By Mike McPhate
John Spencer, who hopes New Yorkers might one day call him senator, last week became the guy who called Hillary Clinton ugly.
Spencer mocked Senator Clinton’s face as a young woman, saying "You ever see a picture of her back then? Whew," the New York Daily News reported. "I don't know why Bill married her."
Spencer denied the report, calling it “a total fabrication and a bold-faced lie.” Pundits made jokes: “If you’ve ever seen Spencer up close his face looks like ten miles of bad road,” said political consultant Gerry O’Brien. And Democrats went in for the kill: “It simply confirmed what most people think already, that John Spencer is not a credible candidate,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant.
Despite plunging polls numbers, Spencer isn’t giving up.
“We’re continuing to plug ahead and do what has to be done and it’ll be up to the voters on Election Day,” said campaign spokesperson Rob Ryan.
Spencer, 60 years old with a trim build and full head of gray hair, has long held a reputation for brashness that likely sprang from his hardscrabble upbringing. He was an orphan, adopted by a Irish Catholic couple who already had eight kids of their own. By the time he was a sophomore in high school both of his step-parents had died. Spencer was raised by one of his step-sisters, 10 years his senior.
“My upbringing was, you know, blue collar neighborhood,” said Spencer. “We went to Catholic school, had a great set of friends, nice neighborhood, you know, always playing ball, kicking around, things like that. So I have nothing to complain about.”
Soon after his father died, Spencer said he started drinking. After two years in college Spencer signed up to go to Vietnam. When he returned he drank until he blacked out regularly. Then, around age 28, he said he had an epiphany. “I just realized I was very unhappy with myself,” he said. He went sober. It’s been 30 years since he had a drink, he said.
Spencer worked in real estate and was eventually elected to Yonkers’ city council. In 1990 he became Mayor. He reduced taxes and helped spur the city’s economy, attracting more than $600 million in development, he says. For many though, his tenure may be remembered for a headline-grabbing scandal in which had an affair with his chief-of-staff, who he later married, and increased her salary by $86,000.
His service in the Army remains his proudest achievement, said Spencer. And he’s made his pro-Iraq war stance a central piece of his senate bid. He is a staunch Bush supporter, and blames Democrats for exploiting the inevitable turmoil of war for political gain.
“Take any war in United States history, any war. Pick one. Nothing goes right in a war,” he said. “Everyone’s changing the paradigm, if you will. We’re in a situation, I’m not happy with it. I don’t think anyone’s happy with it. I don’t think President Bush is happy with it. So, it’s a war. So what do you do? Do you just pick up and leave? I say no.”
In the senate Spencer has said he’ll cut taxes, protect gun rights, and bolster anti-terror agencies. He thinks Roe v. Wade ought to be overturned, gay marriage outlawed, and the United Nations taken down a notch. He has been called an ultra conservative but he rejects the label, preferring the description “common sense conservative”. As evidence, he points to his stance that society should do more to help substance abusers.
“You can’t say to people, ‘Just say no,’” he said. “You’ve got to do more than that. You’ve got to help them, train them, link them up with employers.”
His own experience with alcoholism has made him a more tolerant person, said Spencer. He rejects the notion that he is a Clinton-basher. “I have friends of mine who are staunch liberal democrats,” he said with a laugh.
With his decision to pursue Clinton’s seat, Spencer hoped to take advantadge of the anti-Hillary vote that any Republican challenger would enjoy. As his chances look ever slimmer though, it may turn out to be a devastating gamble.
“Being on the losing end of what looks like a very, very wide margin is rarely a good way to start a political career,” said David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs. “You wind up with no national support, no state party support and very little prospect except sitting around and hoping that the Clinton campaign blows up.”
Liam McLaughlin, a Yonkers city council member and long-time friend of Spencer, said he has not given up hope. Following the ugly Hillary story there was a steep increase of hits on the campaign website, as well as contributions, said McLaughlin, who is working on the campaign. He also notes how the campaign run of Democratic comptroller Alan Hevesi imploded last week amid an ethics scandal.
“Hey, you never know,” he says. “Anything’s possible.”