Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who Is This Republican Comptroller Candidate the Times Just Endorsed?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 3:05 PM

Oops, wrong Harold Wilson.
  • Oops, wrong Harold Wilson.
The Times editorial board is very, very impressed that "someone of Mr. Wilson’s talents and expertise [would] compete for one of the most important and least glamorous jobs in state politics," in endorsing Harry Wilson, Republican candidate for New York state comptroller, having previously talked up his son-of-immigrants background and Harvard pedigree in a laudatory April profile and never failed to mention them since.

Wilson's running a campaign partly financed by his own fortune, made at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere (the current picture of his finances is an incomplete one, pending the disclosure of his 2009 tax returns). he began his career in the public sector by sending an email of introduction to the former Times reporter, democratic kingmaker and finance-sector powerhouse Steven Rattner, volunteering for President Obama's auto-industry task force, which Rattner headed. In Rattner's book, as the Voice's Wayne Barrett recounts, Wilson, the only Republican on the team, comes in for special praise for his financial acumen and boundless dedication to the ultimately quite successful federal restructuring of General Motors.

The comptroller oversees the state pension funds and audits the government. Wilson—who seems to have been reasonably successful as an investor and at hedge funds, though he wasn't immune from the downturn—hopes to make what he sees as less risky investments with the pension fund; he'd also like to have investment decisions overseen by "a committee of retired career investors," per the Times above (who also note that "finding sage investors free of conflicts with one of the nation’s largest investment pools would be a challenge". Although, as we'll see, conflicts of interest would hardly be a novel introduction to the Comptroller's office).

Although trust in the benevolent expertise of financial-sector whiz kids is what got us into this mess, the argument that investments should be overseen by professional investors is a compelling one—Wilson must surely be smarter with other people's money than the Democratic incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a former Assemblyman who was appointed to position after Alan Hevesi resigned under a cloud of scandal and mismanagement.

It's this contrast in expertise that Wilson surely hoped to play up with his own audit of the state pension fund, which revealed it to be in straits rather more dire than claimed by the Comptroller's office. The economics of his audit were apparently quite sound, as well as politically beneficial.

If the state pension fund is as underfunded as Wilson says it is—and if it continues to siphon off money from elsewhere in the state budget—it speaks to the necessity of more professional management. But then again, the Republican party has lately taken aim at public-sector benefits, portraying them as unsustainable and rife with abuse, in their ongoing drive to dismantle social democracy. The pension plans are constitutionally guaranteed, and it's more than likely that Wilson's desire to manage them is in good faith—but, then, Wayne Barrett, in his close reading of Steve Rattner's book, also notes that, during the GM negotiations, raises several red flags regarding Wilson's willingness to throw the union under the bus.

As for the incumbent. In his time as Comptroller, DiNapoli has banned the use of "placement agents"—that is, paid middlemen who work on investment decisions. It's a responsible decision which also separates him, at least marginally, from the stench of Albany politics—a politically necessary move, for a political appointment in a position long rife with cronyism and corruption. DiNapoli was appointed by his colleagues (a dubious distinction in any body run by Shelly Silver) after Alan Hevesi was forced to resign, and later plead guilty for fraud, following a grotesque kickback scandal that involved, among others, Wilson's political godfather, Steve Rattner.

Anyway, this concludes our discussion of the race for Comptroller of the state of New York, a thing well worth knowing and caring about.

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