Eliot Spitzer, the crusading New York attorney general, has made it official: He wants to be governor. His entrance into the race guarantees that New York will remain in the nation's political spotlight, even if the election is two years off.
Called everything from a contemporary Teddy Roosevelt populist to an overreaching Wyatt Earp vigilante, Mr. Spitzer has transformed the Wall Street and the nation's financial markets by taking on corrupt mutual fund managers, bid-rigging in the insurance industry, and excessive corporate compensation.
Now he's taking aim at New York State and its notoriously dysfunctional political culture. That could give the scion of a New York real estate fortune and "people's lawyer" an even larger perch from which to pursue his reform agenda.
"The state is at a point of crisis," he told the Associated Press on Tuesday, confirming for the first time that he will definitely run. "We are bleeding jobs. We need reform in the process of government."
Over the next two years, many of the nation's most competitive and dynamic races will be for governors' seats. In 2005, both New Jersey and Virginia will also feature marquee races, with several big names - like New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine - already putting their hats in the ring.
In 2006, 36 governorships - including New York, California, Michigan, Texas, Illinois, and Florida - will be up for grabs.
Making these races more attractive to many candidates is the fact that, in recent decades, governorships have become clear steppingstones to the presidency. Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia, won the White House, only one man - George H. W. Bush - has become president without serving as governor first.
"People have soured considerably on Washington insiders," says Thad Beyle, an expert on governors' races at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While Spitzer's election two years from now is far from assured, he's almost guaranteed to be the Democratic nominee, because New York Sen. Charles Schumer has recently made it clear he has no interest in the job. And since former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has also indicated that his interests lie elsewhere, Spitzer is expected to be the favorite to win by a long shot.
He is in many ways a campaign manager's dream. The Democrat has lots of money, both in his campaign chest and of his own. He's got a solid track record and high name recognition. In a recent Zogby International poll, he beat sitting Gov. George Pataki, 44 to 41 points.
"Ironically, Eliot Spitzer is the only first-term attorney general [about whom] I've been asked if he's got presidential ambitions," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Poll in New York. "Being governor is a much better launching pad than AG, but first things first."
Spitzer's challenges, if elected, would be daunting. Albany is a far different culture from Wall Street. And Spitzer's already high profile will raise expectations that may be more difficult for the Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate to meet.
"If he could do so much to humble giant corporations, he'll be expected to do as much with the legislature, which will be far more recalcitrant," says Fred Siegel, a professor of political history at Cooper Union in New York City.
There's nothing simple about taking on Albany's entrenched political culture. It's been twenty years since the governor and the legislature have been able to pass a budget on time, and arcane rules have given most of the legislature's powers to its leaders. Indeed, the joke is that "three men in a tub" determine the state's future: Senate leader Joseph Bruno, Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, and Governor Pataki - men who ultimately cut the deals that keep the state running and, from the critics' point of view, keep the state deficits growing.
"Could Spitzer change that?" asks Maurice Carroll, a political analyst with Quinnipiac University Polling Center. "To be identified as the guy who goes after Wall Street crooks is a great thing to be politically. But will it translate in Albany? I don't know."
• Liz Marlantes in Washington contributed to this story.