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Sleeper Candidate?

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A surprising article came in yesterday on the Internet -- Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice wrote a column on Runnin' Scared, the Voice's political blog. That title was used in the 1960's for a Voice column written by Mary Perot Nichols (1926-96), a scourge of corrupt politicians.

The article was headed: "HARRY WILSON'S WAR; STEVE RATTNER CREDITS MUCH OF GM'S RESCUE TO OBSCURE NY COMPTROLLER CANDIDATE". You can click here to read Barrett's highly informative piece.

It is a fascinating account by Rattner, the former car czar now under fire for paying the tribute required by the disgraced Alan Hevesi to do business with the New York State pension funds. In his new book, Overhaul, Rattner describes the federal intervention that not only saved General Motors from bankruptcy and possible liquidation, but rescued thousands of suppliers to GM from the prospect of substantial losses. This would have led to escalating unemployment, primarily in middle America. He gives Harry Wilson credit for the government strategy and for persuading/threatening creditors, bondholders, unions and the company into accepting it.

Wilson, at this point practically a complete unknown, is the Republican candidate for State Comptroller, opposing incumbent Thomas P. DiNapoli, who was installed by Assembly Democrats, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, when Hevesi was forced to resign from the position to which he had just been re-elected. DiNapoli has now been Comptroller for three and one half years, and is running for what would in fact be a second term.

Meanwhile, the state has plunged further into financial disaster, with the Comptroller issuing periodic warnings against overspending. It is said in politics that the Comptroller must be more fiscally responsible than the Governor (or the Mayor), but how much more responsible he should be is debatable. There is a great difference between pious statements and using the powers of the office to restrain spending. However, considering Rule 8-F: "Do not bite the hand that feeds you," it is understandable that an unelected official not tangle too fiercely with the legislative leaders who gave him the honored position that he holds, an office that will benefit him for the rest of his life as his pension will be computed on his highest three years in salary, and the job pays $151,500, which really isn't much for the sole trustee of funds that have exceeded $120 billion. The salary suggests another Rule, 8-M: "He who pays the piper calls the tune." The theme in both Rules is evoked in Rule 8-FM: "Whose bread I eat, his song I sing." When Hevesi was Comptroller, he received two pensions, one for his legislative service for 20 years, and the other for his professorship at the City University of New York. Hevesi was a triple dipper.

DIGRESSION: Anyone who can figure out why the three Rules cited above are named and numbered as they have been is invited to send us the answers. Winners' names will be published, unless you crave anonymity, in which case your wishes will be respected.

RESUMPTION: No one knows for sure what a person will do once elected, and we have been both pleased and disappointed over the years by the action and inaction of public officials. More often than not, their performance falls short of their promises.

We have deliberately not gone into the details of what Wilson did with GM. They are laid out in Barrett's article, and are relatively complicated for readers who are not that financially sophisticated. The plan, however, seems to have worked out well so far with the company showing multi-billion dollar profits midway through 2010. The success so far of the GM intervention reflects credit on the Obama administration and the people who put the plan together.

The difference between financial brilliance and political success, however, is wide and deep. Before there is any kind of a contest for State Comptroller, people will have to learn who the candidates are. If they know, they can make their choice, applying whatever standards they see fit. If they do not, the election is likely to be a formality. Races for lesser offices tend to attract minimum attention, and in this case there was no primary in either party which would have provided opportunity for exposure by the candidates. That has a disproportionate negative effect on the less well-known candidate, in this case Wilson.

The next eight weeks will show us whether the Republican candidate can ignite widespread feelings against incumbency and the public demand for fiscal responsibility and truth in budgeting into support for himself. The more people who find out about Harry Wilson, the more likely that possibility will become. But the odds are against Wilson because of the predicted Democratic blowout for governor and the two Senate seats, and because the public is even less aware of the Comptroller race than the primary for Attorney General, where five candidates are competing to oppose Daniel Donovan, District Attorney of Staten Island, the Republican nominee. The current AG is Andrew Cuomo, who is, as you know, seeking higher office.

The Republican ticket this year is stronger at the bottom than at the top. Their task is to identify themselves to the voters and present their case. But in a state with 19 million people, spread over different media markets, that is far easier said than done, unless the candidate approaches Bloombergian resources.