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A ‘Mensch’ for All Seasons – The Inauguration of New York State Comptroller

January 19, 2011
Reprint from Long Island Jewish World, January 14-20, 2011 Edition

Thomas DiNapoli was inaugurated as New York State comptroller on Sunday in a Manhattan ceremony marked by a spirit of vindication and gratitude after a  hard-fought November election victory, the first time the former Long Island assemblyman was elected on the statewide ticket.

The inauguration, held in the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union, drew more than 500 attendees including DiNapoli family members, campaign supporters, union leaders and current and former elected officials such as: U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. State Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem emceed the event, which had been moved from the traditional Jan. 1 date in order to respect the Sabbath.
Wright applauded DiNapoli for winning his first full term despite being outspent by Republican rival Harry Wilson and lacking the newspaper endorsements lavished on the former hedge fund manager (this newspaper was among the very few that supported DiNapoli’s campaign from the outset). DiNapoli was appointed comptroller in 2007 after former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who pleaded guilty last fall at the height of the campaign, resigned because of a pay-to-play scandal with the state pension system. Then- Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, did not endorse DiNapoli, but Cuomo’s office confirmed that DiNapoli was not the subject of an ongoing investigation. The newly sworn-in Gov. Cuomo did not attend DiNapoli’s inauguration.

Wright also relayed a story from the 2010 campaign that epitomized the same qualities other speakers attributed to the comptroller. DiNapoli visited a senior center in Harlem at the exact moment when 30 women were engaged in a tai chi class that they refused to suspend despite his arrival. Nonplussed, DiNapoli calmly and politely sat down in the middle of the group as the women finished their exercises.

“They were taking the bad karma out of DiNapoli — truly the highlight of his campaign,” said Wright to the laughing audience. “He not only got the tai, but he got the chi.”

Those feel-good sentiments were echoed by Schumer, who acknowledged that he was concerned to see DiNapoli confronted by “forces that were large and unfair” during the campaign.

“If ever there was a person who deserved to overcome them and makes us proud that he overcame them, it’s Tom DiNapoli,” said Schumer.

DA Rice, who lost the Democratic nomination for attorney general nomination to Eric Schneiderman, said that DiNapoli, first elected to his Mineola school board at age 18, inspired her own entry into politics, a field about which the career prosecutor had been skeptical.

“Tom DiNapoli is himself validation that we can make the lives of those around us better,” she said, adding, “He is validation that government can work.”

New York State AFL-CIO leader Dennis Hughes praised DiNapoli for his “integrity” and “compassion” while Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said in his second blessing at the outset, “A mensch is just a mensch.”

Prior to delivering his inaugural address, DiNapoli took the oath of office as the state’s 54th comptroller from Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, surrounded by family members including his father and brother.

“The others were practice. This is the one that counts,” said an emotional DiNapoli in the first of a few  American history major, he referenced the 1860 speech delivered in the Great Hall by Abraham Lincoln, who was not yet known widely beyond Illinois.

“I guess, Speaker Silver, being a state legislator is not such a bad qualification for future careers,” he said to his longtime Assembly colleague.

DiNapoli devoted the majority of his remarks to his role as the state’s chief financial watchdog, charged with assuring accountability and transparency in a landscape roiled by billions of dollars in budget deficits. At the start, he said, his office would report on the state cash flow condition on a weekly basis and deliver a “clear and straightforward” review of the executive budget due from Gov. Cuomo on Feb. 1.

In remarks to reporters afterward, DiNapoli vowed to closely eye the winter and spring budgets negotiation process, which realists expect to be bumpy despite the governor’s calls for cooperation with the legislature in his State of the State address in Albany on Jan. 5.

“I’m not at the table negotiating the budget, but we’ll certainly be giving thoughtful analysis to the options that are there,” he said.

DiNapoli also expressed confidence that forthcoming figures would show the state pension fund at least holding steady at $132 billion and, in his address, he called for a continuation of the ban on pay-to-play agents and an end to the demonization of public employees as the state confronts a level of crisis not seen since the 1970s.

“It’s not a choice between taxpayers and public employees,” he said. “The last time I checked, public employees are taxpayers, too.”

The comptroller also pledged his support for a constitutionally viable pension forfeiture provision, campaign finance reform and public financing of elections, more potential divestment from companies doing business in Iran and Sudan, and aggressive audits of agencies including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Power Authority. The comptroller also said “the time is now” for marriage equality in New York state.

Despite the joyous atmosphere, a somber tone pervaded the ceremony as all speakers paused to reflect on the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz. the day before that left six people dead and seriously injured 19, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the first Jewish congresswoman from her state.

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