William Thompson’s Challenges

It’s not easy managing the city’s money these days. The late 1990s, when the city budget was flush with Wall Street money, seem like a distant memory. Lingering job losses after 9/11, a nationwide recession, the costly war and postwar occupation in Iraq, national Republicans hell-bent on tax cuts, state Republicans not at all eager to help NYC—it’s hard enough to keep the city running, much less try to renew its liberal tradition.

Along with the city’s other top elected officials, Comptroller William Thompson—a Brooklyn native, and currently a resident of Bed Stuy—is indeed confronting some monumental obstacles. But ensuring equity amidst austerity is something that Mayor Bloomberg and the leadership of the City Council, in tandem with Thompson, have managed to accomplish with somewhat surprising effectiveness. Setting a new course for the city’s economic future may seem an even greater challenge, although here, too, Thompson has begun to step to the forefront.

Even though Thompson is the city’s second most powerful elected official, much of his work in his first 14 months in office has gone underreported. In the Times this past February, a lengthy, controversial article about the changing of the guard in the city’s black leadership allotted only one sentence to Thompson. Yet this is not to say that he hasn’t established a power base, or failed to take on some powerful interests from here to Texas. Indeed, as comptroller, Thompson already has defined himself as a force to be reckoned with, so much so that some observers have speculated that he may be headed for greater political limelight.

As with anyone who holds the position, Thompson’s first challenge is to explain what the comptroller actually does. “It’s an office you can go to find out the truth of the city’s fiscal situation,” he explained to me in late February. During our conversation in his office late on a Friday afternoon, Thompson struck me as notably personable and thoughtful, a politician not given to sound bites. About as close to boilerplate he came was his characterization of the comptroller’s role as that of an “independent fiscal watchdog,” although it would be hard to sum it up otherwise.

Thompson devotes much of his time to figuring out the exact details of the city’s fiscal situation, and these days he is forced to paint a bleak picture. “Is it bad or worse than the mid-’70s? Right now it probably is worse,” he says. Part of the problem stems from the shortsightedness of former Mayor Giuliani and the City Council during the late-’90s, when the “city was spending as if the good times would never end.” And, of course, “Nobody could have foreseen 9/11, which is clearly responsible for half of the budget deficit.”

The point about the impact of 9/11 may seem obvious to most New Yorkers, but it actually contradicts what the Federal Reserve of New York stated in a report issued in late February. The Fed claims that “the city’s current downturn appears to stem largely from other, cyclical factors—namely, the national economy and the financial markets.” According to Thompson, the main differences in his reports and those of the Fed result from discrepancies in the duration of time each covers. He maintains that the Fed seems unwilling to acknowledge that “100,000 jobs lost [because of 9/11] have not come back.”

In order to help the city keep its budget afloat amidst the job losses and economic downturn, Thompson—along with City Council Speaker Gifford Miller—last fall took an early lead in pushing for restoration of the commuter tax. Mayor Bloomberg soon voiced his support, but the campaign has gotten nowhere in Albany, with some critics faulting the mayor for not playing power politics on the issue. Still, thus far Thompson has been in sync with the mayor and the city council on most budget issues, as well as on the majority of new city legislation.

But on one key issue, so-called “predatory lending,” both Thompson and the city council have profoundly disagreed with the mayor. Last fall, the council, with Thompson’s full support, passed legislation (overriding Bloomberg’s veto) that prevented the city from doing business with so-called predatory lenders, or banks that provide higher-interest loans in lower-income, often minority communities. On behalf of smaller lenders, a coalition of larger financial players—consisting of Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., the Bond Market Association and the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce—opposed the legislation, and in February Bloomberg actually filed a lawsuit attempting to block the measure. Other than Newsday, though, none of the daily papers have closely tracked the mayor’s brazen defense of “sub-prime lending.”

Thompson’s disagreement with another of the Mayor’s actions—the elimination of recycling—has garnered a bit more attention. From both a financial as well as an environmental standpoint, Thompson maintains that it’s in "the city’s best interest to go back to recycling.” Among other problems, he says, the mayor’s office did not account for the steep decline in paper recycling revenues that has accompanied the elimination of glass and plastic recycling. Most city residents, Thompson says, simply thought that all recycling programs had been scrapped.

Thompson’s call for the return of glass and plastic recycling has earned him no friends at the Sanitation Department. “The comptroller may not fully understand the cost of the recycling program,” an angry Sanitation Department spokesperson told the Daily News. Like many of Thompson’s positions, his critique is based initially on the costs of the matter. In this case, he is opposed to the city spending “hundreds of millions of dollars to get rid of our garbage.” As indicated by his recent proposal to keep shipping the city’s garbage away, Mayor Bloomberg seems unwilling to listen to arguments concerning the economic—not to mention the environmental—benefits of recycling.

Thompson’s stance on corporate governance, however, shows his ability to blend bottom-line economics with larger ethical positions. His Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) works on behalf of the city pension funds he oversees, in order to give shareholders full knowledge of companies’ various investments and business practices. In early February, Thompson squared off with Halliburton, GE, and Conoco Phillips over their investments in countries seen as sponsoring terrorism, such as Iran and Syria. In addition to angry denials of wrongdoing by each of the three companies, a spokesman for USA Engage, an outfit representing overseas business interests, said that Thompson’s charges were “just annoying.”

While some major corporations may also find Thompson’s meddling to be “annoying,” his goal is simply to find out whether “companies are acting in ways that benefit their own long-term growth.” As such, he views his work as “less about social commentary” than about whether “doing business in nations that support terrorism is in the best interest of long-term corporate earnings.” In the name of city pension funds, including those of teachers, firefighters, and police, Thompson has also sponsored the so-named “Social Accountability 8000” initiative, which investigates whether companies meet international standards of working conditions established by the International Labor Organization and the United Nations. Thompson’s ideas of “good business sense,” in short, seem to have a decidedly progressive dimension.

Thompson, who prefers to be called “Bill,” is originally from Bed-Stuy, although he eventually attended Midwood High School, which at the time was an overwhelmingly white high school. “Flatbush as a whole was not home to the large African-American community that big pieces of it are now,” he says. Over the past few decades, he has also seen other Brooklyn neighborhoods he’s lived in—Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and now to a lesser degree, Bed-Stuy—undergo gentrification. Looking at Brooklyn as a whole, Thompson maintains that “literally every neighborhood is in better shape than it was in the late-’70s, early-’80s.”

That same early February Times piece about the city’s new black leadership said that Thompson’s “roots are in the Brooklyn Democratic Organization,” which some may take as a knock against him, given the Brooklyn machine’s checkered reputation. Thompson for his part has no trouble being identified as a Brooklyn Democrat, whatever the connotations. He began working for Congressman Fred Richmond in 1975, and in 1983 he moved to work for then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden. But after ten years with Golden, Thompson became the Brooklyn appointee to the Board of Education, and as President during the mid-’90s he clashed frequently with Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew.

Thompson maintains a close relationship with the Harlem political fixtures Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, and Basil Patterson, the city’s so-called “old guard” black leaders, the “reports of whose death are premature,” he says firmly. He also counts Harlem’s David Patterson, leader of the Democrats in the State Senate, as a close friend and political ally. That his run for Comptroller came with Rev. Al Sharpton’s full support further illustrates the degree to which Thompson’s political base extends well beyond Brooklyn.

So will Thompson run for Mayor in 2005? He scoffs at the suggestion, saying only that “The future will take care of itself. Staying focused on doing this job is the best way to guarantee a future that has options.” Frankly, it’s too early to predict what will happen over the next few years, either in the city or around the globe. In addition to the immediate budget problems that result from it, the city’s current economic uncertainty also makes it difficult to look fully into alternative directions of future growth.

At the same time, it’s not clear whether Thompson actually differs from the mayor on core issues such as the city’s continued dependence on its financial sector. He is eager to talk about oversight, but not ready to break with the city’s pattern of subsidizing this intrinsically volatile sector. Still, Thompson’s willingness to mix it up with some key players—whether Halliburton, the Federal Reserve, or the Sanitation Department—suggests that at the very least he will continue to lead the fight for principled reform.

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Theodore Hamm