2006 State Elections May Hinge on Billionaires

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Eye from Albany
December 2005

2006 State Elections May Hinge on Billionaires
by Paul M. Bray

Do you remember when a millionaire was a big thing? In the 1950s there was aTV program called the Millionaire where a character, Michael J. Anthony, would ring someone’s doorbell and soberly drop off a check for a million dollars.

Today, as you can see from the book, The Millionaire Next Door, millionaires have become more common. We’ve gone from a nation with one millionaire in 1785 to having 4 million millionaires in 2000 and that number must have grown greatly since 2000 due to ballooning value of homes.

Now we are in the age of the billionaires. With huge egos to feed, billionaires bored with their scores of homes in choice locations around the world and an endless ability to gather other luxuries are increasingly buying their way onto the political stage.

As a center of world finance, it is logical that New York is where this emerging trend unfolds. On the New York stage are Mayor Mike Bloomberg soon to begin his second term in New York City, Tom Golisano seeking the key to the Governor’s Mansion in Albany and George Soros who likes to use his money on political arenas all over the world including in New York State.

Forbes magazine lists America’s richest politicians. They include billionaire Winthrop Rockefeller who is only the Lt. Governor of Arkansas and US Senator Corzine, soon to be New Jersey Governor Corzine. Corzine may only be a multi-millionaire, but to get elected he spends his money like a billionaire.

Three nations have billionaire chief executives. In Italy, the longest serving Prime Minister since World War 11 is billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. He has been able to stay out of jail by using his power to have laws rewritten that threatened criminal liability for him. Lebanon and Thailand have billionaire prime ministers.

Billionaire politicians are often iconoclastic businessmen like Ross Perot. They can be hard to pigeonhole. Bloomberg switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party when he saw that the Republicans needed a candidate. Golisano, founder of the Paychex business-service company in Rochester, spent about $100 million to unsuccessfully reach for the ring three times as an independent candidate for Governor and now has registered as a republican.

Billionaire George Soros, estimated to be worth $7 billion, casts his net throughout the world while personally staying on the sidelines. His money has gone to supporting the establishment of civil society in Eastern Europe to efforts to defeat President Bush in the 2004 election. In New York he helped the challenge of Albany’s Assistant DA, David Soares, to knock off the incumbent DA. Soros supported repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws and the incumbent Albany DA was a vocal supporter of retaining the drug laws. Soros is also believed to be supporting efforts of State Senate Minority Leader David A. Paterson to gain the majority in the State Senate.

As we look to the 2006 state election, the billionaires and multi-millionaires are looming wild cards. State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno has been tilting towards Golisano as candidate for Governor despite Golisano being all over the ideological map. On the other hand, Republican Party chair, Stephen Minarik, supports the nomination of former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. Stalwart republicans, mere mortals in the world of multi-millionaires andbillionaires, like former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, Assemblyman Pat Manning and former Secretary of State, Randy A. Daniels, are each jockeying for position to get into the increasingly high priced race for Governor.

As a Republican Assemblyman told me, Senator Bruno looks to Golisano to help finance tough State Senate election races that threaten loss of Republican control of the State Senate. Apparently, the traditional sources of campaign donations from unions, real-estate interests and other groups are not seen as enough to take on the State Senate Democrats who have cultivated billionaire George Soros.

The newest billionaire on the State’s political block is Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot. Motivated by revenge, Lagone is reported to have lined up to support Tom Suozzi, Nassau County Executive. Suozzi has been making noises about taking on Attorney General Eliot Spitzer who comes from a multi-millionaire dollar family in a Democratic primary to be the party’s 2006 candidate for Governor.

“How much does Ken Langone hate Eliot Spitzer?”, Newsweek asked. “So much so that the billionaire financier is telling friends that he is looking to raise tens of millions of dollars to finance a long-shot candidate to challenge New York’s corporate-crime busting attorney general in his race for governor in 2006.”

Langone is entangled with Spitzer over the New York Stock Exchange golden multi-million dollar pay package to the Exchange’s former President, DickGrasso.

So, we have billionaires Golisano, Soros and Lagone at work trying to shape the State’s political landscape.

Given the strangle hold the State can have over New York City, don’t forget the demise of Bloomberg’s pet West Side Jets stadium project at the hands of State Legislative leaders, it will be hard to believe Billionaire Bloomberg won’t weigh in with his deep pockets on races for Governor and the State Legislature in 2006.

We, the hard working, tax-paying voters, are on the sideline for jousts amongst the giants of finance. Is this what democracy was supposed to be about?

Political writer, Kevin Phillips, wrote about the impact of wealth on American politics in his book, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. He concludes that too much wealth hasn’t helped democracy and too much democracy hasn’t helped wealth. With all the billionaires in play in New York, it is a sign we certainly don’t have too much democracy.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental lawfirm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.