The Closing: Eliot Spitzer

The real estate scion and one-time governor on clashing with financial titans, second chances and helming the real estate empire his dad built

Jan.January 01, 2019 10:00 AM

Eliot Spitzer (Photography by Studio Scrivo)

Eliot Spitzer needs little introduction. Most know him as the New York governor who resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal in 2008. But the 59-year-old — who has reinvented himself several times over — now runs the real estate firm his late father, Bernard, founded in the 1950s. Spitzer got his start in the public sector as a young lawyer in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office, where he prosecuted mob cases in the early 1990s. He was elected state attorney general in 1998 and soon earned a national reputation as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” as he went head to head with bigwigs like AIG’s Hank Greenberg, the New York Stock Exchange’s Richard Grasso and billionaire Ken Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot who said he hopes Spitzer’s “private hell is hotter than anybody else’s.” Spitzer became governor in 2007, and some speculated that he would eventually run for president. But his meteoric rise in politics was cut short in March 2008, when news broke that he had patronized a high-priced prostitution ring (his FBI code name was “Client No. 9”). Spitzer abruptly resigned from office two days later amid a scandal that became a tabloid sensation. He attempted a political comeback in 2013 with a failed run for New York City comptroller. Spitzer and his wife, Silda, divorced soon after, and as part of a $7.5 million settlement have agreed not to make any public statements about each other. The following year, he went to work for his father’s company, Spitzer Engineering, which he rebranded Spitzer Enterprises. The firm built iconic properties such as 200 Central Park South and 800 Fifth Avenue — the luxury apartment tower overlooking Central Park that Spitzer now calls home. In 2014 and 2015, he sold two properties his father had accumulated and got started on two projects of his own: a three-tower, 857-unit rental development on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn and a mixed-use project with Related Companies in Hudson Yards, which will have 1.4 million square feet of residential and office space. Spitzer Enterprises has about 15 employees and roughly 5 million square feet of assets, including projects under development.

DOB: June 10, 1959   
Lives in: Upper East Side    
Hometown: Riverdale, The Bronx   
Family: Divorced, with three daughters: Elyssa, Sarabeth and Jenna

What have you learned about second chances and redemption in the years since you resigned as governor? People are, by and large, forgiving. There are people who are affirmative, who understand there are flaws and failures, and opportunities to come back. That is one of the wonderful things about human nature.

Given the political scandals playing out in Washington now, do you think you were treated fairly when you resigned? I did then what I deeply believed was right for my family, for the state. I continue to believe that. Looking back and trying to reevaluate is one of those efforts that doesn’t lead to anything terribly useful for me, so I’ve never done that.

You’ve held a lot of different titles: AG, governor, real estate mogul. Which of those jobs has given you the most satisfaction? The jobs in the public sector. The eight years as attorney general were magical. The environmental cases we brought — we brought the first clean air cases to address the issue of coal emissions. The stop-and-frisk report we did in ’99. The labor cases. The agenda we had when I was governor. We were doing things that, I think, defined the way government can contribute to growing a vibrant economy.

Do you feel frustrated now that you’re sidelined, talking about the issues instead of working on them? I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t have wanted to serve at least one or two terms as governor. I had my chance; that’s obviously the case. Having said that, life is a series of chapters.

If you hadn’t resigned, where do you think or wish you would be now? I can’t even answer that. All you can do is look forward. The “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” I suppose, is a part of life. I give myself 30 seconds every morning to ask “What if?” but that’s it.

Was your father relieved when you joined the business five years ago? We both enjoyed the couple years that we had when we were both here. I think he would have preferred to see me in government for a couple more years, but it played out as it did.

Your father died in 2014. How have you coped with his death? I was very close with my dad. The last number of years, he was in significant decline because he had Parkinson’s. It was not a sudden or surprising end, which gave all of us time to see what was happening, to get ready for it.

There was a New York Post story a few years back that he left more in his will to you than your brother and sister. Is that true, and did it create tension in your family? That characterization was wrong. My brother and my sister and I were dealt with identically. They are, to this day, my equal partners along with my mom. And the beauty of the family business is that it truly is a family business.

What did you learn about real estate from watching your dad when you were a kid? Patience and selectivity. There are others whom I admire. Look at Lenny Litwin, who was a great builder. He built thousands and thousands of units for the city. He deserves a lot of credit that he probably won’t get from people in the city. It’s not fashionable these days to say good things about people who built housing, which is too bad. My dad would build one building every four or five years. That was a different approach; he was patient.

Litwin contributed a lot of money to politicians. What do you think about the role of real estate and politics? I’ve been on both sides of that, obviously. [The LLC loophole] should have been closed years ago when I was governor, and we actually had a deal to do it. But the Legislature didn’t fulfill its obligation. It’s a circumvention of the spirit of the campaign laws. It’s been permitted and its legal, but it is corrosive. The abuse is on the side of the politicians who go to individuals and say, “You can do this by using each of your LLCs to contribute the maximum.”

Do you think your views on things like tax abatements and vacancy decontrol have changed now that you’re on the other side? No. My views have been remarkably constant over the years. I’m not a fan of 421a. I think it benefits developers too much for the return to the public. I’ve made that case to developers, made that case to public officials. I’m not biased towards developers these days because I happen to be one. I also don’t think “developer” is a dirty word. This city is here because of people who built big.

The Democrats, your party, will be in control in Albany this year. How should real estate feel about that? It’s going to be a new world. I think the question is, can the Democratic majority and leadership deal with legitimate issues like tenant abuse without limiting the incentives that have created — for the first time in a long time — a real pipeline of residential construction? It’s a very fine line for the Legislature. And there is a strong movement in the Democratic Party to take back some of the important pieces of the puzzle that have created successes in real estate. When I say “successes,” I don’t mean successful returns to capital, I mean successes in terms of the thousands of units being built.

What do you think is the most illicit practice in real estate now that is going unpoliced? I don’t really know, but I’m always worried that the appeal of real estate is being marketed to people for whom it’s not an appropriate investment. I’m talking about individuals. Small investors who really don’t know any better who are offering their life’s savings. That’s what scares me — the big guys can take care of themselves. Back when I was AG, it was really predatory lending in communities where bad debt was being foisted on people, and so we worked on a lot of those cases.

Do you think the system works? I mean broadly: the justice system, campaign finance, the current state of our democracy? As Churchill said, “It’s the worst system except the others,” right? But it works. New York City is one of the most remarkable metropolises in the world. We’ve got huge problems, but we also have one amazing ecosystem of people, businesses, job creation, creativity, universities, cultural institutions … There is always this sense of malaise, a sense that things are not going properly. For all the negativity, one thing I never do is blame the media. But I think the media reflects our psyches. It is easier to run negative stories than positive stories.

When you took over your father’s company, you sold the Crown Building and units at the Corinthian to finance new acquisitions. Was there a sentimentality about selling your father’s assets? The assets we’re more attached to are the buildings we actually built. My dad bought [the Crown Building] with his partners in ’91, when the city was not in good shape, and repositioned it. I just hope it is maintained as the iconic architectural building that it should be. In terms of an emotional attachment, I’ll feel attached to 420 Kent because it’s the first pure ground-up construction that I will have done. Even now, I go there and look at it from different angles.

Over to Hudson Yards. I don’t want to say more than I should — because our partner there is Related — but the resi piece, which will be 400,000-plus square feet, will start soon. And then the million-square-foot office tower will move forward. I usually go over there on weekend mornings when I go out to Brooklyn for a while and then I’ll drive over there. We don’t have anything there yet to check on but the block, so I go there and see the other projects.

Given the cases you went after in the finance world as AG, are there some people you can’t get financing from? Are there some people who don’t want to do business with me? Absolutely. There are some people who won’t be my friends. There are other people who will be. Some people will walk up to me in the street and say, “Thank you for fighting for us,” and there are some people who want to throw me under the bus. That’s okay! I can live with it.

Ken Langone said, “People have their own private hells. I hope his private hell is hotter than anyone else’s.” What do you think about the way people you went after reacted to your downfall? I feel sorry for people who didn’t understand there’s a difference between capitalism and fraud. And it goes back to the very first case where the investment banks were outright lying to people about the quality of stocks. I think history will speak for itself in terms of where AIG went, in terms of what the investment banks were doing, what credit-default swaps were all about.

You hosted shows on Current TV and CNN. Why do you think your television career didn’t take off? I had a blast doing those shows. I had known Al Gore for many years, and he was one of the owners of Current. They had an opening for the 8 o’clock hour after Keith Olbermann’s departure, and I said to Al, “Look, I’ll step in and we’ll have fun and carry this through the election,” and then the network was sold. So instead of working for the vice president, we were working for a Middle Eastern sovereign. I think most of us said the joy of this was working with Al Gore, and that’s why it ended. With CNN, likewise, I had a blast.

How did you meet Al Gore? It’s actually a great story. He was running for president in 2000. I called down to D.C. and said, “If he wants to do an event in New York with whomever, I’d be happy to host it,” and didn’t get much of a response. Then, I think it was on a Monday, they said, “The vice president would love to come to your farm on Friday. Can you invite everybody from upstate New York?” At that point, I was staying in a reasonably small house on the farm. I was there, knock on the door, it’s Secret Service and they say, “We’re looking for the house where the vice president will stay.”  And I said, “This is it.” Secret Service said, “I don’t think you heard me, I’m looking for the house where the vice president is going stay.” I said, “I don’t think you heard me, this is it.” He looked and said, “Ooookay…” Anyway, it was a great event, I still have pictures of that day up on the farm.

Do you get stopped on the street a lot? Yeah, people say hello. For better or worse, I’ve always said that I have a recognizable profile. People notice the chin. I probably shouldn’t even say this, but sometimes I’m confused for [former Pittsburgh Steelers coach] Bill Cowher. There was a moment years ago when somebody called me “Coach,” and I thought, maybe that’s just what they call people. Then I realized they were confusing me for him.

Do people at work call you “Boss” or “Eliot”? They call me Eliot. My dad was of a different generation, so he was Mr. Spitzer — that was the world he lived in. There’s a different etiquette when you’re in government. When I was governor, I was “Governor.”

If you’re a boxing champ, they call you a champ. I used to represent boxers as a lawyer. A kid, William Guthrie, whose boxing name was Kid Chocolate, ended up becoming a light heavyweight champ. With Kid Chocolate, we had to get him out of his management contract with Don King. This was before I was AG.

What’s your favorite sport? The two I do are tennis and skiing. The woman I’m dating gives me a hard time because she thinks I have a thing for Lindsey Vonn just because she’s such an amazing skier.

Is that Roxana Girard? How did you two meet? Yes. Through a real estate lawyer.

Because she’s in the business too? Yeah, she primarily represents some families and entities that do lending. She is a spectacular and incredibly smart businesswoman who has built a wonderful business representing her clients and investing her own capital in a very quiet way. But we don’t do business together. I don’t think we would.

Do you want to get remarried one day? [Laughing] Did Roxana ask you about that? That you’re not going to print. Who knows? I’ve gotta confer with my three daughters first.

Do you think your daughters will come into the business? I don’t know. I’m certainly not encouraging them or discouraging them, or my nieces or nephews. My sister has two daughters who are spectacular, and my brother has a son who is in the theater world. I’ve got three daughters and it’s a family business, so if any in that generation were somewhat motivated, that would be wonderful. But we want them to lead their own lives.

You spend time on a farm you own upstate in Columbia County. Why Columbia County? It’s a two-hour radius, which I thought was the farthest it would be possible to drive on a Friday night. Didn’t want to cross the Hudson on Friday and Sunday night, which can be a little gnarly. And Columbia County is a bit more laid back than the whole Hamptons scene.

Is it a working farm? It’s a money pit. But it’s absolutely beautiful up there. I would never pretend to actually work on a farm. We have 30 acres and we let our neighbor, a real farmer, plant corn and take care of it. I work in the orchard occasionally. But there was a day when some of the cows got out and I had to run down the street chasing them. I discovered that I can’t outrun a cow, but if you carry a bucket of feed you can lead them back to the pasture.

You’ve been documented at times to have a temper. Who was the last person that you had a screaming match with? I don’t know. Back when I was in government, I had some good battles with people. Those battles were always with people who were more powerful than I was. There are some people who fight down, and there are some people who — for good purpose — fight up. I never had a battle with somebody who would be perceived as being weaker or in a subservient position. But when you’re building a building, the construction sites aren’t always the scene where the Queen’s English is respected. I suppose, at one point or another, with some contractors who may not have been on time, I’ve used some language that would move us to the X-rated department. I always end it with a handshake, and I still pay their bills.

There was a story last year about an altercation at an Upper East Side restaurant, something to do with comments someone made about Langone. Are those battles you’re still fighting? For me, it was just litigations, and I’ve been involved in thousands. I do not get emotionally involved in those cases. My job was to enforce the law.

When you leave a room, how do you want to be remembered? Having a sense of decency and purpose and having fought for the right causes. Frankly, when I look back on my governmental years, I think there are some people who fundamentally disagree with me both substantively and at a personal level. That’s fine. I think the larger universe of people know I put my heart and soul into fighting for what I believed in.

Do you think you’ll ever run for public office again? No. [I’m] running for the hills. I’m 59. Politics is like many businesses or sectors: The baton is passed, as it should be, and others will go on to do great stuff.

—Interview transcribed by Kathryn McCurdy. Edited and condensed for clarity.


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