Politics and Politicians

The New York Times, which wants politicians to run everything from our schools to our health care to our retirement, has lately been telling us just what kind of people it wants us to trust with our lives. People like mayoral candidate Bill Thompson:

As a first-time candidate for New York City comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr. was feted at a downtown fund-raiser in 2001 by two luminaries of the black business world: the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Mr. Simmons’s money manager, a veteran Wall Street financier who made his fortune promoting hybrid securities known as convertible bonds.

Speaking in between rap and poetry-slam performances, the financier, Tracy V. Maitland, made clear why he had taken an interest in the little-watched race for comptroller. “When you control $85 billion,” he told 200 guests crowded into a popular art gallery, “you get a lot of attention.”

Over the last 12 years, Mr. Thompson has repeatedly gotten Mr. Maitland’s attention.

After that fund-raiser, Mr. Maitland became a regular contributor to the campaigns of Mr. Thompson, a Democrat who is now running for mayor. Later, he pushed unsuccessfully for Mr. Thompson’s wife to be hired as president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where he is a trustee.

Mr. Maitland’s attention was not unrequited. In 2006, Mr. Thompson honored him at a Black History Month observance. And in 2008, his office for the first time began investing city pension assets in convertible bonds, pouring $324 million into Advent Capital Management, the firm Mr. Maitland founded. By the time Mr. Thompson left office, in 2009, Advent was earning $2 million a year in fees on those investments.

Mr. Thompson’s ties to Mr. Maitland reflect a pattern that emerges from an examination of Mr. Thompson’s stewardship of the pension funds and, more broadly, the comptroller’s office: Again and again, Mr. Thompson reaped political gains from those he awarded city business.

As he oversaw the city’s $85 billion pension system, Mr. Thompson steered the funds into a diverse range of new investment categories, expanding from heavy concentrations in stocks and bonds into private equity, real estate and niche funds. Yet performance was lackluster: nationwide, more than half of large public pension funds outperformed the five city funds’ combined 4.84 percent return from 2002 through 2009, according to a widely used yardstick compiled by Wilshire Associates, an investment advisory firm. Meanwhile, the city’s roster of fund managers, and their fees, tripled — and Mr. Thompson collected more than $500,000 in campaign donations from them.

Mr. Thompson’s credentials as comptroller and a seasoned manager are central to his mayoral campaign, in which he has portrayed himself as the grown-up in the Democratic field — less liberal, strident and showy, but best prepared for the sober task of managing an unruly city.

But interviews and a review of thousands of pages of records — schedules, e-mails, pension statements and campaign finance reports — suggest frequent overlap of Mr. Thompson’s political ambitions and the comptroller’s operation, and that like many pension overseers at the time, he raised campaign money aggressively from those seeking business from his office.

And his opponent Bill DeBlasio:

The anxious executive cornered Bill de Blasio in an elevator, with an urgent plea.

New York City was planning to allow thousands of new taxis to operate outside Manhattan, directly threatening his car and limousine business. Would Mr. de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, help block it?

It was hard to imagine Mr. de Blasio, a Brooklynite who built his reputation on standing up for the boroughs beyond Manhattan, opposing a proposal to improve transportation for his chronically taxi-starved neighbors.

But soon after the elevator encounter that day in 2011, the car service executive, Avik Kabessa, heard back from the public advocate’s office.

The message, Mr. Kabessa recalled, was clear: “Bill is looking to help.”

Mr. de Blasio would emerge as the taxi plan’s most prominent opponent, leading sidewalk rallies and using his office to fight it in court — and confounding allies who found his stance incongruous with his typical stands.

“I was flabbergasted,” said David S. Yassky, the taxi and limousine commissioner whose former City Council district borders Mr. de Blasio’s. “After hearing all his rhetoric about standing up for the outer boroughs, here’s a program that actually would help 80 percent of New York City, and he did everything he could to stop it.” 

The powerful taxi and limousine industry, which bitterly opposed the city’s plan, made its gratitude clear, sending about $200,000 in contributions to Mr. de Blasio’s mayoral campaign in the last two years, far more than his rivals received. And Mr. Kabessa, the chief executive of Carmel Car and Limousine Service, now sits on the campaign’s finance committee and was a host of a fund-raiser for Mr. de Blasio this spring.

And two years ago, this story on the Times-endorsed candidate, Christine Quinn:

To drive down Kings Highway in East Flatbush is to pass block after block of near-identical brick homes, neat gardens, statuary and ironwork.

Yet if you live on the road’s north side, in Councilman Jumaane D. Williams’s district, the leader of the City Council allocates about $2.50 per resident each year in discretionary spending. If you live on the south side, in Councilman Lewis A. Fidler’s district, the leader showers about four times as much on you, or $10 per resident.

These are tiny piles of cash in a $66 billion New York City budget. But working-class immigrant neighborhoods like these in Brooklyn suffer many afflictions: shabby buildings, drug dealing, too many young men with guns and too few with jobs.

Every dollar counts.

And politics seems to account for the difference. Mr. Fidler is allied with Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker. Mr. Williams is aligned with those who often annoy her….

She wields money as a cudgel, and — like past speakers — tolerates dissent best when expressed behind closed doors. 

And then there’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

[A]n investigation by The New York Times into hiring by the agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, shows how Mr. Cuomo’s administration has engaged in some of the same patronage practices that have often prevailed here….

While some of the new employees at Empire State had experience in economic development, others did not. Some of the jobs were not open to competition, and were filled with little input from the agency itself.

Empire State has also hired friends of Mr. Cuomo who may help form his political brain trust should he decide to run for president in 2016.

James P. Rubin, a former State Department spokesman, was hired at the agency in 2011 as counselor on competitiveness and international affairs, with a salary of $150,000 a year. Mr. Rubin’s appointment was seen by political consultants as a move by Mr. Cuomo to add a foreign policy hand to his stable.

Empire State hired 49 people in the first 20 months of the Cuomo administration, according to personnel records obtained by The Times. Nearly a third were the governor’s political associates, donors and friends, or their relatives, the records and interviews show.

When you want to put politicians in charge of our hard-earned money and other aspects of our lives, you shouldn’t be surprised when patronage, corruption, and favoritism rule. This is the business you have chosen.