Eliot Spitzer only declared his intention to return to New York politics this week, but bankers already appear to be resigning themselves to the reappearance of the industry's onetime nemesis.
Spitzer, the former governor of New York, made a name for himself and a wide swath of industry enemies during his tenure as the state's attorney general. His efforts to prosecute large financial companies and their executives earned him the nickname "The Sheriff of Wall Street," so bankers were unabashedly gleeful five years ago when Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal.
But now that Spitzer is attempting a comeback by running for New York City comptroller, one can already sense that bankers are softening their public response to him. On Friday, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase (JPM), addressed Spitzer's comeback with mild, diplomatic praise.
"I think the American people have the right to vote for who they want and I've always had a very good relationship with Eliot Spitzer," Dimon told reporters during a conference call to discuss JPMorgan's quarterly earnings.
Dimon's comments came even after Spitzer said he is gunning for the dual chairman/chief executive roles that became such a shareholder point of contention at JPMorgan this spring. Current comptroller John Liu, as manager of the city's pension funds, was a major shareholder advocate for the much-watched proposal to strip Dimon of one title. Dimon survived the much-watched vote, but not before months of public discussion and criticism of his leadership and risk management at the nation's largest bank.
Now Spitzer has said he will resurrect the issue. This week, he mentioned Dimon when he told the Brian Lehrer Show that advocating for the separation of companies' chairman and chief executive roles would be one of his first priorities if he becomes comptroller.
Dimon on Friday mostly refused to take Spitzer's bait. "We have good governance," he told reporters. "I'd be happy to talk with him about it."
Wells Fargo (WFC), another big bank that has faced recurring calls to split up John Stumpf's chairman and CEO jobs, was similarly restrained on Friday. The San Francisco bank also referred to its distance from New York politics; Chief Financial Officer Tim Sloan said in an interview that he "wasn't even aware" that Spitzer was running for office.
"When I think about any public office, the responsibilities that various officeholders have, I would just kind of scratch my head and say, 'Gosh, should that really be the No. 1 item on their list of things to be concerned about?'" Sloan said.
He generally pushed back against the argument that splitting banks' top leadership roles is a best practice. Wells has combined and split the roles in the past, and "we absolutely agree that it should be something that a company should consider, and that from time to time it might make sense for a given company to do that," Sloan said. "But it shouldnt be a requirement, because when you look at performance of companies, you cant point to any sort of statistic or surveys or results that would indicate that when you split the role, the company's going to perform better."
Kevin Wack contributed to this article.