By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - Gov. Eliot Spitzer on March 10, 2008, essentially had 48 hours to decide what to do after it was revealed he had solicited a prostitute.
He could have dug in, as advisers and his wife reportedly suggested. Or he could have resigned. He chose the latter.
On the five-year anniversary of likely the biggest political downfall in New York history, Spitzer said he still believes his resignation was the right decision.
"I said it then, I've said it since. The decision was the right one, in terms of what I felt was best for the state, for me," Spitzer said in a telephone interview Thursday with Gannett's Albany Bureau. "I just don't look back at it."
Spitzer resigned on March 12, 2008, 13 months after taking office as one of the most popular governors in New York history.
The former Democratic governor said he doesn't think about what could have been, yet said, "I look back and obviously wish I'd had the opportunity over the past five years to continue service in government."
If the prostitution scandal didn't happen, Spitzer may well have been close to ending his second term instead of Andrew Cuomo finishing his first.
"As tempting as it might be to think that way, it's not productive," Spitzer said. "It doesn't mean the mind doesn't wander sometimes. I try to focus not on would've, could've, should've, although one does that to reflect and try to learn. But it's more useful to look forward and figure out what next and how do you contribute and how do you do something useful."
After battling with the Legislature in his first year, Spitzer's political capital had largely dried up even before the prostitution scandal broke.
His successor, then-Lt. Gov. David Paterson, said he has struggled with whether Spitzer could have survived the scandal. But Paterson acknowledged it would have been difficult: The Legislature was already calling on him to resign when the news broke, with some threatening impeachment.
"I don't know that I ever felt that it was necessary for him to resign," Paterson said in a separate interview with Gannett. "You know, rehab, counseling, whatever. I thought that it was a story that got bigger than it needed to be."
It was unclear, though, where a federal investigation into Spitzer's past was headed. He was never charged criminally for soliciting a prostitute, and his critics said he was let off easy because he resigned. And it turned out that Spitzer's liaisons were not a one-time thing.
Paterson said if the scandal broke a year earlier or a year later, Spitzer might have been able to stay in office.
"I don't know if he could have at that time because at the time he had not totally repaired the fights he'd had with the Legislature," Paterson said.
Spitzer, 53, has sought to repair his public image. He hosted shows on CNN and Current TV, and both were unsuccessful. He writes political and financial columns, appears as a pundit on the cable news station NY1, teaches and helps run his family's real-estate business in Manhattan.
"It has been a fascinating five years, one full of some regrets, needless to say, but nonetheless one that has been rewarding in a different way," he said.
His name has come up as a possible candidate for statewide office again, particularly state comptroller.
Spitzer dismisses that he's eying any particular seat or even a political return. He calls current Democratic Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli "a good friend, and I talk with him frequently."
Spitzer's first fight with the Legislature in early 2007 was over DiNapoli's appointment as comptroller after Alan Hevesi resigned in a corruption scandal. Spitzer said his issue was never with DiNapoli; Assembly members reneged on a selection process and choose DiNapoli, one of their colleagues.
"When he was chosen, I was upset at the process that the Legislature used because it violated what was a pretty clear agreement about what they would do," Spitzer said.
Spitzer expressed interest in the role a comptroller can play in corporate governance, saying he has an "intellectual fascination with the position."
In New York, the comptroller is the sole trustee of the nation's third largest pension fund, worth more than $150 billion.
He said the position's power is not unlike when he served for eight years as attorney general. He was nicknamed the "Sheriff of Wall Street" for seeking to root out corruption in the financial services industry, gaining him national attention and an easy trip to the governor's mansion in 2006.
"Ownership trumps regulation as a way to change the way corporations behave," Spitzer explained.
He said that, "only wise judgment can lead you to the right choices, and wise judgment is a consequence of pressure from ownership. And ownership is controlled by shareholders. Shareholders are the comptrollers, those who control the pension funds, the mutual funds."
Spitzer refrained from critiquing the job Cuomo has done. The two have had an icy relationship, particularly after Cuomo released a damning report as attorney general in 2007 on his administration's attempt to politically damage then-Senate Republican Leader Joseph Bruno.
Spitzer said the upstate economy must be a focus, saying cities can't be allowed to go bankrupt. He doesn't support Cuomo's plan to let local governments smooth out their pension costs over 25 years, which critics have said would be risky.
"I, like many others, am not a fan of what Andrew has proposed in that regard," Spitzer said. "I don't think that is an answer that really works."
He said, "The answer long time is we do need smart pension reform, and we also need revenue streams that are dedicated to permitting the urban centers to deal with their costs."
So will Spitzer get back into politics?
"I think if you ask anybody who's been in elective office, there is always a desire to get back into an arena that is fascinating, rewarding, full of excitement and tension," Spitzer said. "It's somewhat like athletes: rarely do they know exactly when it's best to leave."
He continued: "It doesn't mean you succumb to that temptation. It doesn't mean that you do get back in."
And he finished the thought with: "It doesn't necessarily mean that you don't do it either."