Elliot Spitzer’s return to public life is not surprisingly having its bumps. He got roughed up on Morning Joe today and in both major NYC tabloid papers. But here’s a reason to welcome his return to the arena: Pensions. The office he’s running for, while somewhat obscure, is high-leverage when it comes to public pensions – and nationally public sector pensions face a variety of problems and in education sometimes work at cross-purposes with what is good for teachers. Right now the focus is on how Spitzer’s politics will be complicated, especially given the “frenemies” relationship between public sector pensions and hedge funds, private equity, and Wall Street and Spitzer’s complicated history with these players and desire to use pensions to drive social goals.
But he could be important in a different way – on the issue of sustainability and retirement system design going forward. Spitzer clearly gets that the pension issue is more complicated than simply putting workers into 401(k)-style defined contribution plans. But he’s also not a shill for the teachers unions and gets that the current system is not sustainable. In Rhode Island Democratic state treasurer (and current gubernatorial candidate) Gina Raimondo was confronted with the same issue and made some tough calls and attracted the ire of the unions. Places like San Jose have also undertaken some reforms. Spitzer could end up being a useful addition to the small cadre of public officials willing to take this issue on and one who isn’t beholden to any interest in this debate. Whatever his other faults, we need more of those.