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August 29, 2013 7:05 pm

Eliot Spitzer, Surprised by Campaign Reception, Talks Judaism, Ambitions and Yom Kippur Services (INTERVIEW)

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Eliot Spitzer addressing members of the Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on August 26, 2013. Photo: Patrice Vare.

Eliot Spitzer takes pride in his political acumen, but the former Governor of New York, in an interview with The Algemeiner, said he’s been humbled both by the amount of effort required to mount his current city-wide campaign for Comptroller, and the warm reception he has received from voters on the campaign trail.

“It’s been exponentially more intense and exhausting than I expected,” Spitzer said. “I knew there would be a flurry of interest, but I didn’t expect what it’s been. The public has been supportive in a way I honestly couldn’t have expected.”

Among members of the public, Spitzer considers some of his staunchest supporters to be those in the Jewish community, about 50 of whom he met on Monday night, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a private room, at gourmet kosher pizzeria, Basil Pizza & Wine Bar.

“What Spitzer’s appearance here means to me is that Crown Heights matters on the New York political scene, that a man running for office comes here, to Brooklyn, to ask for our vote,” Shlomie Hecht, an event co-host and director of non-profit Released Time, which has been providing Jewish education in public schools since 1941, told The Algemeiner.

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Spitzer, who is Jewish himself, notes that his relationship with the Jewish community is more than just religious affiliation or political accommodation, but one grounded in a history of mutual appreciation.

“These are relationships that are not either new or without a solid foundation. The point I make to Orthodox [Jewish] leaders, in particular, is not based about claims about what I might do, could do, should do or have thought about doing—it’s about what I did,” Spitzer said in the interview.

“The relationship is based upon a more genuine appreciation, that in tough moments, on tough issues, I’ve been there for them. In terms of employment litigation cases, in terms of  individual suits such as when I went up against [hair salon] Jean Louis David. So, time and again, it has been a very real relationship founded on an understanding that my work demonstrates what the law can and should do for communities of faith.”

Though Spitzer admits he’s not as observant as some, he doesn’t skirt the issue of his Jewish heritage, rather embracing it as an integral element of both his public and private persona. At the Crown Heights campaign stop, for example, he was wearing a maroon suede yarmulkah.

“It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my culture, it’s part of my value structure. It has definitely affected me as far as how I am viewed in New York,” he said, adding that for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he”ll probably attend services with his father, real estate developer Bernard and mother Anne.

“They had been going to Temple Emanu-el, in Rye [New York]. It’s a nice little stretch of multi-denominational real estate up there — you have Temple Emanu-el, a Greek orthodox church, there’s a Catholic Church next to that. They had been going there when they were spending more time in Rye, but it’s not clear to me if they’ll be there or in the City where they’ve joined Central Synagogue, just this past year actually.”

The connection extends to his support of Israel, where he has remained a vocal supporter of the Jewish state. In conversation he articulates a considerable awareness of the status of the country’s relationship with both New Yorkers and President Barack Obama’s administration.

“In New York, there’s always [concern with] what’s happening in the Middle East, and the question of how the U.S. dealing with Israel. Some feel that President Obama has not been sufficiently supportive; I am one who actually disagrees with that. I think the President has been a great ally of Israel and has been there steadfastly,” Spitzer said.

“I think the rhetoric has not always been in line with the reality of the positions he’s taken -and there was upset early on, certainly, surrounding the speech where he suggested that there were concessions possible in terms of settlements and boundary lines. But the positions he articulated pretty well—and I remember them pretty well because we talked about them when I was at CNN [Disclosure: Spitzer and I worked together briefly while we were both employed by CNN]—the statements he made then were consistent with what prior presidents said and what prior presidents and prime ministers of Israel have said.”

At the height of his political career, while occupying New York state’s Governor’s office, many in the Jewish community hoped Spitzer would become the first Jewish president of the United States. But now, having endured a sex scandal that left the prospect of a future in politics in doubt, he’s making his comeback, and starting at the local level, albeit, in New York, which is a big stage.

“Comptroller’s position has a lot of upside to it,” Spitzer said. “I think investing in the infrastructure of New York is one thing that can be done. You have a pension fund that should be used to build middle-income housing and the education and transportation infrastructures that make New York what it is. We are what we are because we attract every smart kid in the country and every immigrant in the world.”

Spitzer also pointed to the fact that, as governor, he pushed for public funding to help assist private schools — often, specifically, Jewish yeshivas.

Many in attendance at the campaign event ran non-profits and educational institutions, and were eager to hear any new ideas for increasing funding, from the candidate who has made his financial background part of his platform.

Hecht, of Released Time, helps manage the family-run organization that has had close coordination with elected officials from every party, going back to 1941, when Released Time began providing an hour of Jewish education to Jews in public schools on Wednesdays.

“I think religious education is very important, for us, for the community, for many reasons that every politician should know, and it’s important they hear it from voters,” Hecht said,

In the interview, Spitzer said as Comptroller he would be able to influence public discourse and policy in several areas, notably in how the city manages its pension funds, totaling some $137 billion. Spitzer said he would act more like an “activist investor,” meaning he would raise the city’s voice, as a large shareholder, when management in the companies where it invests forget to act in the best interest of shareholders.

“The capacity of the Comptroller’s Office to affect policy comes from a couple different sources. One—and it sounds sort of crass, but it’s a reality—money is power,” Spitzer said. “The money here is reflected by the pension funds, the control of equity ownership by the capital markets and that is something where I think we need to do a whole lot more as a society than we have in the past. Ownership brings responsibilities, ownership brings the opportunity to change behavior, and we need to use it more effectively and we just haven’t done that very well.”

And, if he does it successfully, he doesn’t dismiss the idea that one day he could appear back on the national stage, finally justifying the grand visions of those keen on seeing a Jew in the White House.

“Nobody thought of the Attorney General of New York as a sort of national player—I think you become a player by doing things that matter that people look at and say are interesting and important. And you know, I’m not going into this saying I want to be a national this or that , I’m going into this saying I want to do a good job. Having said that, if you can build alliances in the capital markets and do things in the capital markets, as New York’s Comptroller, then people will take notice.”

As for questions of whether or not he can do the job, Spitzer said what he learned as attorney general, where he garnered the nickname “Sheriff of Wall Street,” more than prepared him for the job.

In one of his only punches thrown at competing Democratic candidate, Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s Borough President, Spitzer said, “When they asked Stringer at the debate, what’s the first thing he’d do as Comptroller, he said he’d hire a CFO! Now, why vote for someone who has to hire someone else to do his job?”

At the Crown Heights campaign event, where he was introduced by Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, one of the event hosts, former Spitzer law partner Mitchell Shapiro, now managing partner of Shapiro Tamir Law Group, offered his own endorsement of Spitzer’s technical abilities for the city’s top finance job.

“Eliot Spitzer was by far the most intelligent, business savvy and dedicated attorney I have ever had the privilege to work with,” Shapiro said of his old friend.

Additional reporting by Joshua Levitt.

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