Scarlett brings nonpartisan respect to Spitzer's office

As press secretary for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Juanita Scarlett tries to help New Yorkers and reporters understand what sets him apart from other government officials.

As press secretary for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Juanita Scarlett tries to help New Yorkers and reporters understand what sets him apart from other government officials.

Reporters call at the oddest times for Juanita Scarlett. Wire services from overseas will phone her in the pre-dawn hours, and reporters in time zones different from hers in Manhattan will ring up after 5pm has come and split. The press secretary for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer thrives on the irregularity of her job, however. She speaks with an almost idealistic zeal about her role in promoting what she and others in Spitzer's realm have dubbed "the country's largest public-interest law firm," even though it's clearly a government office. But Spitzer is no one's idea of a typical government official. It's Scarlett's job to make sure the media - and all its viewers and readers - understand that. "The policy of our office is to protect the people of New York, regardless of politics, position, and pedigree," says Scarlett, 37, as she battles a cold at her large desk in a snug office with a 25th-floor view of Manhattan's teeming Financial District. Three TVs flicker against the wall, tuned to CNN, CNBC, and New York 1. "We bring cases that affect the wealthiest of our society, like some of the Wall Street cases, to the poorest and most vulnerable communities, including recent immigrants." Spitzer has been a lightning rod of controversy the past few years as he has done legal battle in several high-profile cases. Many surrounded wrongdoing at mutual funds and investment houses, beginning with a $100 million settlement with Merrill Lynch in 2002 for shady stock research and continuing through a suit filed earlier this month against former New York Stock Exchange CEO Richard Grasso - and the exchange itself - over Grasso's large compensation package. Spitzer also has tackled highly covered cases about pollution and gun manufacturers. These cases have projected Spitzer into a national, even global, spotlight. Scarlett stepped into that widening spotlight as deputy press secretary and a speechwriter in January 1999, shortly after his election. Within a year and a half, Spitzer appointed her to press secretary, closing a circuitous path that began in her native Jacksonville, FL. Scarlett's office is about 50 feet down the hall from Spitzer's, and the two talk an average of 10 times a day, he says. "It's constant back and forth," Spitzer says. "She is integral to crafting the message, helping explain what we do, why we do it, and, when we get results, obviously, explaining those results to the public at large and primarily to the media. So without that communication message and that role, nobody would understand, I think, what we do." Growing up, Scarlett dreamt of being a TV news anchor. The dream evaporated shortly after she arrived at Syracuse University, where she'd received a scholarship to study mass communications. Bitten by the politics bug, she began arranging her career plans around an idealism tempered by pragmatism. "When I got to Syracuse, I probably realized [journalism] wasn't the route for me," she says. "I became aware of politics and the world outside of my small, conservative Southern community. But I do think where I grew up played a role in my wanting to be a public servant. It helped shape my view that we live in a world where respect, fair play, equal opportunity do not come automatically - and sometimes not at all - for people who lack resources." Her first job in politics came via an internship with Gov. Mario Cuomo's administration. The governor started his days very early. Someone was needed to read the papers and break down the big stories for Cuomo's digestion at breakfast time. So, Scarlett, who was working full-time as an associate editor and writer for Panel Publishers, read the papers at 4am and faxed a summary of the day's news to the governor's mansion. Within six months, she moved to Albany, hired full-time as a press officer. She learned the machinations of politics and media relations on the job. "I guess my experience dealing with reporters was extremely limited," she says. After Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term in 1994, Scarlett led MTV Networks' public responsibility and network standards effort. She then spent a year doing PR and media relations for the American Stock Exchange. In August 1998, she returned to politics as a VP at George Artz Communications, a major political consulting firm in New York founded by George Artz, former New York Post editor and a chief of staff to New York Mayor Ed Koch. "The communications world for political offices or elected officials is pretty small," Scarlett says. "So, George recruited me and convinced me to come work in his office. I'm very glad I did." There, Scarlett worked the press for state and city campaigns, including that of Spitzer, then running for his first term as attorney general. After Spitzer's election, Darren Dopp, whom she replaced in the Cuomo administration, tipped her off that the new attorney general was hiring his executive staff. Dopp now handles mostly upstate media relations as Spitzer's communications director. Scarlett concentrates on the New York City media market and the day-to-day communications of the office. She also works statewide on selected issues like labor, civil rights, and the Wall Street investigations. It's all done in a non-adversarial, nonpartisan way, Scarlett says. Though Spitzer is often rumored as a 2006 Democratic candidate for New York governor, Scarlett says her office does not toss politics into its messaging. "Our philosophy is to treat reporters with respect," she says. "We always try to be helpful. People think government PR is dominated by a confrontational approach, always taking the defensive position. Sometimes you have to tackle cases and issues that are not politically expedient or may not be popular. But if you do that on the merits of the case, you may make enemies, but the reward of serving people who have no other option and no other voice far outweighs any criticism that could be leveled." Juanita Scarlett January 1999-present Press secretary to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, state of New York August 1998-January 1999 VP, George Artz Communications September 1997-August 1998 Acting director of media and public relations, American Stock Exchange February 1995-September 1997 Manager of public responsibility and network standards, MTV Networks November 1991-January 1995 Press officer to Gov. Mario Cuomo November 1989-October 1991 Associate editor/writer, Panel Publishers

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