Political redemption in the Big Apple: It's up to you, New York

Ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer joins ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner in apology tours asking New York voters for another shot at public trust, after sex scandals knocked them out of office.

Seth Wenig/AP
Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer walks through Union Square while he tries to collect signatures for his run for New York City comptroller on Monday. Mr. Spitzer, who stepped down in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal, says he is planning a political comeback.
Mark Lennihan/AP
New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner (c.) meets with John Keoshgerian (r.), owner of Zen Bikes, in New York on Monday. Mr. Weiner, who resigned his congressional seat after a sexting scandal, is supporting a tax break for employers who encourage their employees to bike to work.

How much forgiveness-asking can one city’s voting populace endure? Should New York be renamed Redemptionville?

Not just yet.

Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former Democratic congressman turned Big Apple mayoral candidate, is now thematically joined in his unceasing apology tour by disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), who launched a petition drive this week to be city comptroller (the top financial officer).

Just two years after a sexting scandal forced him to resign his House seat, Mr. Weiner is hoping he’s logged enough time in the wilderness to re-earn his wife’s favor, make personal peace with his foibles, and, well, deserve the city’s top job. Mr. Spitzer, the one-time anti-Wall Street crusader felled by his dalliances with a prostitute, has spent the past five years gabbing on an ill-fated CNN talk show and writing op-eds. He seems to believe that he’s paid his penance and that New York needs his services, as well.

If Spitzer collects enough signatures by Thursday, he and Weiner will be on the primary ballot in September.

The talking heads are hashing out the differences between the two men, as if the distance between their deeds – Weiner used bad judgment but didn’t do anything illegal, Spitzer crossed the line, they suggest – provides insight about their fitness again to hold elected office. Why isn’t the chattering class instead evaluating if either man has spent his limited time on the periphery of the limelight doing any kind of work that reflects real character restoration or sincere public service?

Well, because it seems that the mere casting of ballots in their favor would be sign enough of both. Political rebirth as evidence of a new lease on life. If the public says you’re OK, you’re OK. In America today, it would appear that many of us don’t much care whether our public officials have the deepest character, the sturdiest morals. Only that they win – or that they know how to negotiate their apologies deftly enough to communicate that they’re still winners.

Most recently, Weiner and Spitzer have former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) to thank for that. Cheating on his wife, lying about his whereabouts while doing said cheating, and embarking on an international tryst instead of running the state were not disqualifiers for voters there; they sent him to Congress in a special election this spring. Once, Sanford had national aspirations: How long before his name is added to the long list of Republicans likely to seek the party’s 2016 presidential nomination?

So, too, should the two New Yorkers tip their hats to former President Bill Clinton (survivor of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and related impeachment proceedings) and Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican whose telephone number was found in a D.C. madam’s book and who later apologized for a “serious sin.”

Should his wife make another White House bid, Mr. Clinton could be a future first spouse. Their marriage endures, and, through his family’s foundation, he is an international philanthropic superstar. And Senator Vitter never stepped down: He was elected to a second term in 2010.

New York is just the current epicenter of the reality television world takeover of American politics. Weiner and Spitzer are not rewriting history. They’re just providing a rare ballot twofer. And the tabloids are jubilant! Spitzer’s announcement this week brought headline writers a new raison d'être.

The cover of the New York Daily News barked, "What the El!"

The New York Post: "Here we ho again!"

The Daily News chimed in with, "Lust For Power.”

While Weiner has seen his star rise anew – recent polls suggest he has catapulted to the front of the pack of Democratic mayoral hopefuls – New York residents seem divided about Spitzer.

"Too soon,'' Julia Mair, a documentary scriptwriter, told USA Today, as she walked past the media horde gathered Monday near Spitzer. "All these guys, they lie and they lie and they lie, and then they think we should trust them and give them another chance. Why should we think they're going to do anything different?''

Spitzer, for his part, is taking the forgiveness banner and running with it – from network to cable, street corner to street corner.

“There is forgiveness in the public, whether that forgiveness will extend to any individual is always a separate and independent question,” Spitzer said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning." “And I will have to make a case very different than any other person has made. I expect I will make it every day between now and the election, and I look forward to making it.”

On MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," Spitzer took the forgiveness-seeking one step further, stepping into rare – real? – emotional territory when asked personally how he’s different from who he was five or six years ago.

“A lot of pain, a lot of pain,” he said, his eyes filling with tears, his chin beginning to tremble. “You go through that pain, you change.”

Ultimately, though, the voters will decide. "I'm sorry" will get Weiner and Spitzer only so far. And maybe in addition to assessing their merits, their qualifications for the offices they seek, and their character, New Yorkers will be faced with another soul-searching question: Does forgiveness allow for ticket splitting?

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