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The Pragmatic Politician

Best Western, Hempstead, Long Island: state comptroller Carl McCall campaigning in Blakeman's backyard
Hiroyuki Ito

For state comptroller H. Carl McCall, this year's campaign was to be a further testament to his uncanny ability to transcend race. After all, McCall is the only African American and the only Democratic incumbent, state wide, on the November ballot. In a Quinnipiac poll released late last month, he had a 33-point advantage over his Republican opponent, Nassau County majority leader Bruce Blakeman, in a race that most pundits said was a cakewalk.

But that's all changed now.

Last week, The New York Times reported that 35 percent of McCall's $5.2 million reelection campaign fund came from firms that received contracts to manage the state's pension fund. It cited one California firm that received an $85 million contract last December, three days after executives donated $16,000 to McCall's campaign. Two months earlier, the paper made similar charges regarding law firms doing business with the comptroller's office. A glowing Times endorsement was a big help to McCall in '94—he can probably forget about that in '98.

The charges provide powerful ammunition for negative ads that have already begun to appear in the closing weeks of the campaign, but admittedly McCall's fundraising activity is not illegal. In a New York Times/CBS poll last week, McCall's advantage had dropped precipitously, though he still had a 22-point lead over Blakeman."It's going to be devastating upstate," says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who nevertheless predicts McCall will pull out a victory.

"I think it's a one-sided, unfair argument," says McCall. "There's no connection between who we do business with, and who contributes to my campaign," he insists. "What the Times story didn't focus on was the people who do business with my office and don't contribute to my campaign. There certainly are more of them."

McCall is likely to hear the charge resurface during his October 15 debate with Blakeman. And he is certain to repeat his answer, which is that no one has been able to make the quid pro quo charge stick. "People can't find anything," he says.

That's not an inspiring response, particularly from a candidate who has been an advocate of campaign-finance reform. "People say if you believe in these reforms, then live by them. And if I lived by them, then I wouldn't have any money and I couldn't win," says McCall, adding that he's aware how untenable his position seems. "But you can't do that unilaterally. I can decide that I won't accept money from people who do business unless everybody else does the same thing.

"It's going to cost me $5 million to run in this race. I have an opponent who says he's going to spend $5 million. I've got to have $5 million," he says adamantly.

Rarely has a candidate come so close to admitting that he's chosen pragmatism over principle. But for McCall, it has long been a successful strategy. His political career has been remarkable mostly for the absence of controversy. An ordained minister, 63-year-old McCall has been a state senator, a UN ambassador, and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1982. After that there were stints as a Citibank vice president and as president of New York City's Board of Education. His breakthrough came in 1993, when he was named state comptroller succeeding Ned Regan, who resigned to head up a think tank at Bard College.

McCall has made the most of his state wide platform. Two years ago, he was on the short list of candidates to challenge Pataki, but took a pass. "It would have been difficult to overtake an incumbent who is as well financed as the present governor," he says.

McCall also points out that the governor has benefited from the current economic good times. "Whether Pataki deserves it or not, he gets credit for it," he says.

Of course, the same could be said of McCall, who boasts of the growth in New York's pension fund at every opportunity. But it is the boom on Wall Street that has largely generated the much touted gains in the state pension fund, which has grown from $65 billion in 1995 to over $100 billion today.

McCall argues it's not only the money that's important, but what he can do with it—as he sees it, financial success can translate into political action. "I'm very proud of the diversity of my office," says McCall, "in terms of having women and African Americans and Latinos in key positions—and also the firms that invest the pension funds."

But that diversity came under scrutiny in the Times article. Some of the investment firms specifically cited as having received contracts and having made campaign contributions were minority-owned firms.

On the campaign trail, McCall makes the most of his ability to hand out the money.

He chooses a luncheon at the 21 Club to announce the purchase of $5 million in bonds issued by the state of Israel, courtesy of "the one million members of the New York State and Local Retirement Systems."

At Joe & Joe's, in the South Bronx, his audience is made up of mostly black and Latino pols and Hunts Point entrepreneurs. McCall talks about the recently announced $100 million addition to the state's small business loan program that is designed to assist fledgling companies in economic development zones like this one.

But there are some who suggest he hasn't done enough for minorities, particularly in the black community. "I've maintained my ties to the black community," argues McCall, "but you shouldn't be confined to it." Indeed, he says, it was his powerful political mentors—Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, and Percy Sutton—who advised that he maintain "a base in the African American community, but identify with larger issues that cut across racial lines and appeal to other groups."

So far, no Democrats, white or black, have openly criticized McCall. "I think he's recognized and respected in the black community. He's the highest elected black official," says former mayor David Dinkins, who appointed McCall to the Board of Ed. "Some may not like his style. But he has a different way of communicating," he adds.

Privately, however, some say McCall is not such a progressive. And even Dinkins has expressed concern that McCall is running on Ray Harding's Liberal line in November. But while his investment decisions regarding Texaco amid charges of racial discrimination and his audits of the Giuliani administration have been good, critics say he's been somewhat passive on other issues, including pushing for black voter turnout.

"Carl McCall is a talented and charismatic bureaucrat," says Chris Owens, a community activist, member of Community School Board 13 in Brooklyn, and son of Congressman Major Owens. "I hope he does everything he can to maximize the black vote in this election."

"People always challenge you on that," says McCall of critics who say he hasn't done enough for African Americans. Given that he has his eye on statewide office, his approach is not likely to change. He may transcend race, but he won't rise above politics as usual. The comptroller's office is a stepping stone to his wider ambitions that don't include the mayoral race, which he sees as more racially polarized.

"Obviously I've got a big decision to make after November 3rd," says McCall. "I could, in fact, decide that I am going to run for governor four years from now. Depending on what other people like Senator Moynihan do, I could look at the possibility of running for the Senate," he says. "Or I could just say, 'Look, I've had enough of this. I'll just return to the private sector.'"


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