New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), who earned a national reputation fighting white-collar crime, Wednesday (March 12) became the 22nd governor in U.S. history to leave office early under a cloud of scandal.
He is the 12 th governor to resign in the face of political or legal problems; 10 others tainted by scandal were removed from office before the end of their terms after being impeached or legally removed.
Spitzer's departure is effective Monday (March 17), a week after it was disclosed that a federal investigation caught him hiring high-priced prostitutes. The disclosure sent a shock wave not just through the state capitol in Albany but also through the national Democratic Party, where Spitzer was seen as a rising star. He has been a strong ally of Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
"I cannot allow my private failings to disrupt the people's work," Spitzer said as announced his resignation.
Spitzer's resignation only 15 months into his term comes at a crucial time. It forces his successor - Lt. Gov. David Paterson (D) - to immediately wrestle with how to close a $4.4 billion deficit in the budget plan due April 1, although New York is notorious for missing its budget deadlines.
Spitzer initiatives left in limbo include his cutting-edge proposal to lease the state lottery to private investors and his defiant push to use state money to cover 70,000 more children through the state's Children's Health Insurance Program after the Bush administration said they were ineligible because their families earned too much.
His absence from the political scene also rattles his party's dream of taking control of the state Senate in November for the first time in more than 40 years. Democrats are short just one seat in the Senate; they already control the state Assembly.
Unlike Spitzer, at least six governors in recent history have ridden out the political storm over sexual scandals, such as extramarital affairs, and finished their terms. Spitzer becomes the second to leave office early because of his sexual behavior, following New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (D), who stunningly announced in August 2004 that he is gay and said he had an affair with another man - the state's former homeland security advisor. McGreevey stepped down that November.
The 10 other governors who quit office early because of scandals faced criminal charges or the threat of impeachment. It was still unclear whether Spitzer could face legal charges as part of the federal investigation, which was probing his cash transfers to the escort business, according to news sources. Republicans in the Legislature already were threatening impeachment if he didn't step aside.
The lieutenant governor, Paterson, also will make history by becoming New York's first African-American governor and the nation's fourth black governor. The first was Louisiana Gov. Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (R), who succeeded to the post in December 1872, while Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D) was elected in 1989 and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) was elected in 2006.
Paterson also will be the first blind U.S. governor, said John Paré, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. Blind since birth, Paterson is the son of Basil Paterson, the state's first black secretary of state and black vice-chairman of the National Democratic Party. David Paterson was previously the state Senate minority leader and worked as a prosecutor before going into politics.
In assuming Spitzer's term, which expires in 2011, Paterson joins an elite club of lieutenant governors to ascend unexpectedly to higher office and who have gone on to success in the wake of their predecessors' failures. Former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for example, served out the final two years of Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker's term after his conviction in 1996 for two felony charges relating to the Whitewater investigation into real-estate deals by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Huckabee then was re-elected to two additional full terms.
Spitzer's fall from grace puts an abrupt end to a meteoric political career as a crusader against corruption. As attorney general, from 1999 to 2007, he made a national name for himself cracking down on unethical business practices on Wall Street.
In 2006, Spitzer routed Republican John Faso to replace New York Gov. George Pataki (R) and become the first Democrat in the governor's mansion in 12 years. His was one of four governors' seats that Democrats reclaimed from the GOP in 2006, giving the party control of a majority of governors' mansions for the first time since 1994.
In office, Spitzer promised to fix what many have described as the chronic dysfunction of divided government in Albany. Critics, however, charge Spitzer perpetuated that dysfunction by being heavy-handed with political opponents: He initiated an investigation into Senate President Pro Tem Joseph L. Bruno's (R) use of state helicopters and police cars and famously told Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R) that he would "roll over you and anyone else," according to the New York Post.
Now his absence will jeopardize his political reform efforts as well as more immediate measures to close the looming budget deficit, including a $1 billion package of tax and fee hikes, a plan to rake in as much as $250 million by expanding video slots at the famed Belmont Park racetrack and a proposal to lease the state lottery to raise a $4 billion endowment for higher education.
The governor also had laid out plans this year to establish a $1 billion fund to create jobs in upstate New York and a "Doctors Across New York" program to provide grants to physicians willing to move to the state's inner cities and rural areas.
"This is traumatizing and already challenging the [state] government's ability to function effectively," said political scientist Gerald Benjamin at the State University of New York New Paltz.
Under the New York Constitution, the office of lieutenant governor will remain vacant until the 2010 gubernatorial election. One big irony of Spitzer's resignation is that Paterson no longer will cast the deciding vote in the narrowly divided Senate. Instead, Spitzer's legislative arch-enemy, Republican Senate President Bruno, not only will run the Senate but also serve as acting governor if Paterson cannot serve or resigns.
Paterson's succession also makes the math more difficult for Democrats to take control of the state Senate in November. Instead of winning just one more seat to be able to outnumber Republicans in the 62-seat chamber, Democrats will have to win two. Without a lieutenant governor to cast a tie-breaking vote, Democrats - now at 30 seats - will need 32, not 31 for a majority of votes.
Political scientist Ken Sherrill at Hunter College said Spitzer had helped Statehouse candidates with his prodigious fundraising. "This entire episode will make it much more difficult [for Democrats] to pick up seats," he said.