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Washington (CNN) – Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer wants voters to think of his as a redemption story.
The disgraced politician stunned New Yorkers by announcing his run for city comptroller last week, and now he's shocking skeptics by rocketing to the lead in that race.
It is quite the turnaround for a man who took an incredibly public walk of shame in 2008, when it was revealed that Spitzer had frequented prostitutes. His name had surfaced in court documents as "Client 9" at a high-priced prostitution service. In one incident, the governor hired a 22-year-old call girl named Ashley Dupre for a meetup at Washington's exclusive Mayflower Hotel.
Spitzer's response was textbook: an apology with a silent wife by his side, resignation and a pledge to focus on his family.
"I will continue to make my case and hope that the public extends its votes," Spitzer said in an interview with CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper." "I have always respected the public's verdict. It is amazing. Juries, the electorate, we tend basically to get it right."
What Spitzer did five years ago was incredibly reckless and, more important, very illegal. Under a law Spitzer himself signed, paying for sex is a class E felony.
He told CNN he has not broken that law since 2008.
But Spitzer once called prostitution modern-day slavery, and many people took offense to the fact that he never faced charges for soliciting prostitutes.
Kristin Davis, the New York madam Spitzer patronized, told the New York Daily News, "I spent five months at Riker's Island from which I returned penniless, homeless, and forced to take sex offender classes for five months with pedophiles and perverts while he returned to his wife in his Fifth Avenue high rise without ever being fingerprinted, mug shot, remanded or charged with a crime under the very law he signed." Davis is also running for NYC comptroller.
"The decision was made based upon the standards set by the Department of Justice and made by the U.S. Attorney's Office. They looked at the evidence, and they dealt with me the way they dealt with everyone else in my situation," Spitzer said.
When Spitzer went after Wall Street titans, he painted himself as fighting for the little guy. A lot of people might think, he is somebody with money and power, and his case was a perfect example of how people like Spitzer don't end up doing the time the way the average person does.
"I'm not going to either quibble or debate what the appropriateness was. I did the one thing that I knew that was appropriate, which was to resign at the moment," Spitzer said.
"Those who looked at it, this case, made the determination; they obviously did not bring charges, nor did they with anybody else similarly situated," he said. "That was their judgment, not mine."
As comptroller, Spitzer would be the chief financial officer of New York City.
Spitzer told MSNBC that his business partners would be compromised if he released his full tax returns. Spitzer has released some partial tax returns showing that he made more than $4 million last year. But voters deserve to know about any potential conflicts of interest.
"They know about all the conflicts. And in fact, I filed a complete document with the conflict of interest board. It tells exactly what I own in every instance as per required. I filed and made public my tax returns," Spitzer said.
"I revealed not only what I earned (but) how much I paid: I paid 49% of my income in taxes last year," he said.
The New York Times reports that Spitzer and his wife still live in separate apartments. The former governor has slapped down any rumors of divorce and says wife Silda is supportive of his run for office. Asked whether she would be by his side come Election Night, Spitzer said yes.
"I expect, yes, she will be – the family will be out there. She signed a petition, gathered petitions," Spitzer said, adding that his daughters also gathered petitions on his behalf. "But I also have said our private lives are our private lives."
After Spitzer resigned from office in 2008, he made a quick move toward rehabilitation via the cable airwaves, here on CNN and then on Current TV.
His path back to the limelight draws comparisons to other politicians felled by scandal, like Appalachian Trail enthusiast and former South Carolina Gov., now congressman, Mark Sanford and New York mayoral hopeful and fellow firebrand Anthony Weiner.
Like Weiner, Spitzer has been deluged by media attention, and he's using that spotlight to highlight his record battling Wall Street interests as governor. Before taking the governor’s office, Spitzer was known as an aggressive attorney general.
Local polls show that approach may be working. The latest survey out this week shows Spitzer leading Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer by 15 points.
"In terms of redemption and forgiveness, yes, the public is forgiving. That is a remarkably affirmative quality in the American public. Now, whether that forgiveness will extend to me is an open question," Spitzer said.
Spitzer will get his answer in a few short months. The Democratic primary is set for September 10.
CNN's Edward Meagher contributed to this report.
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The Lead with Jake Tapper draws not only on Tapper’s deep knowledge of politics and national issues, but also seeks to examine and advance stories across a wide range of topics that demonstrate his own curiosities and interests. Compelling headlines come from around the country and the globe, from politics to money, sports to popular culture, based on news drivers of the day.
The Lead with Jake Tapper airs weekdays at 4 p.m. ET.
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