Eliot Spitzer and the John Liu model of running for comptroller

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Spitzer and Liu. (Azi Paybarah via flickr and flickr)
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Whether Anthony Weiner's run for mayor actually helped inspire Eliot Spitzer's attempt to run for comptroller, it's actually another would-be mayor whose candidacy might be most instructive in terms of the opening Spitzer sees for himself: John Liu.

Liu, the city comptroller and a current candidate for mayor, has told reporters that both Weiner's and Spitzer's candidacies ought to be offensive to women. But the fact that he is in a position at all to speak about other candidates' prospects is a testament to his resiliency, and to the possibility of outlasting or even capitalizing on scandals that looked at the time like potential career-enders.

Liu's fund-raising was under federal investigation in the run-up to this year's mayor's race, and his former campaign treasurer and one donor were convicted by federal prosecutors of using "straw donors" to skirt campaign donation limits.

The question for a while seemed to be whether Liu would even make it to the end of his term as comptroller—I asked City Council speaker and Democratic mayoral candidate Christine Quinn if she thought Liu could perform the duties of current office, given the scandal, and she declined to answer.

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Another person who dismissed Liu early on: Eliot Spitzer.

Speaking on NY1 in November, Spitzer conspicuously ignored Liu in his assessment of the Democratic mayoral candidates at the time. When asked by on-air colleague former senator Al D'Amato if he thought Liu was "going to drop out," Spitzer said, "I guess I'm making a presumption. I don't know if he's—who knows. I don't know. I know nothing about this" and "What are his numbers now? He's not polling a big number."

Today, nobody questions Liu's presence in the mayor's race.

This isn't the first time Liu has defied conventional wisdom about what constitutes a crippling controversy. In 2009, when he was running for comptroller, Liu suffered a 

major blow to his credibility when the Daily News ran a front-page story challenging Liu's account of his family's biography, particularly a claim that he and his mother had worked in a sweatshop.

Liu's mother said it wasn't true. Liu himself said the story was accurate and that his mother was just covering up embarrassing episode in the family's history.

The next day, the New York Times endorsed Liu's opponent, David Yassky.

Liu made it into a runoff with Yassky, and won the head-to-head match-up. 

After the election, Liu's campaign aides said the sweatshop story helped boost the candidate's profile and didn't cost him a single vote.

"We went door to door as soon as that story broke," Liu's co-campaign manager, Chung Seto said.

"Damn right," said Kevin Wardally, the campaign's other co-manager.

Seto said, "in communities of color" that "not a single person or voter said 'I don't believe John. This is not someone that I would vote for. Lost my vote.' Not a single one."

Ryan Toohey, an aide who worked on the comptroller campaign of another Liu rival, Melinda Katz', said that for Liu, being "on the wood of the Daily News, all the coverage it did … in my opinion, may have actually been a net positive."

At the moment, Spitzer's problems look almost insurmountable.

He still needs to collect almost 4,000 signatures, by Thursday, to get onto the ballot.

He faces widespread editorial opprobrium for his run (including, today, a mocking cover in the Daily News), and near-universal establishment opposition, as Democratic Party forces rally behind the until-recently-presumptive comptroller candidate, Scott Stringer. 

Stringer, for his part, is touting that support, in an effort to convince the public, and perhaps Spitzer, that the candidacy is a really bad idea. 

The question, maybe, is whether it's any worse an idea than John Liu's was.