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Dan Collins

Dan Collins

Posted: October 27, 2010 01:46 PM

The nation is abuzz with elections. Even people who don't normally get excited about politics are aware that the stakes are big, the Democrats are in trouble, the Tea Party is surging, the House and Senate hang in the balance, etc. etc.

Poor New York.

There are a few interesting House races, but for most New York City residents it's going to be hard to come up with a reason to get out of bed and vote, except that that's just what we do.

Senator Chuck Schumer is so far ahead he's giving his money to other candidates. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is running against a guy no one knows anything about, except that his daughter was a judge on American Idol. The one who just got bounced off the show.

And the governor's race - oh God. Carl Paladino. Well, at least he'll be gone soon.

I am telling you all this as a preamble to saying something I never thought I would ever, conceivably say. The most interesting race on the ballot next Tuesday for those of us who live in New York City is the one for state comptroller.

I know, I know.

The current comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, was appointed to the job when Alan Hevesi, who had just won re-election to the job, had to step down due to scandal. At the time, we thought Hevesi was a nice, sort of nebbishy guy who had gone way overboard in using a state car and chauffeur to drive his sick wife around. It turned out he was also taking nearly $1 million in kickbacks for placing $250 million in state pension funds with an investment firm run by an associate.

The comptroller is sole trustee of a $125 billion state pension fund, much of which is handled by outside investment managers who make a lot of money for their efforts. It's a crazy system that seems to beg to be abused. The comptroller is also supposed to audit public spending around the state -- in theory a huge bully pulpit for someone who wanted to try to go for big reform.

DiNapoli is being challenged by Henry Wilson, a 38 year-old expert in restructuring troubled companies. Sounds like a perfect fit, right?

Wilson had what the Times called "a meteoric 15-year career" in Wall Street, working for big investment firms. He then left finance and offered his services to Obama "car czar" Steve Rattner, who was about to begin the administration's effort to overhaul the automotive industry. Wilson, who made $20 million from 2005 to 2008, got a chance to give back and a salary of $64,000.

DiNapoli's campaign against Wilson has basically been one long wallstreetwallstreetwallstreetwallstreet. Wilson, in turn, says DiNapoli is an Albany insider, which is unarguable, given that the Democrat from Great Neck, Long Island, had served more than 20 years in the Assembly before he was basically picked by Speaker Sheldon Silver to succeed Hevesi. (Then-Governor Spitzer wanted a blue-chip outsider for the job, but Silver ignored him.)

Nevertheless, DiNapoli has, by almost all accounts, done a pretty good job. He barred the pension fund from doing business with paid intermediaries - the politically well-connected middlemen who got big finders' fees for "introducing" their clients to folks in the comptroller's office. He also created a Web site that lists all state contracts. He's a dedicated, personable guy and almost everybody likes him. On the other hand, when it comes to getting a good return on the pension fund investments, his record seems to be Not Terrible.

Wilson says the outside investment managers hired to invest pension fund money, to the tune of more than $300 million a year, don't do much of a job. During the downturn, he says, the state would have done better if it had just stashed its cash in pension index funds.

The polls show DiNapoli is ahead, but that's mainly because the average voter has no idea who Wilson is. There's still a little time and he's got a lot of cash.

Who knows? All I care about is that there are actually two candidates you could imagine voting for without a heavy heart. It's a race! In New York!