Unveiling the first policy proposals of his comeback campaign, New York City comptroller candidate Eliot Spitzer called Wednesday for sweeping reforms to the public housing system and delivered a sharp rebuke of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's suggestion of fingerprinting tenants.
Spitzer, the former governor who resigned in 2008 after admitting to paying for sex with prostitutes, urged more spending on housing repairs and criticized the city's plan to lease public housing land to private developers.
"If there's property that's underutilized, use it, but use it for the folks who live here right now," Spitzer said during a tour of Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Houses. "Selling off parkland in the middle of housing to the highest bidder, that's wrong."
His Democratic primary opponent for comptroller, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, has also urged the Bloomberg administration to increase community involvement with the so-called infill plan. Housing authority officials believe leasing land at eight Manhattan housing developments could provide up to $50 million annually for the cash-strapped agency.
Spitzer has made it central to his campaign that he would expand the reach of the office of comptroller, the city's financial officer. His initial policy plan, first obtained by The Associated Press, clearly wades beyond the normal boundaries of the office, in particular in his condemnation of Bloomberg's idea to have residents' fingerprints be used as the only way to open building doors at housing developments.
Bloomberg's comments Friday about fingerprinting appeared offhanded, and his spokesman later clarified that the city was not working on a proposal to fingerprint the city's 400,000 housing authority residents, the majority of whom are black or Latino. Still, Spitzer denounced the idea.
"It's symptomatic of an attitude that says, 'We'll deal with you differently, we'll deal with you as if you're not really full citizens. We won't create safety because we believe in safety, and we'll put cops on the beat or put cameras in. Instead, we'll fingerprint you,'" Spitzer said. "That's not the way to run the city."
Spitzer's criticism of the fingerprinting suggestion underscored his latest campaign strategy: to attack Stringer to linking him to Bloomberg's contentious third term.
"This is a consequence of a third term that would not have happened had my opponent not been part of a political establishment that was happy with the status quo, a political establishment that didn't care about the residents," said Spitzer. "They cared about keeping their own jobs."
Stringer supported the change in the city charter that allowed Bloomberg to seek re-election in 2009 but later campaigned for Bloomberg's opponent. He blasted the fingerprinting idea as outrageous.
Spitzer, heir to a vast real estate empire which includes several luxury apartment buildings, was cheered by residents during his tour and even received a kiss from one tenant that left a red lipstick mark on his cheek.
He also stood with Thomas Lopez-Pierre, an activist who abandoned a City Council bid after sending a series of anti-Semitic emails to his Jewish opponent. A spokeswoman said Spitzer, who is Jewish, did not know him and Lopez-Pierre was not invited to the event.
Spitzer chided the housing authority for not spending all of the federal funding it received in capital improvements, as well as more than $40 million given by the City Council and state lawmakers to put security cameras in high-crime areas.
Cameras had been installed at only 11 of the 86 high-crime buildings as of last month, though housing authority officials insist all will be operational by year's end.
Stringer has also been critical of housing authority delays in installing the cameras. His spokeswoman boasted that Stringer began his career as a tenant organizer and said he has served public housing residents throughout his seven years as borough president.
"It's nice that 20 days before an election, Eliot Spitzer has woken up to the needs of public housing residents," said Audrey Gelman, Stringer's spokeswoman.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found Spitzer ahead of Stringer, 56 percent to 37 percent. The poll of 579 likely Democratic primary voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
The two men square off in their final debate Thursday night. The primary is Sept. 10.
Reach Jonathan Lemire on Twitter at @JonLemire