Spitzer, Weiner, and the Privilege of Second Chances

EliotSpitzerApril24.07The return of former U. S. Representative Anthony Weiner and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to the political spotlight in New York City is sure to keep tabloid writers and comedians busy for the next several months.

The punster in me is loving this (“Anthony Mayor Weiner,” “Eliot’s Mess,” I could go on all day with these…). The political observer in me is, too. Perhaps it’s my Jersey roots, but I was an early fan of both men and their brash, in-your-face styles. I was an admirer of Spitzer for his “Sheriff of Wall Street” reputation, and Weiner for his efforts to shed light on the enormous conflict of interest U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had in the Citizens United decision about campaign contributions. I thought Spitzer would run for president someday, but after he was felled by a shocking prostitution scandal, it was a few years before I discovered Weiner. I followed the Congressman in the headlines, and on Twitter (yes, really) until he, too, was embroiled in a sex scandal.

The fact that they are both back, with Weiner running for mayor of New York City and Spitzer running for comptroller of the Big Apple, has me eagerly anticipating what they will say on the campaign trail, and what clever tabloid headlines that will follow.  It’s also gotten me thinking about second chances; who needs them, who really gets them, and why?

Disappointed as I am in their behavior, I’ll go on record as believing that Congressman Weiner never should have resigned. There are others who feel the same way about Spitzer. While their absence from office may help them in the long run, as it did former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford; David Vitter, Barney Frank, and Bill Clinton never left office after their sex lives were dissected in public. The Democrats lost a tenacious leader when they called for Weiner’s departure for a comparatively minor offense, but that may ultimately be New York City’s gain.

We’ve just spent the last week or so talking about Paula Deen, her offensive language, and her antiquated beliefs. She’s personall losing a lot and only time will tell if she is able to recover. The Food Network has fired her, but they rehired Robert Irvine after he apologized for falsifying his credentials. And remember Krystal Ball? She lost her Congressional bid after suggestive, college-era photos surfaced of her at a costume party with her husband. Ball now has a broadcasting career, but would she ever be able to run for office again if she wanted to?  Yet, Michael Vick was able to resurrect his football career. Ben Roethlisburger returned to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers after being suspended following sexual assault allegations against him.

Perhaps it goes along with claims about our Judeo-Christian traditions, but we talk a lot about forgiveness in this country. It almost always conjures up images of the tearful politician, his mortified wife, and a public relations apology. When it comes to non-public figures — the people who can’t buy their way back into our good graces — we’re much more likely to use phrases like zero-tolerance, three-strikes, and consequences.  Not every athlete, television personality, or politician will find redemption and a constructive way forward. Darryl Strawberry never made it, Aaron Hernandez probably won’t either. However, the options available to the famous are much greater than the rest of us, and it may not even be scandal we are seeking to recover from.

Consider unemployment. Throughout the current recession, we’ve heard that it’s becoming harder to get a job if you don’t already have one. For the now long-term unemployed, the prospects are bleak. Even if an offer is extended, it is frequently contingent on a background check that includes a credit history. Imagine what long-term unemployment does to a credit score!

If simply getting laid off can’t be forgiven, consider what happens to those who actually commit a crime. A felony conviction effectively shuts the door to stable, productive, employment for too many, exascerbating recidivism; a problem which helps no one but those in the prison industry. Paying one’s debt to society may never be enough for some. There are currently several states that systematically disenfranchise felons, even after they have served their time. Restoring their voting rights is a lengthy bureaucratic process that will no doubt get worse with the recent SCOTUS decision on the Voting Rights Act.

So many of those convictions are the results of drug-related offenses. We applaud the recovery of Robert Downey, Jr. and line up to see his movies, but several readers were horrified by the appearance of Paul and Jennifer Sousa, a homeless couple, in the New York Times Weddings section with their story of struggle and recovery.

We used to be a country of redemption and reinvention, and if you look at the media, it seems we still are. But for “regular folks,” our politics have become increasingly punitive. Mandatory sentencing has filled our prisons at great cost to society. More children are tried as adults. We speak of drug testing the unemployed and food stamp recipients (even though testing programs have yielded low numbers of drugs users at very high expense). It has become fashionable to sneer at the largely invisible poor for their “bad choices,” while shutting the doors to opportunity and ensuring that regardless of choice our circumstance, their rough starts haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Redemption for me but not for thee?

So are we still a country of second chances?  Spitzer and Weiner certainly think so. And while Eliot Spitzer runs in the most widely followed comptroller race in the history of the country, I find myself actually rooting for Anthony Weiner. New York City has been a locus of rebirth and reinvention for many, and I have hope that he’ll work to make sure it stays that way; even for people who stay out of the headlines.

Melissa Tingley is a writer, instructional designer, and ten-year veteran of her local school board. A history and political junkie, she has been a blogger since 2006, chronicling life at her personal blog @ Home in the World, and showcasing the stories behind heirloom objects at her new blog Artifactual.  Her writing has also appeared at The Women’s Colony and The Soccer Mom Vote.  She lives and argues politics in Massachusetts.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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