By Karen Freifeld and Francesca Trianni
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, the one-time "Sheriff of Wall Street" who resigned over a prostitution scandal, returned to the political limelight on Monday by launching a campaign for New York City comptroller.
Spitzer, 54, said he wanted to reinvent the position by taking a more activist role, similar to the financial watchdog position he carved out in two terms as state attorney general, a role that spring-boarded him to the governor's mansion.
His term as governor was cut short five years ago when he resigned after being linked to a prostitution ring.
Spitzer's return to politics sets the stage for a colorful New York election season. Fellow Democrat and former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned two years ago after he sent lewd pictures of himself over Twitter and lied repeatedly about it, is running for New York City mayor.
"New Yorkers are forgiving, but I knew that. New Yorkers are good souls, they have a sense of forgiveness," Spitzer said in his first campaign appearance, where he faced a handful of hecklers. "Whether that extends to me, that's a whole separate issue."
While both scandals have garnered national headlines, there are key differences, experts noted.
"Weiner's scandal involved sending a picture, while Spitzer's was breaking the law, all from the guy who was supposed to uphold the law," said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University.
Spitzer was never charged with a crime.
One woman who stopped to hear Spitzer talk said she would consider voting for him, although she worried that his history would make it hard for him to run a campaign focused on ideas.
"I don't have a problem with him running," said Lori Podvesker, 40, who described herself as an advocate for children with special needs. "But I think that it's a huge distraction because it takes the focus off of real issues"
Voters elsewhere in the United States have signaled a willingness to give second chances. Earlier this year, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who had resigned after trying to cover up a visit to a mistress in Argentina, was elected to Congress.
Weiner, who announced his candidacy in May, surged in recent polls to near the front of a pack of candidates, closing in on City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn, who would be the city's first lesbian and first female mayor, last month published a memoir in which she recounted her struggles with bulimia and alcohol abuse.
SHAKES UP QUIET RACE
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who just days ago appeared to have the comptroller's race locked up, signaled on Sunday that his campaign was not afraid of using Spitzer's scandal against him.
Stringer's campaign manager, Sascha Owen, described Spitzer's campaign as an effort to "buy personal redemption with his family fortune," according to a statement posted on Stringer's Twitter account.
Spitzer, whose father is a wealthy real estate developer, has indicated that he will dip into his personal wealth to fund his campaign.
Meanwhile, Kristin Davis, a former madam who has claimed to have provided Spitzer with escorts and who in April launched a long-shot run for comptroller on the Libertarian ticket, promises to be a regular reminder of the scandal.
"Eliot Spitzer broke state and federal laws in his use of prostitutes and paid no penalty. I broke the law and paid my debt to society," said Davis, who spent four months in jail for her role in the scandal. "There cannot be two standards of justice, one for the average citizen and another for the political and social elite."
Spitzer has denied he had any dealings with Davis.
Spitzer's candidacy was greeted with typical irreverence in the New York tabloids.
"Here we ho again," declared the New York Post on its front page. "Lust for power," said the New York Daily News headline.
As attorney general, Spitzer accused insurance companies of bid rigging, sued the former New York Stock Exchange Chief Executive Richard Grasso over his pay package and went after investment banks for publishing misleading stock recommendations, leading to a $1.4 billion settlement with 10 of them.
The city comptroller manages five pension funds, analyzes budgets and audits city agencies. Spitzer said he hoped the financial community wants someone "who understands markets" in the comptroller's office, which he aims to revitalize in the way he did the attorney general's office a decade ago.
The current city comptroller, John Liu, as well as former comptroller Bill Thompson, are both running for mayor.
The deadline to file a petition to be on the Democratic primary ballot to succeed Liu is Thursday, by which time Spitzer must collect 3,750 signatures.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Barbara Goldberg, Gary Hill and Andre Grenon)