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Candididates Claim Comptroller's Fight: Albany Insider v. Wall Street Titan

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and candidate Harry Wilson Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and candidate Harry Wilson

The campaign for state comptroller has focused on two images that New Yorkers seem to like the least these days -- Albany's corrupt political culture and Wall Street titans. Both candidates in the race are tarring one another with these associations.

The current State Comptroller, Democrat Tom DiNapoli, is accused being an "Albany insider," closely associated with the state's political dysfunction, in ads run by his challenger, Republican Harry Wilson.

"Albany politicians chose one of their own for state comptroller," a narrator intones over ominous music.

DiNapoli says Wilson, who made his fortune working for investment banker Goldman Sachs, as well as a major hedge fund where he focused on restructuring finally troubled companies, is a "Wall Street Wizard" whose values do not match those of the average New Yorker.

"Republican Harry Wilson -- the worst of Wall Street, too risky for New York," the ad says, in part.

DiNapoli, a Long Island native, served in the Assembly for eight terms before he was chosen by Democrats in the legislature to become comptroller in early 2007, after Alan Hevesi was forced to resign in disgrace over corruption charges. Hevesi will now likely do jail time, after admitting to a pay-to-play scheme in which he accepted free travel and campaign contributions in exchange for steering pension fund business to an investment firm. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who conducted the probe, has cleared DiNapoli of any involvement.

DiNapoli admits the taint of the scandal has hurt.

"There was a problem with the office," said DiNapoli. " I can't make that history change, but what I can change is how we're going to do things in the future."

DiNapoli says he's made new rules to outlaw pay to play schemes, and installed an inspector general. DiNapoli says his audits have uncovered over $3 billion in wasteful government spending, and the state's $125 billion pension fund is performing well. And he says he's been independent of the political structure that he was long a part of, at times having deep disagreements with the governor and the legislature over the state's financial practices.

"I am not the legislature's comptroller, I'm not the governor's comptroller," said DiNapoli. "I have been the people's comptroller."

DiNapoli has been on the attack against opponent Harry Wilson, saying there's a downside to the restructuring of bankrupt companies. He cites the example of Fibermark, a paper company in Northern New York that Wilson restructured after it declared bankruptcy. Workers there say they had to take pay cuts, and lost health insurance and pension benefits.

"He personally profited, and people got hurt," said DiNapoli.

Wilson, who's from upstate Johnstown, believes his Wall Street background is an asset. He says he knows the ins and outs of the financial markets and can manage the state pension fund more profitably. And he says he wants to do more with the office.

"The constitutional powers of the office are all there, they haven't been used," said Wilson. "For example, the comptroller has the power to audit every dollar of state spending."

Wilson says he intends to do just that, to find "thoughtful" ways to curb what he says is unsustainable spending. Wilson says his experience in restructuring companies, including heading President Obama's team that successfully revamped General Motors, can help.

"GM's about the same size as New York, and has the same problems," said Wilson. "Weak management, costs are out of control."

Wilson says in he case of the restructuring of Fibermark, a lot of the ill will stemmed from a dispute between the CEO and the head of the union, and he says he eventually replaced that CEO. He says the alternative for Fibermark and other companies in bankruptcy would be for workers to have no jobs at all.

"It would have gone out of business completely," said Wilson.

Wilson admits there have been abuses on Wall Street, but he says no firm that he was involved with ever got TARP bailout monies or was implicated in any financial wrong doing. He says DiNapoli is simply "desperate."

Wilson has the endorsement of the editorial board of all three major New York City newspapers, as well as the Buffalo News and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, who say, essentially, that while DiNapoli has been a good steward, Wilson would do more with the office. Long Island's Newsday has endorsed DiNapoli.

Wilson is also independently wealthy from his days on Wall Street, and has been able to finance part of his campaign with his own money. In the final days of the race, he has $2 million more than DiNapoli, and is advertising heavily on television.

DiNapoli, who initially placed restrictions on the kinds of donations he'd accept, has the backing of some of the state's major unions, and will receive extensive help with phone banking to get out the vote and door to door literature distribution.

DiNapoli is also ahead in the polls, he's up by 17 points in a Siena College survey, in a state with heavy Democratic voter enrollment. Wilson claims his camp's own internal polling shows the race to be much closer.

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