The race for New York State Comptroller is coming down to one question: which place do voters distrust more -- Wall Street or Albany? Both are derided as hotbeds of bad behavior, poor decision making and nomadic territories with no effective sheriff. But which one caused New York’s economy to tank?
In the first televised debate between the major candidates for state comptroller, each accused the other of driving New York to the brink of financial ruin.
Republican challenger Harry Wilson sought to paint himself an answer to “a fiscal crisis created by career politicians who’ve taxed and spent our state into disaster.” Democratic State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli quickly sought to make Wilson a product of the financial world.
“This campaign, this election, presents a clear choice for voters – it’s a choice between middle-class values and Wall Street values,” said DiNapoli. “Now, we all know what the risky behavior and the poor choices that Wall Street made” and “what that did to our economy.”
In one early volley, DiNapoli criticized Wilson for wanting to keep a tax break for private equity managers and hedge fund managers. DiNapoli said, “It is not affecting working people at all. It is a giveaway that your type of folks get and benefit from at the expense of the rest of us.” DiNapoli said he favored lowering taxes, especially property taxes, which are crushing homeowners.
Wilson, coolly, responded by saying yes, he did support that federal tax break for hedge fund managers, and said it illustrated a contrast with DiNapoli’s voting record when he was an member of the Assembly.
“As this point in the economy, given how fragile the recovery is I do not favor a tax increase of any kind on anybody,” said Wilson. “We should get spending under control to deal with our problems. But my opponent spoke about a property tax cap. Of course, the reason our taxes are so high is because of his record in the Assembly of over two hundred tax increases.”
Wilson went on the offensive when he pointed out that DiNapoli’s office is under investigation by the state attorney general’s office. The investigation alleges that “placement agents” who wanted to invest some of the pension fund paid kickbacks to allies of the former comptroller. (The former comptroller himself has not been charged, but is reportedly in works to enter some kind of guilty plea.)
At one point, DiNapoli said, “The office has been under investigation since before I got there. Read the papers. You’ve seen it. Everybody knows that.”
Wilson, needling DiNapoli along, said, “I just want to clarify this. If I’m wrong –“
“Excuse me,” DiNapoli interrupted. “There’s an investigation going on. We all know that.”
Later, DiNapoli said it was Wilson’s private investments that were worth scrutiny, especially the money he made by investing in a company that foreclosed on people’s homes.
“I just read in the paper about SilverPoint Investments,” said DiNapoli, referring to a company that dealt with “home-lending, subprime predatory lending. He [Wilson] made millions and people lost their homes. I think that shows you were part of that great wizardry on Wall Street, that hurt people, put people out of their homes and that melted down our economy.”
Wilson said SilverPoint was a company that, the New York State pension fund – which is under the comptroller’s watch – had also invested in. DiNapoli said the investment had been made before he arrived and that he withdrew from the company immediately.
“I did not personally profit from that money. You did. People lost their homes,” said DiNapoli.
“You lost taxpayer money because you have bad investments,” Wilson shot back.
Their biggest difference came when they were discussing pension costs. Wilson said those costs were spiraling and that a new, cheaper, pension tier was needed. DiNapoli disagreed, saying, “I think this notion that we have this massive pension problem is one that creates fear among people, especially among our retirees and I think it’s not based on fact.”
Both agreed that the office should be filled by a special election if it’s vacated between elections. Currently, a vacancy is filled by a vote of the state legislature, which is how DiNapoli was installed. Wilson said lawmakers should be subject to term limits. DiNaopli opposed the idea.
The two men said they each had their own tax returns prepared by other people, and neither recalled having bounced a check.
Both also exposed notable distances from the own party’s candidates for governor. Wilson, a Republican, was asked why he wasn’t supporting Republican Carl Paladino for governor. Paladino has made numerous controversial remarks, most recently accusing his rival of cheating on his wife during his marriage. Wilson said he was demonstrating his independence and not getting involved in the politics of any race other than his own.
DiNapoli said he wore it as a “badge” that he had been criticized by members of his own party – Governor Eliot Spitzer, Governor Paterson and State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, among them.
In their closing remarks, Wilson sought to paint DiNapoli – a famously affable figure in Albany’s capital – as a nice man, but ill-suited for the job.
“He’s a nice guy, but a 24-year creature of Albany,” said Wilson. Not to be outdone, DiNapoli described Wilson as a “one of the Don Juans of Wall Street” and now “he preaches like he’s St. Francis of Assisi about how he’s going to save the state through the comptroller’s office.”