Spencer's quest: U.S. Senate

By BRUCE GOLDING, JORGE FITZ-GIBBON AND NOREEN O'DONNELL
bgolding@lohud.com
THE JOURNAL NEWS
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(Original publication: January 15, 2006)

John Spencer, four years back from Vietnam, had spent another lost night drinking himself into oblivion.

It was 1973, and this time the 26-year-old steamfitter awoke in a North Tarrytown jail cell after a boozed-up fight with police.

Hauled into court, Spencer found himself in front of an outraged village justice.

"I looked up there and said, 'Uh, I don't know what to say, I don't remember,' " recalled Spencer, now 59.

It took two more years, but the married father of two finally sobered up, turned his life around and began the improbable journey from drunken brawler to Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Along the way, he conquered the Yonkers City Council and the mayor's office, where his bold leadership and achievements were tempered by accusations of bullying, nepotism, political betrayals and marital infidelity.

And now, despite reluctance — and even opposition — from state Republican leaders, the brash combat veteran is pushing to challenge Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on traditional conservative issues: abortion, gun control and border security.

"I'm a big underdog," Spencer said. "But quite frankly, that's the story of my life."

Many have all but ceded the race to the former first lady, with some questioning Spencer's appeal in a state where Democrats hold a 2.3 million edge in voter enrollment.

"No question that John Spencer is a stark contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton and her record," said Erie County GOP Chairman Robert Davis. "But I'm not sure that that's going to be the formula necessary to win in ... New York."

Those who know Spencer just say he shouldn't be counted out.

"So many people said, 'Oh, my goodness. He'll never beat all these other candidates, all these other big names that are in there,'" said former Yonkers City Council President Vincenza Restiano, a one-time bitter rival turned close friend. "Guess what? In the end, he's prevailed."

Outspoken

Spencer prides himself on speaking from the heart in public, without notes. He's consistent from one appearance to the next, he said, unlike New York's current junior senator.

"I think it's insidious the way Clinton conducts herself depending on the audience," he said.

Clinton would not respond.

Spencer's freewheeling manner has offended some, as when he referred to construction-company owners as "backroom goombahs," and said that then-Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro didn't stand a "Chinaman's chance" of Conservative Party backing for her failed Senate bid.

On his campaign Web site, he opposes "special rights" for gays, which he said referred to gay marriage, civil unions and "that slippery slope of ... asking government to accentuate or broaden that which they have, and normal people don't have."

Asked if that meant he thought gays weren't "normal," he took it back: "Being human, I can have a slip-up every now and then."

From the start, Spencer has portrayed himself as Clinton's ideological opposite.

His campaign is founded on what he describes as bedrock Republican conservatism, honed in Yonkers politics. Spencer is pro-business and anti-tax. He rejects gun control, opposes abortion and got the endorsement of the Minuteman Project, a group opposed to illegal immigration that patrols the country's Mexican border.

Spencer supports the war in Iraq and isn't troubled by revelations that the government conducted warrantless eavesdropping on conversations linked to terror suspects. In fact, he wants to see prosecutions of those who revealed the eavesdropping.

"What's the difference between a whistle-blower and a traitor?" he asked. "If people are leaking confidential information that needs to be confidential to protect people ... I think that's traitorous, and they should be held accountable."

He is virtually unknown outside of Yonkers, and Clinton's $27 million dwarfs his $118,000 in campaign funds raised, but Spencer is confident his profile will rise and contributions will flow once he has party nominations.

"Unlike other candidates you've seen come along and try to be the Republican and Conservative nominee, I've been patient and I've bought into a plan that I'm right where I should be," he said. "I think name recognition takes care of itself. ... Who was George Pataki? Who was Alfonse D'Amato? ... They (voters) couldn't even pronounce either one of their names."

Popular appeal

Spencer, who wears a miniature Combat Infantryman Badge on his lapel, says much of his success can be traced to his training at Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., after he left college to join the Army. That training, he said, helped him survive leading a platoon of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade into battle in Vietnam.

"I learned a lot about myself," he said. "I learned how to continue to function, to make rational decisions, not to panic, not to run, to maintain order, to lead and to get out of a difficult situation."

His political ascent began with community service in Yonkers' 3rd District, a middle-class, largely Irish-American enclave.

By the early 1980s, he was working in property management and active in the North Yonkers Boys and Girls Club, long a political launching pad. He was named club president, and appointed to the city Human Rights Commission.

"He was anti-politics in those days," said Robert Stauf, who led the commission. "He was a little bit cynical, a little bit distrustful of those in the political arena."

Stauf, now president of the 3rd Precinct Community Council, said he was therefore surprised in 1989 when Spencer got into politics — running for and winning a City Council seat on a platform of settling a federal desegregation lawsuit against the city.

"There was a tremendous change all of a sudden," he said. "He has tried to convince me since that time that he's really not a political animal, he's really not a politician, and he's sitting in the mayor's office as a result of all kinds of political maneuvers."

After winning re-election to the council in 1991, Spencer engineered his selection as majority leader by brokering a deal with the council's three Democrats despite objections from his party.

As his influence grew, he turned his focus to Democratic Mayor Terence Zaleski and pushed through a term-limits law.

In 1995, he beat Zaleski in a landslide anyway.

Spencer's eight years atop City Hall produced dizzying results: He hired dozens of police officers and crime dropped; he lobbied Albany for millions in education aid, oversaw construction of three schools, spurred waterfront redevelopment and cleaned up the downtown, cut income and property-transfer taxes, and rid the city of the Emergency Financial Control Board installed during the desegregation crisis of the 1980s.

"One of his frustrations was that everybody wanted to hire consultants, sit around ... and talk endlessly about problems rather than define solutions," said Kevin Madden, a former Spencer neighbor who worked as a mayoral aide.

"And what really drove him was to get rid of that nonsense and not be talkers but to be doers," said Madden, now a spokesman for Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Yonkers Councilman Liam McLaughlin got to know Spencer in 1997, when the then-mayor interviewed him before appointing him to a vacant council seat.

"He's someone who looks you in the eye and tells you what he's going to do and then does it," McLaughlin said.

But Spencer's hard-driving personality put off many, and his titanic, obscenity-laced tirades against opponents and perceived adversaries remain legendary.

Critics also contend that his zeal to spur economic development through the use of city-created private corporations and other means — which Spencer has called "creative methods" — may have skirted the law.

White Plains lawyer Debra Cohen, who successfully sued his administration and the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency for records related to his now-stalled downtown ballpark, questioned Spencer's leadership style.

"He seemed to feel entitled to run the city behind closed doors and try to intimidate those who may have disagreed with what he wanted to do," she said.

One of those he feuded with was state Sen. Nicholas Spano, R-Yonkers, whom he accused of political corruption and mocked as "Jumbo" because of his girth. He dubbed Spano's younger brother, former Republican Assemblyman Michael Spano, "Dumbo."

"You know, in politics you have to have a tough skin," said Nicholas Spano, now a Spencer ally. "I try not to take anything personally, so I chuckled at that. We chuckle about it to this day."

Spencer also publicly split last year with Mayor Phil Amicone, his former deputy and chosen successor, over a hiring scandal that led to the perjury conviction of former Schools Superintendent Angelo Petrone. In response, Amicone fired Spencer's wife from her job as his $145,000-a-year chief of staff. Last week, Spencer said Amicone "has not picked up the ball and done much with it."

A statement from Amicone's office said Spencer "should spend more of his time getting himself elected to the U.S. Senate instead of criticizing the mayor."

In fact, much of Spencer's political success was the result of his "going to war with his own party," charged Yonkers Republican Councilman John Murtagh.

"John Spencer split the Republican Party in Yonkers and more than once went against the party," said Murtagh, whose 2002 nepotism complaint against Spencer was rejected by the Ethics Board.

Murtagh questioned Spencer's legacy, in large part because of the city's current $60 million budget shortfall. He said people may have fond memories of Spencer's style, but "stalled development and huge deficits" also are his legacy.

However, former Yonkers Mayor Angelo Martinelli, Spencer's political mentor, said his style and personality are beside the point.

"A lot of people do criticize him for this thing or that," Martinelli said. "But if it (made) Yonkers a better place, then what the heck's the difference how it was done?"

Marital trouble

For most of his mayoralty, rumors swirled that Spencer was having an affair with his unmarried chief of staff, Kathy Spring, who bore two children during that time. For years, Spencer refused to discuss the relationship or address the possibility of a conflict of interest involving Spring, a City Hall staff member who saw her annual salary increase to $138,000 from $52,000 working for Spencer.

In 2002, after announcing a possible run for Westchester county executive — he was barred from seeking a third mayoral term by his own 1994 term-limits law — Spencer publicly acknowledged that he had fathered Spring's children. After finalizing a divorce from his wife, Eileen, Spencer married Spring, now 43.

"I met her when I was going through matters of the heart with my first wife," he said. "My children ... were conceived in love."

He said his infidelity was "ironically" in the public interest. "I didn't have to make an appointment with my chief of staff to go over everything. That's all we did."

Today, Spencer's second family — which includes a baby boy — lives in a modernized, airy white Colonial in the city's Gramatan Manor section. The living room features gilt-framed photos of his blond children with Spring, and a bookcase with paperback thrillers and hardcovers on war and politics.

His black Lincoln Navigator was in the driveway; his wife drove up in a black Mercedes-Benz.

After leaving the mayor's office, Spencer founded the Spencer Consulting Group, which he said provides services related to recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. Asked if the business was lucrative, he said: "Barely."

Spencer also has a consulting contract with NADAP Inc. in New York City, a not-for-profit company that provides job services for welfare recipients, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

"I didn't come from money. I don't have money. I'll never have money," he said.

Although Spencer said he has been assured the Republican nomination, he said he would force a primary if necessary. He also said he could run as a third-party candidate on the Conservative line.

Nonetheless, some Republicans have appealed to lawyer Edward Cox, a son-in-law of the late President Nixon, to resume the campaign he quit in the fall after Gov. George Pataki endorsed Jeanine Pirro's ill-fated Senate bid.

Cox would not comment.

Last fall, state Republican Chairman Stephen Minarik clashed with Spencer over what he called Spencer's broken promise to rule out a primary; Spencer said he withdrew his pledge after some county chairmen backed Pirro.

Now, after watching Pirro and Cox drop out, Minarik is more conciliatory, calling Spencer a "credible alternative" to Clinton.

"Time has been a good thing for John Spencer," he said. "The more people he gets out and talks to, reaches out to, it seems like the support is increasing for him."

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