NEW YORK (AP)—Eliot Spitzer and his Democratic rival Scott Stringer went head-to-head on Friday in their first debate in the New York City comptroller campaign. Spitzer said 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 scandal in 2008, have been immersed in a testy campaign since Spitzer unexpectedly launched his run last month.
And if voters were waiting for fireworks, they didn’t have to wait long. Just about five minutes into the debate at WABC-TV. Sponsors also included Noticias 41 Univision, the Daily News and the League of Women Voters. The exchange will be broadcast at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Noting 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 as an arrogant member of an elite that could “escape” prosecution, even though he had signed a law that lengthened jail terms for paying for sex.
“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. 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 one of the city pension funds the comptroller invests.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 10; the general election Nov. 5.
Stringer was a heavy favorite in the race before Spitzer upended it. Spitzer is betting that voters will look past 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, stressed his theme of being unafraid to “break some eggs” in the name of the public interest.
“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.