Mayor Montgomery, Our Own Eliot Spitzer

City Desk IconThe unfortunate situation with New York’s Governor Eliot Spitzer has reminded some of a similar controversy which rocked our city in the early 80s. Popular Republican state Representative Karl Montgomery was elected to the mayor’s office in 1980 and had a relatively low-key, yet effective, first year in office. Then, in February of 1982, he suddenly resigned for no apparent reason, at what has come to be known in local political and journalistic circles as The Lunch.

On February 2, Montgomery was scheduled to give a speech at the annual membership luncheon for the Pinion Club, an organization for city business leaders. This had been a yearly tradition for the twenty-seven years of the club’s existence and pretty much ran to the same routine every single time- mayor comes up, talks about the importance of business and commerce, tells a few good-natured jokes, maybe mentions some new policy initiative, serve dessert, end of luncheon. On this day, however, Montgomery took the podium, gripped it nervously and began his planned speech. After the first few sentences, he started railing about the “jackals of the press amongst us,” “certain moral lapses” and, almost tearfully, said that he hoped it would not come to his having to leave office, but he would if the people called for it. After an awkward pause, he mumbled a quick thanks, then hurried out of the Pinion Club’s Oak Room with his entourage of confused and shocked-looking aides.

The “jackal of the press” to whom Montgomery referred in the room at the time was an intern for the Journal-American, student Ken Marsh (now editorial page editor at the News). With the regularity of little-to-no news coming from the luncheon year after year, no editors thought the event to be worth covering with real reporters. The other news outlets in town hadn’t even bothered sending anyone (though Clarion-Standard publisher and lunch attendee Stanton Crawes could be seen frantically screaming into one of the Pinion’s house phones minutes later). Suddenly, Marsh had one of the biggest scoops in decades. He called it into the Journal-American immediately, where the news brought the room to a stop, momentarily, as no one had any idea why Montgomery would do such a thing. Immediately, though, the newsroom spun into action, sources being called across the city, but still- nobody had any idea. The Mayor’s own press people seemed a bit taken aback when called for comment- even they hadn’t even heard the news yet.

As the reports started making their way to local radio that afternoon, Montgomery’s office finally issued its first statement- that all reports were mistaken, that the Mayor had said no such thing about a possible resignation. Except for the fact that 133 of the city’s business leaders, their guests and a newspaper intern with a tape recorder could attest otherwise, as they had witnessed the whole thing with shock and alarm. As it turned out, however, not every person in attendance was shocked.

One of those prominent businessmen knew exactly what had prompted Montgomery’s outburst- Garrison Webster, the president of SaniServices, Ltd. Eight months before, the company had been awarded an extremely lucrative multi-year janitorial contract for the city’s facilities and Webster had personally seen to it that the Mayor was thanked in a Special Manner. A Special Manner involving certain ladies. Repeatedly. So, as soon as Montgomery started getting very nervous, Webster knew what was coming, as the Mayor had called him that very morning, nervous because he’d received several phone messages from a reporter asking about “cleaning services contracts” and “the girls.” When hizzoner saw the intern sitting at table number 9, scribbling in a reporter’s notebook, he assumed the worst and months of guilt came bubbling to the surface.

The messages had actually been from a reporter for the News, working on a story about health benefits for the city’s low-income residents and was asking for comment about the lack of coverage for the city’s (largely female) janitorial staffers. No one was anywhere near any sort of story about a major city contractor paying for the mayor to sleep with prostitutes. By the following day, as cracks formed in walls of silence, deep sources spoke and pieces began to fit together, the city’s media outlets had everything they needed. The fact that he had, in his first year in office, called for a stiff crackdown on vice in the city did not help matters much. The word “ironic” was used heavily in press coverage. The major difference between Montgomery and Spitzer seems to be that people actually seemed to feel a bit sorry for the disgraced Mayor, as he likely could have continued to get away with it, as so many had before him.

On April 15, 1982, Mayor Karl Montgomery formally stepped down, replaced by Mayor pro tem Hatcher Yardling III, who shot someone later that year.
– RJ White

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