Hecklers and a media mob: Eliot Spitzer takes his campaign to the public

·National Correspondent

NEW YORK---Eliot Spitzer had barely arrived at his inaugural outing as a candidate for New York City comptroller when the heckling began.

“Why were you late? Were you with a hooker?” a man bellowed as Spitzer, clipboard in hand, strolled into Manhattan's Union Square just after noon. It was his first attempt, he said, to collect the nearly 4,000 signatures he’ll need to have by Thursday to qualify for September’s Democratic primary ballot.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the former New York governor, who resigned from office in 2008 after he confessed to cheating on his wife with prostitutes, made the surprise announcement that he was seeking a return to politics in the hopes that voters would give him a second chance.

Spitzer, who smiled and tried to ignore his antagonist, had arrived 20 minutes late to his first campaign event as a municipal candidate. His attire seemed ill-advised for the occasion: A wool navy blue pinstriped suit on what was one of the hottest days of the summer to date.

Mobbed by a crowd of more than four-dozen reporters and curious onlookers—some of whom had no idea who he was—Spitzer began to sweat profusely as he made his case for political redemption. But at times, it was unclear whether he was perspiring more from the blazing heat or the intense scrutiny of a crowd skeptical about his last-minute decision to compete with Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president and a popular Democrat who had been running unopposed in the primary.

Again and again, Spitzer explained that he simply had not been able to find satisfaction in the private sector—where he has worked as a TV talk show host and a columnist for outlets including Slate since his fall from grace. Spitzer repeatedly insisted he longed to serve the public again, pointing to his record as governor and as state attorney general, where he proudly noted that he “took on Wall Street.”

“For me, it’s all about public service,” Spitzer began to explain before a heckler interrupted him.

“Did you leave your black socks on?” the man yelled at Spitzer, referring to one of the tawdry details Ashley Dupre, one of the prostitutes Spitzer patronized, revealed about their time together.

Spitzer, his face frozen into a smile, paused momentarily before he seemed to will himself to continue.

“And this is what I, uh, look forward to: Dealing with the public,” Spitzer said. "I want to serve."

“You just want power!” a heckler shouted. “You just want power, man!”

As the man continued to yell, Spitzer repeatedly tried to excuse himself from the media scrum to focus on gathering signatures but seemed unable to turn away from questions.

One frequent topic: Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress two years ago after he confessed to sexting with women he met online and who recently launched his own comeback with a bid for NYC mayor.

Weiner, in a bit of odd timing, had held a campaign event just blocks away from Spitzer’s earlier Monday morning—where he seemed uninterested in talking about the ex-governor’s campaign for comptroller.

“I’ll let the punditry be done by the pundits,” Weiner replied, when asked about Spitzer’s return. Asked if Spitzer deserved the same second chance in politics that he was seeking, Weiner dodged the question by telling reporters he was “focused entirely on my own campaign.”

Spitzer also tried to dodge comparisons to Weiner, insisting that his decision to run for office again had not been motivated by the ex-congressman, who now leads some Democratic mayoral primary polls.

“Not at all,” Spitzer said when asked whether he had watched how the public reacted to Weiner’s run before deciding on his own. But he added, “The public has forgiveness in their hearts. Whether that forgiveness extends to me is a separate issue.”

A few feet away, another man yelled, "You slept with hookers, and you lied and cheated on your family. ... You don't deserve forgiveness!"

Nodding toward one of the hecklers, a reporter asked the ex-governor whether he was prepared for all of his campaign events to be “like this.”

“This is going to be a fun operation. That’s what politics is all about,” Spitzer replied, his face still frozen in a grin. “I have been in politics for a long time. … You don’t get into this fray unless you know this is what’s going to happen.”

“Hookers!” a heckler shouted. “You love hookers!”

Spitzer smiled awkwardly.

For about an hour, the ex-governor slowly moved through Union Square, caught up in the center of a massive media scrum. Occasionally, he paused to try to talk to actual voters, only to be distracted by media questions again.

By the time he began moving to exit the park, Spitzer had collected just eight signatures on his stack of petitions—a far cry from the thousands he’ll need by Thursday. Still, he insisted that he would be working “nonstop” to gather the support he needs and said he hoped the public would consider his “substantive record” when deciding whether to give him a second chance.

“Now, I think I need to go take a shower,” Spitzer said, as he headed into the street looking for a taxi to escape the media horde that continued to trail him.

Nearby, a small group of people lined up near Spitzer volunteers still seeking signatures on petitions to get the ex-governor on the ballot.

“Why shouldn’t he get a second chance?” a man named Samson from Brooklyn, who declined to give his last name, said after signing Spitzer’s petition. “There ain’t nobody in politics who is perfect. Not in City Hall. Not in Congress. Not in the White House.”

Spitzer is hoping at least 4,000 other New Yorkers feel the same way.

William Holt contributed to this story.

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