The New York Now Interview: Paul Rodriguez
NEW YORK NOW - This week, we speak with Paul Rodriguez, a Republican running for that job against incumbent Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat who we spoke with last week.
DAN CLARK: I want to start by introducing you to our viewers. You have been on the show before. We've talked about you a little bit on the show. But can you tell me a little bit more about your background? What brought you to this moment?
PAUL RODRIGUEZ: Well, on a personal level, I'll tell you, I'm a native New Yorker, born in Queens, to working class parents who unfortunately separated shortly after I was born. So I was raised by my single mother in Queens. She left and I was raised partly in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then in Roswell, Georgia, which is a suburb of Atlanta, basically as an only child. And really having to work very hard from very young. I worked my way through school, got my college degree and eventually cold called my way into a job at the old Solomon Brothers.
So I came back to New York then for my adult life, started out my career as an equity research analyst. That for those of you who don't know is when you hear in the financial media, that's the person who says, oh, for example, Goldman Sachs put a buy rating on PepsiCo stock with a $15 price target. That's the kind of thing I did. So I used to do in-depth analysis of companies and industries. And I have had the great fortune of of, in a way, stepping into the nonprofit sector and the faith based nonprofit sector of the Archdiocese of New York.
But it's just been it's been an incredible ride. I'm married. I have three daughters, the oldest of which got married earlier this year, 27 years old. And the other ones are 15 and 11. And I'm hoping that my oldest doesn't quite make me yet a grandfather, although I tend to look younger than most people think, you know, yeah, I'm getting up.
DC: May actually be an advantage if you're a grandfather now.
PR: Exactly. But like I read one time about Brad Pitt, he said when he went through his midlife crisis, he bought a Porsche. I can't afford a Porsche.
DC: And neither can I. I don't think most New Yorkers can. So you ran for New York City comptroller last year on the Conservative Party line?
PR: Yes, I was recruited initially. We were trying to go for the Republican line. And at the time, it seemed that they were all going to coalesce around an individual candidate. Both the Republican conservative didn't actually work out that way.
I won't necessarily go into the details. And even though I ran as only a third party candidate did quite well, particularly within the history of the Conservative Party, I got about five and a half percent of the vote, about over 59,000 votes, which compares to only 20,000 or so registered conservatives in the city of New York.
"I really do it because I want to help people. I love the state of New York, and I believe that we're in a difficult place right now and we need some new ideas and some different perspectives from what we've been getting."
So I got about two and a half to three times that amount, and I think that's showing is something that impressed enough people too. Then they come to me and said, would you be willing to consider running for state comptroller?
And I turned them down many times. But then it's like they say, Well, you were asked to serve. Then you answer the call. I don't do this is a vanity project. I don't do this to agonize myself.
I really do it because I want to help people. I love the state of New York, and I believe that we're in a difficult place right now and we need some new ideas and some different perspectives from what we've been getting.
DC: So if you're elected, you would have a four year term to start out. At least tell me what you would want to do over those four years. Do you have any big ideas that you would want to really shake up the comptroller's office with?
PR: Well, frankly, there's two main functions that the comptroller has. One is to be the primary watchdog and provide oversight over any activity or state funding issues, including the $220 billion state budget. On the other hand, the Comptroller is the sole trustee, meaning the principal person in charge of managing the state's roughly $270 billion pension fund.
Now, that's basically, if you think about it, it's about half a trillion dollars that one individual can exert influence over. And yet most people don't seem to know who the comptroller is or what the comptroller does. Yes, in terms of the oversight side, I believe that the office has been underutilized in terms of its full capacity.
I was corrected today that not everyone, but let's just say many people particular in the political arena seem to agree that my opponent is a very nice man. He's not really the type of person who wants to rock the boat, stick his neck out too much.
He's willing to go after petty corruption, $5,000 here and there. But I do believe that there's very big, large problems in the state that should also be looked at and in fact, should be prioritized. Case in point being, the $637 million no bid contract for COVID testing that was given presumably to a donor of the Kathy Hochul campaign who had not donated really in the past. But that particular year, coincidentally, of course, happened to give $300,000 in donations. So those type of things, there should be room to be able to do a lot more of that.
And I believe that's been lacking. So I think there's a lot more to be done in that. And then on the other side, with the pension plan, I believe. Frankly, that is irresponsible and unethical for any elected official to be using that pension fund, the value of that pension fund, and the power that comes with it as a tool to push whatever personal politics or narrow agenda that they may have. So, for example, our incoming controllers at times criticized hedge fund managers, saying that, you know, they don't share our values. They don't share a point of view.
But then in many ways, he is managing in certain aspects of the pension plan as if it were a hedge fund. So I don't think pension public pensions should be managed like private activist hedge funds. I think the primary drivers of the investment management decisions within the public pension plan should be is it prudent, is it ethical and is it legal? And then from there, all the things can come through.
"I believe. Frankly, that is irresponsible and an ethical for any elected official to be using that pension fund, the value of that pension fund, and the power that comes with it as a tool to push whatever personal politics or narrow agenda that they may have."
DC: I want to circle back to the pension fund if we have time, because it's really important. But I want to talk about oversight for sure, because I think when we talk about corruption and misconduct in state government, which as you remind our viewers, we have no short supply up here in New York. I think that is just such an important role in the state comptroller's office. Is there anywhere specific in state government that you would want to narrow in on in terms of your auditing power as the comptroller if you're elected? Is there anywhere that you want to just dove right into?
PR: First and foremost, and this may sound glib, but I assure you it's not. I think one of the first places I need to look at is within the comptroller's office itself. Hmm. Not not to suggest that there aren't some many, many very good professionals within the comptroller's office.
But I'm reminded that a few years ago, Mr. DiNapoli hired a gentleman named Governor Kahn, and only a few years after he was hired, maybe about two or three years after that, he ended up getting embroiled in his own pay to play Scandal, where he received about 100.
I think officially the figure was about $100,000 in gifts and cash, but basically to funnel business to two particular brokerage firms who were compensating him. So I think it's very difficult if as a comptroller, your responsibility is to root out that corruption and to ensure that the state remains clean.
You have to make sure that your own office is clean and that the appropriate controls are in place. So I think it's very important to make sure that the operations that I'm going to be overseeing are functioning properly, so as to ensure that we are be able to do our oversight job for the state.
DC: Yeah, absolutely. And I think when you talk about that, too, there's also this this part of this job that you have to consider independence. We when we talk about independence, we're usually talking about somebody like the lieutenant governor or the attorney general. But you also have this tremendous power, as you said, in the state comptroller's office. So let's say you went in November and Congressman Lee Zeldin wins in November. How do you make sure that there is a firewall there between you and that governor to make sure that you're doing your job as a check on state spending?
PR: Well, one of the reasons that you've probably seen why the attorney general candidate, Michael Henry and I have done a lot of work in press conferences together, is because we are supposed to be those independent watchdogs. Right. And we're supposed to be more apolitical in that sense. So it's a very important thing. And my attitude has always been and even when I ran for city comptroller, first of all, I can work with anybody who is at the executive, regardless of party. But by the same token, I'm not going to show any preference or favoritism towards anyone in the executive.
Of course, I am part of the statewide slate. I support Congressman Zeldin. I think he is the best choice for governor for the state of New York. And I think everyone within our statewide slate can bring a lot more a lot newer perspectives and really some much needed oversight that I believe were lacking some much needed leadership. But by the same token, as comptroller, I'm going to do my job and I will go after whoever. I don't care if they're Republican, Democrat, conservative, libertarian. I don't care. My objective is to serve the people of the state of New York, because I think they've been taken for granted for much for far too long.
That's one of the dangers of entrenched one party rule. People who are elected don't feel that they're really beholden, that they really need to be held accountable by the voters. And I think that needs to change.
DC: You know, if if you are elected and the congressman is elected, there's also a good chance that the legislature will still be in the hands of Democrats. The assembly in particular is a Democrat stronghold, the Senate. We'll see that how that works out. I'm wondering because I've asked this question to people running for this office before: Do you wish that your office that this office would have more power than it does now? Is there anything more that you wish the state comptroller could do?
For example, do you wish that you didn't have to refer things to a prosecutor? Maybe there's a special prosecutor at the comptroller's office, which is not an idea that anybody has ever said before, I don't think, but I'm just spitballing here.
PR: I actually don't have a problem with referring because I don't think the controllers necessarily in and of it's in and of itself supposed to be a law enforcement arm. I think they should work in conjunction with law enforcement when necessary, but I don't think necessarily the controller should have subpoena power or anything of that nature, at least not at this point. Perhaps once I'm in the office or have a different attitude towards it.
What I think one of the biggest challenges is that I don't think that a very powerful bully pulpit, that is the comptroller's office, is utilized well and efficient enough and there's nothing keeping the comptroller, whether they can look at a specific contract today or not from commenting and from expressing opinions or from expressing certain values or certain concerns about conflicts of interest, about optics of something.
Mr. DiNapoli something says, listen, it's not illegal for donors to give money and to receive contracts, true. But the idea that because it's not illegal and I cannot prove that could ever be any quid pro quo. It's just out of sight, out of mind. If you have that attitude, well, is it any wonder that pay to play continues to happen, even happening in his own office?
You need to be able to read between the lines, go beyond just what you see right in front of you in terms of the numbers. That's the purpose of auditing, is to dig down and investigate. And if your attitude is, well, I can never prove it, well, let's be honest, these sort of things are never written down pat. You're not going to find an email that says, "Hello. Thank you for those donations. I'm going to give you this overpriced contract." Right. Things don't happen that way.
And if you and if you were expecting people to believe that that's how things happen, you're basically just using that to shield yourself from or to shield yourself from criticism due to your own inaction in going after it.
DC: It's really interesting. The Office of the State Comptroller, you're right, nobody really recognizes the power of the office, but it just has so much power. Which is why when we talk about races like this, it's so important. And I appreciate getting you to talk about it. Paul Rodriguez, a Republican running for state comptroller. Thank you.
PR: Thank you so much for your time. It was a great privilege. I appreciate it.
THE PRECEDING IS A TRANSCRIPTION FROM THE BROADCAST VERSION OF NEW YORK NOW AND HAS BEEN CONDENSED FOR CLARITY.