His Eyes Set on Mayor’s Office

Comptroller William Thompson, noncommittal for now, makes clear his end game

“I don’t think I’ve made any secret that I’m thrilled to be comptroller and I think we’ve used this office in ways that benefit the people of this city,” William C. Thompson said toward the end of an interview in his One Centre Street office.

“Would I like to be mayor one day?” he added, coolly. “ Sure. Sure.”

Even while conceding that he has Gracie Mansion in his sights, Thompson, elected the city’s comptroller in November 2001, made clear that, though he has been “very active,” both in fundraising and in working the political circuit, he will not make his announcement about a mayoral bid until the end of the year, “in late November or December.”

“It is really a question of where does the city stand and where is the mayor at that point,” he explained.

Throughout the one-hour session, which ranged from his efforts to win shareholder resolutions at major U.S. corporations, to his tenure as president of the now-defunct city Board of Education, to his support for same-sex marriage rights, Thompson exuded a calm, but studied confidence.

And why not?

Politically he is in an enviable situation. Under the city’s term limits law, he can still seek another four years as comptroller in 2005 should he decide the time is not right to go for the mayoralty. In contrast, several Democratic politicians also mentioned as potential candidates, including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, are not eligible to seek re-election to their current posts, and so may feel more pressure to challenge Republican Michael R. Bloomberg. Fernando Ferrer, who narrowly lost the 2001 Democratic mayoral runoff to former Public Advocate Mark Green, but who has been out of public office since he left the Bronx borough presidency at the end of that year, may also feel that he would be best served by moving sooner rather than later.

And, as a politician who is almost definitely going to seek one of two major offices in the city—the mayor’s post or reelection as comptroller—Thompson also enjoys significant fundraising viability. On Tuesday evening of this week, Thompson held a splashy party at O.W. Bar on East 58th Street in which leading gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists and leaders turned out in force. Since he has not yet clarified his political intentions for 2005, sponsorship of the event should not be taken as a mayoral endorsement, but the host committee was impressive nonetheless, including state Sen. Tom Duane, Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Daniel O’Donnell, City Councilmember Philip Reed, Alan Van Capelle of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), Democratic state party vice chair Emily Giske, the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, and the Stonewall Democrats.

Two Democratic heavy hitters, New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Senate Minority Leader David Paterson of Harlem headed up that list.

In the vein of working the political circuit, Thompson also appeared last week at ESPA’s first Equality At Work Awards luncheon, which honored IBM, Patricia Vivado, a portfolio manager at JP Morgan Chase who helps lead that company’s LGBT employee group, and the Corcoran Group, a middle markets real estate firm.

Should Thompson decide to throw his hat in the ring regarding a run for mayor, he would come to the LGBT community with significant bona fides.

During his tenure as comptroller, Thompson has worked in high profile fashion to continue efforts pioneered by his predecessors, Hevesi and Elizabeth Holtzman, to press corporate America for fair treatment of its LGBT employees. As trustee of the city’s five employee pension funds, Thompson acts as one of the largest institutional investors in the market, and has worked for gay and lesbian nondiscrimination policies at a host of major corporations, including American Electric Power, El Paso Corporation, JC Penney Company, Inc., Georgia-Pacific, and the ExxonMobil corporation.

Shareholder resolutions require significant organizing, but many companies respond once it becomes clear that the issue has attracted interest even among a relatively small percentage of investors. Thompson’s office has claimed credit for changing policies in 20 companies, including a heated, 11-year battle over hiring discrimination at Cracker Barrel restaurants. His work on the shareholder issue has won him praise from workplace fairness advocates such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Equality Project, a group that pioneered gay and lesbian advocacy on Wall Street.

According to HRC, 381 of the Fortune 500 now have policies against sexual orientation employment discrimination.

At a recent meeting of the Stonewall Democrats, Thompson signaled his intention to dig deeper into the agenda advanced by the Equality Project. The group has put together a platform of ten Equality Principles for workplace fairness, which in addition to sexual orientation nondiscrimination, presses for an end to hiring bias on the basis of gender identity and expression and for domestic partnership benefits.

While Thompson has worked with the Equality Project for years, early in 2003, when asked whether he was prepared to offer a shareholder resolution pressing for a gender identity/expression nondiscrimination policy, the comptroller told Gay City News, “Right now, no. With a number of these corporations, it is one step at a time.”

Apparently, that is about to change. Since the meeting with Stonewall, Thompson has been huddling with a group of activists interested in identifying targets for such a resolution.

We “have laid out a general approach with which we are going to identify some companies,” the comptroller said of his meetings.

Pressing for domestic partnership through shareholder resolutions may be more difficult, and Thompson will say only that his office is studying the issue.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which governs shareholder resolutions, allows investors to launch petitions on issues of significant public policy affected by corporate actions, but “ordinary business” of a company, for which staff and the board of directors presumably have the best expertise, are not eligible for such oversight. Discrimination in hiring qualifies as such an issue of public policy interest, but employee compensation does not.

One source familiar with SEC rulings told Gay City News that the question of whether domestic partnership policy can be the subject of shareholder resolutions has gone before the government body on four occasions—all brought by anti-gay groups seeking to overturn such policies at IBM, Coca Cola, Boeing, and SBC Communications. The SEC ruled against the effort each time.

Thompson is a supporter of legislation passed earlier this month by the New York City Council, and sponsored by out lesbian Christine Quinn, that would require contractors doing business with the city to offer their gay and lesbian employees domestic partnership benefits on par with spousal benefits. Bloomberg has vowed to veto the measure, but the lopsided Council vote suggests that he could be overridden. Similar legislation in San Francisco has been a catalyst for companies adopting domestic partnership plans. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 212 of the Fortune 500 have such policies.

Prior to his tenure as comptroller, Thompson, who is 50, spent seven years on the city’s central Board of Education—the last five as its president—a body done away with when Bloomberg succeeded in achieving a longtime goal of New York mayors, gaining City Hall control of the public schools.

Though he questions some of Bloomberg’s moves since seizing control of the schools—most notably his management of the recent flap over the “social promotion” of third graders—Thompson endorses mayoral control of the schools in principle.

“You had the local school districts for elementary and middle and the central board for high schools and larger issues of curriculum,” he said of the old system. “Nobody was in charge. I thought it was a dysfunctional system. In the end, mayoral control makes sense.”

While Thompson is careful to allow that conditions on the ground may have changed since he left the Board of Ed, he makes clear that he saw a good deal in the schools that was ripe for change, but also highly resistant. He said the schools did not do enough to curb harassment against gay youth and other vulnerable populations, did not do enough regarding sex education and condom distribution, and were not competent in educating youth on diverse family and home environments.

“Could they have done more? Yes,” Thompson said about each of these areas.

In part, he said, the problem was due to chancellors reticent about emphasizing such issues in the wake of the drubbing that Joseph Fernandez took in the early 1990s when he tried to oversee implementation of the Rainbow Curriculum. He mentioned Rudy Crew, who served under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as someone unwilling to pursue matters of sexuality that might “sidetrack his goals for education in general.”

Thompson said the aversion to such matters was shared by a number of his fellow board members, and that as a result the city schools failed in carrying out sex education and condom distribution mandated by law. He argued that he was among the few leaders on the scene, even while acknowledging that he received his own share of criticism.

“I would say that the system could have done a lot more and I was probably one of the members along with some others who was one of the few who would push,” Thompson said. “And even then some of the advocates would say I wasn’t pushing enough.”

Thompson used the occasion of the May 13 interview to underscore his support for gay marriage rights, saying that he would be willing to urge Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to make Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney aware of his opinion that same-sex marriages sanctioned there would be recognized in New York, a step his fellow Democrat took the very next day. The comptroller said he agreed with Spitzer’s view that same-sex marriage rights would likely be won in New York in the courts, and that he would not challenge the attorney general’s opinion that they are currently not available under state law.

Thompson used the marriage issue to take a gentle jab at potential mayoral rival Gifford Miller. Recalling that prior to the Spitzer opinion on current marriage law he agreed with calls coming from the LGBT community for City Clerk Victor Robles to begin issuing marriage licenses, Thompson argued that Miller’s high profile City Hall rally on the matter may have been a bit of showboating.

“I thought a little of it was playing politics,” Thompson said, “because it wasn’t just that Victor should, it was that the mayor should order Victor to.”

That comment might reflect Thompson’s personal style, perhaps more low key than Miller’s, though it also suggests that he might not be too hard-elbowed even in the Democratic primary.

Thompson believes that during the last mayoral election the Democrats were too fractious for their own good. Referring to the 2001 sudden death primary contest between Green and Ferrer, he said, “I think the run-off was very ugly.”

Making clear that he believes that Ferrer was the victim of the ugliness, Thompson was nevertheless unwilling to place any individual blame for what happened.

Still, as the man who if elected would be New York’s second African American mayor, Thompson issued a warning: “It was just an ugly period. It is something that the Democratic Party needs to be careful about, needs to be very careful about.”

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