NEW YORK — Two New York City political wives, forever linked by their husbands’ humiliating scandals, are taking very different roles in their spouses’ improbable political comebacks.
Silda Wall Spitzer, who famously stood by husband Eliot Spitzer in 2008 when he stepped down as governor in a prostitution scandal, hasn’t been seen in the early days of his campaign for city comptroller, though Spitzer insists she’s supportive.
Huma Abedin, who was notably absent when husband Anthony Weiner resigned his congressional seat in 2011 after he acknowledged sending lewd Twitter photos to women, has been a key player in his surging mayoral run. She’s appeared in his campaign launch video, raised tens of thousands of dollars and joined him on the campaign trail.
The two women, who have no known relationship, will have little choice but to occupy the spotlight again before Election Day — and they may affect their husbands’ chances to regain office.
“When the significant other forgives you, it makes your road back in politics that much easier,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. “If the wife goes on the campaign trail or seems really supportive, it makes a huge difference. If she doesn’t, it may raise doubts with women.”
To many, Wall Spitzer’s anguished appearance at her husband’s side when he admitted paying for sex with prostitutes, is the archetype of the sad genre of wronged political wives, so much so that it helped inspire the CBS drama “The Good Wife.” She largely vanished from the public eye after that moment, briefly resurfacing for a Vogue photo spread the following year titled “The Survivor.”
As Eliot Spitzer, 54, struggled to adapt to a post-political life, bouncing around the TV dial from MSNBC to CNN to Current TV, Wall Spitzer happily returned to a quieter existence. A former corporate lawyer, she poured herself into her children’s charity and returned to the business world, eventually finding a home at New World Capital Group, a private equity group where she focuses on investments in clean energy.
She agreed to her husband’s surprising comeback only hours before he announced it to the world this month, according to a person close to the campaign who was not authorized to speak about Spitzer’s personal life. Wall Spitzer has offered suggestions about Spitzer’s campaign and collected a pair of petitions to get him on the ballot. One of the couple’s three daughters rounded up about 100 signatures.
But Wall Spitzer, 55, has shunned the campaign trail and has yet to grant any interviews about her husband, which stands in stark contrast to her frequent appearances at Spitzer’s side during his previous runs for attorney general and governor.
Her silence has fueled speculation that their marriage is on the rocks. The couple lives apart — she at the family home on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, he at his sick elderly parents’ home a few blocks away — though Spitzer firmly denied a published report that the couple was separated.
“Regarding Silda’s dearth of appearances on the campaign, there has been a maelstrom of media attention focused on Eliot’s entry into the race,” said Lisa Linden, the campaign’s spokeswoman. “He has no desire to bring his family into the media frenzy at this time.”
Linden did not say when, or if, the former New York first lady would campaign for her husband. Spitzer has acknowledged the “hurt” he caused his wife but said she would soon join him on the trail.
Wall Spitzer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“No one will forget that press conference; having her get back out there is a lot to ask,” said Christina Greer, professor at Fordham University. “She could be saying, ‘I did it once. I was raked over the coals, with people analyzing my scarf, my jewelry, my tears. You want to get back out there? Fine, but don’t expect me to do it with you.”’
Spitzer’s primary rival, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, campaigned with his wife the day after Spitzer announced his bid.
Experts differ as to how much Wall Spitzer’s absence will matter.
“Is it a sign she thinks he’ll do it again?” Schiller asked. “Has he really learned his lesson? It could signal to women that she has doubts about his character.”
Political strategist Bill Cunningham, a former adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said voters pick a candidate based on the spouse and don’t care if they are there.
“A role of a spouse is a lot like chicken soup amid an array of medicines,” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t hurt, but whether or not it has profound value is unclear.”
On the other hand, there is little question that Abedin, who was a top adviser to Hillary Clinton at the State Department and is now running her transition team to private life, is fully invested in her husband’s mayoral run.
She was pregnant with the couple’s now 19-month-old son, Jordan, when Weiner stepped down from office. As the former congressman entered a self-imposed political exile, the 36-year-old Abedin traveled the globe with Clinton. Although she rarely was more than a few feet from one of the world’s most famous women, Abedin fiercely protected her privacy and avoided the limelight.
That changed this spring. She sat down for an extensive New York Times Magazine interview that was the first step of Weiner’s comeback and she even had a brief speaking role in his mayoral campaign kick-off video, saying, “We love this city and no one will work harder to make it better than Anthony.”
She tapped into the Clinton family’s vast network of donors and raised more than $150,000 over the last two months for her husband. And last weekend, she made her debut on the trail, walking Harlem’s streets hand-in-hand with Weiner, 48, who has gone from punch line to one of the race’s front-runners.
“I’m having so much fun,” she told reporters. “It’s just wonderful to see the response that people have to Anthony. He’s working hard, and people seem to be noticing.”
Pundits said they weren’t surprised Abedin was taking a far bigger role in her husband’s campaign than Wall Spitzer is in hers.
“Unlike Silda, Huma is a political person with her own ambitions. Hillary in 2016 may be a big part of this,” Schiller said. “If Weiner rehabilitates his image, even if he doesn’t win, it helps Huma, too.”
Each scandal-scarred candidate’s return to politics was met with suggestions that they would be met with skepticism from female voters and even protests from women’s groups.
“Forgiveness and second chances are an appropriate measure for wives, but I don’t think that’s the measure for those of us who are being asked to vote for them,” said Sonia Ossorio, head of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her group has endorsed the mayoral race’s lone female candidate, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and plans to back Stringer next week.
To this point, neither Spitzer nor Weiner has struggled to win female support.
Spitzer led Stringer 44 to 32 percent among women in a Quinnipiac College poll conducted last week, while that same poll had Weiner drawing 21 percent of women, only two points behind Quinn and ahead of the rest of the crowded Democratic field.
“Women care about things — like the economy or public safety — that impact their lives directly,” Greer said. “I don’t think the scandals, or the wives, matter as much.”
In this 2011 file photo, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and his wife, Huma Abedin, at the time an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, are pictured after a ceremonial swearing in of the 112th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.×