can book himself on shows like Leno at will -- should be able to steamroll Stringer flat in the September Democratic primary. Right? Polls already show him up nine points over Stringer, and Spitzer hasn't spent a dime yet on the type of glowing Jimmy Siegel ads that had him poised to be a presidential candidate just a few short years ago.

But wait.

What's that? There's someone else in the field, you say?

Indeed, there is. And he's superbly qualified for the job.

But here's the catch: He's a R-e-p-u-b-l-i-c-a-n.

That alone would normally doom a comptroller candidate in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1. The Republican and Conservative candidates for comptroller in 2009 got 22 percent of the vote -- combined.

But this is no ordinary race and John Burnett is no average Republican. Assuming the widely disliked Spitzer becomes the Democratic nominee, Burnett can almost certainly raise enough money to qualify for city matching funds, and a lot of Democrats will probably skip voting for comptroller or look for an alternative. Burnett, a native New Yorker with an impressive success story, could conceivably fit the bill.

Burnett, 43, grew up in the projects of East New York. By the age of 6, he was said to be showing an innate disposition for entrepreneurialism and money management. By high school he had his sister and mother selling his homemade oatmeal cookies to their friends and co-workers.

The kid from the projects went on to become a global wealth portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley, Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch, after picking up a degrees at NYU and Cornell.

That's an appealing story to aspirant New Yorkers of every background.

Burnett can speak as fluently in the boardroom as he can to inner-city voters. An African-American, if he could pull in 30 or 40 percent of the black vote, he could actually be in play. Burnett's also shown the ability to get media attention -- even before Spitzer entered the race -- and that's no easy task in New York City politics.

If Eliot Spitzer wins the Democratic Primary, he will be the odds-on-favorite in November, no doubt. But for the first time in city history, the Democrat might not be a shoo in. He might actually have a race on his hands.

Can the quadrennially dull New York City comptroller's race possibly get more interesting?

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.

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