Primary Election For NYC Comptroller Heats Up

When disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer jumped into the race for New York City comptroller, no one seemed more surprised than the other Democrat in the race, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. But Stringer didn't back down, and now polls show the primary race is too close to call.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York who quit in disgrace, entered the race for the lower-profile job of New York City comptroller, that sleepy contest was suddenly front-page news. Many observers started writing political obituaries for Spitzer's opponent. But with just days to go, the race is now too close to call, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Eliot Spitzer is the first to admit he's made a few mistakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

ELIOT SPITZER: Look, I failed - big time. I've hurt a lot of people.

ROSE: In this campaign ad, Spitzer asks New Yorkers to forgive him for the prostitution scandal that forced him to resign from the governor's office in disgrace, in 2008; and quite a few seem receptive to the idea. Early polls showed Spitzer with a double-digit lead. Douglas Muzzio teaches political science at Baruch College.

DOUGLAS MUZZIO: Eliot jumped into a race when nobody knew the other candidate. So in a sense, the early polling was Eliot against nobody.

ROSE: That nobody was Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Stringer is rarely photographed wearing anything but a suit and rimless glasses. He was running the kind of low-key campaign you might expect from a man seeking to be the city's top bean counter - until the flamboyant Spitzer appeared on the scene. But Stringer has methodically clawed his way back into the race. He came out swinging in several recent debates.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SCOTT STRINGER: So I just want to keep bringing up, Eliot, that you seem to operate with one set of rules, and you expect the rest of us to operate differently. And I just think it's not fair.

SPITZER: Can I simply respond?

ROSE: Scott Stringer has picked up endorsements from New York's political elite, major newspapers, labor unions, powerful politicians and women's groups. Sonya Ossorio, who heads the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, has been leading the charge against Spitzer.

SONYA OSSORIO: Do we want an elected official who has broken the law, and who has participated in sustaining an industry that we all know has a long history of exploiting women and girls?

ROSE: But despite the beating he's taken from tabloids and editorial pages, Eliot Spitzer still gets a surprising amount of support both from women, where he's polling almost even with Stringer; and with African-American voters, where Spitzer holds a big lead. Baruch College's Douglas Muzzio thinks many of Spitzer's supporters consider their vote a protest against the establishment.

MUZZIO: Eliot Spitzer as comptroller, is a mayor's worse nightmare. This is a gorilla. If he wants to shake it up, he will; and if he shakes it up, who's the recipient of the shaking? The mayor and the governor, and Wall Street. That's why people are going to be voting for him.

ROSE: Spitzer has done his best to encourage that perception. In spite of his great personal wealth, Spitzer is pledging to stand up for the little guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SPITZER: Just give me a chance, once again, to fight for you; to elect somebody who is independent of the political infrastructure that has not endorsed me because they see me as a threat to an ossified, broken system.

ROSE: But at each of their debates, Scott Stringer has tried to steer the conversation back to the candidate's personal behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

STRINGER: This campaign is about who we trust to manage $140 billion pension fund, to audit city agencies with great credibility. Every office I've held, it has been about trust. It has been about honesty. It has been about making sure that I do the people's business.

ROSE: Stringer has promised an end to the drama if he wins the Democratic primary on Tuesday. But if Eliot Spitzer wins, the drama is just beginning.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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