NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state comptroller candidate Harry Wilson said on Tuesday he could turn around debt-burdened New York state just as he helped save General Motors (GM.N) as part of a task force last year.
The Republican, a former hedge fund manager, faces the incumbent comptroller, Democrat Thomas DiNapoli, in the November 2 election. And while the 38-year-old Wilson has never held public office, he believes he can help turn New York around.
“I spent my entire career coming into failed organizations, which I had no prior experience with; identifying the problems and then working to create collaborative solutions to fix those problems,” he told Reuters in an interview.
As one of four members of President Barack Obama’s auto task force, and the lone Republican, Wilson helped bring about changes that turned the company around.
He said General Motors and New York state are not so different -- about the same size and hobbled by decades of mismanagement.
“They both suffered from a series of steps that went on over time -- weak management, costs that grew out of control, increasingly more expensive commitments to retirees they couldn’t afford and didn’t properly plan for,” he said.
Wilson said he favors a more activist approach for comptroller -- who invests the state’s $125 billion public pension fund and audits state spending -- and said the post has “enormous untapped fiscal powers to drive real reform.”
“The comptroller needs to be the leading financial advocate in the state. The reason you haven’t heard that talk from the comptroller is that he hasn’t done his job,” he said.
DiNapoli has accused Wilson of not understanding the job and of proposing changes that would enrich Wall Street at the expense of middle-class New Yorkers.
“You pluck somebody off the street that doesn’t know anything about how state government works, they’re not going to be able to do that,” he said, not mentioning Wilson by name.
Wilson was endorsed by The New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News.
As comptroller, Wilson said he would undertake a line-by-line audit of state spending, lower the pension’s return rate to 5 percent or 6 percent from a current 7.5 percent and create an investment committee of “retired world-class advisors” to replace the sole trustee model.
DiNapoli has defended the sole trustee model, saying it makes the comptroller more accountable to taxpayers.
DiNapoli was appointed comptroller in 2007 by the New York State Legislature after his predecessor, Alan Hevesi, resigned and later pleaded guilty to a felony.
Earlier this month, Hevesi pleaded guilty to a second felony charge, becoming the seventh person to plead guilty in the pension kickback probe by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, now the Democratic leading candidate for governor.
Wilson praised DiNapoli for some of the ethics reforms made in the wake of the Hevesi scandal, but said the comptroller needed to apply a much stronger hand.
“The governor is the CEO of the state. The comptroller is the CFO of the state,” he said. “The comptroller needs to be the leading financial advocate in the state. The reason you haven’t heard that talk from the comptroller is that he hasn’t done his job.”
Wilson, the son of a bartender and a sewing machine operator who describes himself as a workaholic who would work all day and night and catch time with his wife and daughters at weekends, said he left the private sector to spend time with his family. But he said he is now committed to public service.
“I have a very nice life not doing any of this,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ciara Linnane, Joan Gralla, Ellen Wulfhorst and Burton Frierson; Editing by Mark Egan and Jan Paschal