Five Minutes With
Name the last three attorneys general in your state. Can’t do it? Not surprising. Attorneys general rarely make much of a splash. Unless you happen to be Eliot Spitzer. In 1999, Spitzer left the world of corporate law behind to become New York State’s attorney general and a full-time crusader. In a few years, he has scored a number of critical progressive victories, most notably by taking on Wall Street – an area where many New York elected officials had previously feared to tread.
In the wake of a collapsing economy, the spectacular crash of firms like Enron, and a financial services industry that seemed to have left its ethics somewhere back in the ‘90s, Spitzer has become quite a powerful man. When he accuses financial institutions of misdeeds, you can expect to see their stock take a major nose dive. But his approach is not about punishment but about structural change to protect consumers and investors. In a landmark 2002 settlement, Spitzer got ten of the most important Wall Street firms to pony up over a billion dollars in fines and clean up their practices. For his work, TIME Magazine named Spitzer their "Crusader of the Year" in 2002 – the same year that he was reelected by the largest margin of any statewide candidate.
In addition to his headline grabbing work on Wall Street, Spitzer has emerged as a true environmental champion. He initiated a number of pivotal environmental lawsuits against polluting Midwestern power plants, the EPA and even against the Bush administration for its attempts at weakening the Clean Air Act. Now Spitzer is gearing up for yet another challenge – the 2006 New York State gubernatorial race.
Campus Progress sat down with Eliot Spitzer to discuss Tom DeLay, fisticuffs, public service and the revolving door problem.
CP: You’ve talked before about fighting for the rights of workers as a key component of public service. What can young people do to help this cause and to work towards change?
ES: I have been viewing this issue through the prism of a lawyer for the past couple of years. That has a unique set of ways to get involved. We’ve done it through pure litigation – bringing lawsuits on behalf of low-wage workers who aren’t even paid minimum wage. That is the lawyering way to get involved. Which may not be directly applicable to someone is twenty-five who is working at a company. When you’re a college graduate, if you’re skilled, you’re probably being paid nicely because we have this bifurcated economy. Bring the issue into the context where you’re working. If you see the company not paying the lowest wage workers even a minimum wage, do something about it.
Don’t be passive. Our overarching obligation is to not passively watch as we see rights being violated. Stand up and be heard. One of the failures that we all fell into in the past ten years is that some of us did very well and stood by while others did not do well. Bring to the job place an obligation, our value to stand up for those who aren’t doing well. That is what it amounts to.
CP: Speaking of values, there was yet another story in the newspaper today about Tom DeLay and Roy Blunt. How do you respond to these stories? Do we need more laws and rules or is this a problem of electing people without scruples?
ES: To a certain extent we need laws and rules. There are certain gaps that have permitted them to act in particular ways. They have been very smart in understanding where they could move money in a way that was not technically violative of the law but certainly violates our sense of propriety. So, yes, you need laws to fill those gaps. Having said that, what I think you’re really talking about is values. What you’re really talking about is electing people who understand the spirit of the law, who understand what it means to live in the context of being a civil servant. Or, to use a colloquial phrase, are you electing people who just don't "get it"?
CP: You very successfully used the threat of business losses to compel changes in practices by a lot of big New York corporations. That is a model that, to some extent, students have used on their own campuses to compel change around issues like sweatshop-produced clothing. Do you think this is the most effective model? What can students learn from your tremendous successes?
ES: Facts drive negotiation more than anything else. What I’ve found is that in our case, we have been able to move companies toward resolution because they were confronted by the stark reality of the facts. Pressure without factual underpinning won’t work. When I was in college the big issue like this was divesting from companies doing business in South Africa, which was then under the rule of the apartheid. Here, gather the facts and tell the company their numbers in context, whether they are paying 10 cents or 30 cents an hour or whatever the number may be in Malaysia. Argue that it is simply not fair or equitable and is beneath the standards that you can agree to abide by. Mobilize the students around the facts. Then use the pressure of publicity – publicity undergirded by the fact that you have an argument that you can actually substantiate.
CP: You live within the community that you are often prosecuting. You went to Princeton, you worked in corporate law. Now that you are keeping corporate America on the run, does it make living in that world feel antagonistic? What are the advantages or disadvantages of that dichotomy?
ES: There are some individuals – friends of mine, former friends of mine, friends and former friends of my parents who disagree with what we’ve done, obviously. Ninety-nine percent of the time those disagreements can remain intellectual agreements without affecting day to day interactions. There are some occasions where people have turned away, but so be it. The real upside, to a certain extent, of knowing that world is that I do understand it a bit better than some other prosecutors. Therefore, I can appreciate some of what has gone on and negotiate slightly differently because of that understanding.
CP: So there haven’t been any fisticuffs at Princeton reunions?
ES: Certainly no fisticuffs yet. Occasionally people say to me, ‘Gee, aren’t you worried about your security?’ The reality is, I’ve done all sorts of prosecution, regular street crime to organized crime to these kinds of cases and I’ve been fine. That’s movie stuff that just doesn’t happen.
CP: The problematic relationships that you were dealing with in New York between research and investment banking services seems similar to the sometimes overly cozy relationships you see in Washington between people who are representing entities that they might later be regulating or vice versa. This seems particularly relevant to the kinds of environmental issues you have been working on. How can we best navigate those Washington relationships if we want true environmental protection to be a real priority?
ES: The revolving door problem here in Washington, or in any state capitol or regulatory agency, is very real. You have to create buffers so that people don’t sit at a desk saying, ‘Gee, if I do this I might jeopardize a potential job down the road.’ That buffer ordinarily takes the form of a prohibition against being hired by a company whom you have regulated. There are possible ways to resolve it. But there are no perfect ways to resolve that problem because you can’t say that once you have been in government that you can’t go back to the private sector. All of this is fraught with compromise and you just hope that you can articulate a rule that is reasonable enough and that people will act properly. There will always be violations. That is why the issue of agency capture [when an agency becomes overly identified with and overly responsive to the companies it regulates] is something that is part and parcel of our understanding of how agencies act and don’t act.
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