Q&A: Eliot Spitzer

Al Jazeera talks to former New York governor Eliot Spitzer about corporate crime, Obama and the Arab Spring.

Spitzer is critical of the Obama administration’s hesitance to deal with high unemployment rates [GALLO/GETTY]

At the turn of the millennium, Eliot Spitzer was one of the most feared names on Wall Street. New York State’s pugnacious attorney general aggressively pursued corporate wrongdoers of financial crimes such as price-fixing, market timing, and stock price inflation.

In 2006, Spitzer was elected governor of New York. As governor, he pushed for stronger anti-corruption measures, legalisation of same-sex marriage, and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants – but faced stiff opposition from a distrustful state congress. Fourteen months later, Spitzer resigned after an investigation found that he had been a client of a prostitution ring.

Since then, Spitzer has hosted a talk show, “In the Arena”, on CNN; writes regular columns for Slate.com; and teaches a political science course at the City College of New York.

Al Jazeera’s Roxanne Horesh and Sam Bollier speak to Eliot Spitzer about his views on Occupy Wall Street, Barack Obama, the Arab Spring – and what he plans on doing next.

Have you gone to Occupy Wall Street yourself?

I have not physically been there. The reason I haven’t gone is partly it hasn’t fit in the schedule, and partly because it is an organic, genuine grassroots event, and people who are either perceived as having been in politics or are perceived as being members of the media are not really the driving force behind it. I certainly plan to go.

Do you think that the ‘Occupy’ protesters should work within Democratic electoral politics to achieve their goals or do you think some kind of more radical approach is needed?

I’m not sure I would say more radical. I would say yes, you work within elective politics. I’m a firm believer that the democratic process is the best mechanism we have to actually change the policies of government.

It is also important to pursue the grassroots organising, which is part of the democratic process. Some of the great social transformations of our nation have been led by such activism. In fact, I would argue that that is exactly how fundamental social transformation begins and is led. It is not by large elective officials in halls of power who of their own volition decide to change society in a dramatic way. Just the opposite.

Obama has consistently called for more regulation of banks since 2008, but his administration has failed to prosecute anyone in connection to the financial crisis. Why do you think that is?

The president embraced a very status quo vision of Wall Street. He did not lead an effort to fundamentally reform the way our financial sector operates. He put Tim Geithner in as Treasury Secretary, and Geithner and [National Economic Council director Lawrence] Summers together were very much status quo voices.

Now when it comes to prosecutions, look, I’ve got to presume the good faith on the part of the Justice Department. But I’m disappointed, as everybody else is. When I was attorney general, we managed to bring cases. Frankly, I wish we’d brought more. People ask me over the years, “Were you too tough on Wall Street?” And my answer is “no, just the opposite”. We should have been tougher. Because look at what has happened and look at the sensibility on Wall Street, which is that gee, things are back to normal.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been prosecuting a lot of insider trading cases, mostly at hedge funds, over the past year. Why are these cases being pursued and not those related to the 2008 crisis?

I don’t have the answer to that question. I don’t want to diminish the insider trading cases they’ve made, but I think everybody should recognise those do not confront the structural problems on Wall Street. I don’t want suggest that there’s a bait-and-switch on the part of the SEC, that they’re really intentionally distracting us, but those cases do not go to the heart of the problem. 

In a Slate.com column, you mentioned the importance of investing in young Americans. What do you see as the best way for the current administration to invest in the young?

One is increased investment in education. Intellectual capital is going to be the competitive playing field of the next century. We also need to invest in the infrastructure of our economy. We need a massive investment in energy to release ourselves both from the environmental concerns of global warming, but also from, frankly, the trade deficit that results from our exporting huge amounts of dollars overseas.

I would also support a major jobs programme. If you take the $100bn we’re spending in Afghanistan and divide it by $20,000 a year that you could pay people, you could hire 5 million people.

Do you think that such a bill would have a chance passing congress as it is comprised today?

Absolutely none at all, but the role of the president is to set the terms of debate. And part of the problem with President Obama is that he has been so muted and hesitant in his willingness to confront these major issues. He hasn’t even come out with a serious mortgage reform proposal. We haven’t dealt with the mortgage crisis and we haven’t dealt with the jobs crisis. Those are the two major impediments holding back our economy.

Would you vote for Obama in 2012?

Absolutely. Because as disappointed as many people are that we haven’t done enough, you couldn’t stand President Obama next to a Rick Perry, a Michelle Bachmann, or Mitt Romney. There is no contest.

In 2006 you were elected as governor with an overwhelming majority of the vote. But for much of your term you had pretty low approval ratings. In terms of your policies and political style, what mistakes do you think you made?

I’ve avoided answering that question. Not because I haven’t thought about it, obviously, but I’ll say this: What we did, and I’ve looked back carefully, at a policy level, I very much believe in. They were bruising battles. That is the nature of reform when you stand up, whether it’s against Wall Street or against any other entities. It breeds some tough battles, but so be it. Obviously there are some tactical decisions I would rethink, but I’ll save that for the book I may or may not ever write.

The media has spent a lot of time tearing apart the Spitzer brand. What is the Spitzer brand to you?

There are several strands of progressive thought that I really thought needed to be articulated again in American politics. One of them goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, which is a sense of how the economy should function, with genuine competition and honest understanding of what equal opportunity means.

Second is Al Smith, another great governor of New York, who stood for the principle that everybody should have access to it, to those opportunities. [He] really stood for the proposition that we’re all immigrants here, and that everybody needed to be afforded the chance to participate in the economy. And then also Alexander Hamilton, who understood the subtle dynamic and involvement of government in building the foundation pieces of an economy.

Their thinking doesn’t apply directly to the issues of today’s world, but I think if you take certain of their overarching principles, that is what I was hoping government could become once again.

In one of your Slate columns, you wrote that the Arab Spring is a good thing for America. But according to polling data, approval of the US remains very low across the Middle East. What are your thoughts on this?

I wish the United States were viewed with greater respect and admiration across the world at large, especially in regions that are going through what appear to me to be, at one level, democratic revolutions where the values being embraced are very much the values that we believe in.

It doesn’t overcome the fact that many who were involved in leading these revolutions view us as having been allied with leaders who were dictatorial and repressive. I don’t expect there to be an overnight reversal of some of the imagery. On the other hand, I think in Libya there is great appreciation for what we have done.

I obviously disagree with the tenor and substance of many of the laws that have been passed in Alabama, Arizona, and elsewhere. I think they’re unfortunate enactments.

[But] states have to deal with the reality of having people on the ground. We have to deal with the reality of keeping our streets safe and providing a standard of living and educating kids. How do we do it?

One of the steps that I thought it makes sense to institute was to go back to a policy that [former Florida governor] Jeb Bush had supported at one point, [and] that Utah had put in place. Numerous states had done this: letting folks get a driver’s license if they could prove they could drive. That way they could participate in the economy, they could get insurance, and it made things safer. Law enforcement supported it. I still think it was the right policy. It didn’t have enough political support to make it through.

What are your plans for the near future now that your stint at CNN is over?

Well look, I’m having loads of fun. I teach, I do some writing, I’m here with family business, I get to spend weekends in a more relaxed way. So I’m not complaining.

So you wouldn’t reconsider entering politics?

I didn’t quite say that. I said right now I’m happy.

And would you reconsider entering politics?

I didn’t quite answer that question either.

I’m asking that question.

Well, I don’t know. Life is long, but right now I’m happy, enjoying what I’m doing, and there are many different ways to participate, to contribute. Politics isn’t the only one, obviously. And I could even argue to you that maybe it’s not the most valuable.

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