By Jennifer Peltz
Eliot Spitzer and Democratic rival Scott Stringer traded darts about integrity and independence Friday in their first debate in the city comptroller campaign, with Spitzer saying his opponent had accomplished little in 20 years in politics while Stringer suggested the scandal-tarnished ex-governor belongs more in jail than in office.
Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, and Spitzer, who resigned as governor amid a prostitution scandal in 2008, have been immersed in a testy campaign since Spitzer unexpectedly launched his run last month.
And if voters were waiting for fireworks, they didn't have to wait long. Just about five minutes.
Noting that Spitzer has admitted patronizing call girls while he was in office but was never charged with any crime — although federal prosecutors were investigating an escort service Spitzer used — Stringer characterized the ex-governor as an arrogant member of an elite that can "escape prostitution" and prosecution.
While Spitzer has argued that he held himself accountable by resigning, Stringer said Spitzer "didn't take responsibility; he abated it."
"He still doesn't understand that you don't get promoted to another job because you failed, by his admission, in the jobs he had before. I think this office requires trust," Stringer said.
"I've made mistakes, but I've made a difference," Spitzer shot back, championing the no-holds-barred stance on investigating big financial firms that earned him the moniker "sheriff of Wall Street" as attorney general, before he became governor.
"What indelible mark have you left on policy?" he asked Stringer, dismissing him as an establishment politician wont to "go along and get along."
Stringer said he hadn't shied from ruffling political feathers, noting that he led a state Assembly committee that investigates whether state agencies are effective. He also pointed to his financial experience as a trustee of one of the city pension funds the comptroller invests.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 10. The winner can expect to face Republican and other candidates in November.
Stringer had been a heavy favorite in the race before Spitzer upended it. He's betting that voters will look past the prostitution scandal and focus on his dealings with Wall Street and his vigorous, if often combative, 14 months in office.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released Wednesday found Spitzer leading Stringer, 44 percent to 35 percent. The poll surveyed 505 registered Democrats and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Stringer, an assemblyman for 12 years and borough president for eight, portrayed himself in the debate as a veteran official who knows how and when to collaborate. He would be a steady-handed "steward" of the city's more than $130 billion pension funds and other matters in the comptroller's purview, he said.
"This is a job that requires conciliation, but also independence. I've demonstrated both," he said.
Spitzer, on the other hand, stressed his theme of being unafraid to "break some eggs" in the name of the public interest.
"Independence, integrity, standing up — those are the critical issues that an auditor and a comptroller should have. Those are the skill sets I have," he said.
Their debate at WABC-TV was streamed live on the station's website and will be broadcast at 11 a.m. Sunday. Debate sponsors also include Noticias 41 Univision, the Daily News and the League of Women Voters.