Thompson, William C. 1953(?)–
William C. Thompson 1953(?)–
New York City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. is the city’s sole African-American official to have been elected by citywide balloting, and the first black to hold the job in New York City history as well. In his inauguration speech, Thompson expressed his pride in having achieved such a historic first for African Americans in the city. “It’s a testament to New Yorkers, “the New York Times quoted him as saying. “When all is said and done, we put character first.” Inaugurated on the first day of 2002, Thompson faced some daunting challenges in his first months on the job. A record budget shortfall had already been forecast prior to September 11, 2001, when the city’s floundering economy was further decimated by the attack on the World Trade Center. As comptroller, Thompson oversees all of the multimillion-dollar financial transactions in New York City, the largest city in the United States and the fifth largest city in the world.
Born in the early 1950s, Thompson was named for his father, who eventually became an appellate judge. His mother was a schoolteacher, and Thompson attended area public schools, graduating from Brooklyn’s Midwood High School. Accepted into Tufts University in Massachusetts, he earned a degree in political science in 1974 and returned to his hometown to work in the office of a local politician, Fred Richmond, who represented Brooklyn in the U.S. House of Representatives. Thompson eventually served as Richmond’s chief of staff. In 1983 he won appointment as deputy borough president in Brooklyn, a post he held for nine years. He was the youngest person in city history to hold such a job.
Thompson took a brief respite from politics in 1993 when he became a senior vice president at an investment banking firm, George K. Baum & Company. He won another political appointment in 1994, when he was named Brooklyn’s representative on the New York City Board of Education. He served for two years and was elected board president in 1996. Thompson served four one-year terms, but resigned in April of 2001 to run for the post of comptroller in New York City. The office of the comptroller, with 750 employees, oversees the municipal budget and five municipal pension funds totaling, $85 billion. It issues municipal
At a Glance…
Career: Began as aide in office of Congressman Fred Richmond of Brooklyn, NY; became Richmond’s chief of staff; deputy borough president for Brooklyn, 1983-92; George K. Baum & Co. (investment banking firm), New York, NY, senior vice president, 1993-96; New York City Board of Education, Brooklyn representative, 1994-96, president, 1996-01; elected New York City comptroller, 2001—.
Awards: Honorary doctorates, Long Island University and Mercy College.
Addresses: Home —Brooklyn, NY. Office —Office of the Comptroller, City of New York, 1 Centre St., New York, NY 10007.
bonds, and sets and enforces wage laws. Despite the rather lackluster, number-crunching tone associated with the job, it is considered a stepping stone to the New York City mayor’s office.
During the campaign Thompson emerged as one of two viable Democratic candidates, and there was no Republican contender. His Democratic challenger was Herbert Berman, chair of the finance committee of the New York City Council since 1990. The two dueled in a bitter campaign in the weeks leading up to the September primary, with both accusing one another other of playing a role in the latest public finance scandal in the city, when $3 billion in cost overruns were discovered in a Board of Education building budget of $7 billion. Thompson, however, won a crucial endorsement from the New York Times, which noted that his “tenure as president of the Board of Education brought an unusual period of quiet progress. Mr. Thompson also seems the more energetic candidate, who would regard the comptroller’s job as a challenge to be met.”
The primary was scheduled for September 11th, and voting was underway when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, and New York Governor George Pataki halted the election later that morning. The primary was rescheduled for September 25th, and Thompson took 53 percent of the vote. Berman, who won 47 percent, conceded the race. Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, won the mayoral race that November, but the City Council, which approves the budget and has close links to the Comptroller’s office, remained a largely Democratic body.
Thompson began selecting deputies to oversee various departments, including those of the pension fund and contract review and auditing, and pledged to put more women and minorities in key management positions. He also floated the idea of investing some of the $85 billion pension fund in private equity and real estate, perhaps leveraging some of those assets to begin a building program that would bring more affordable housing to low and moderate income neighborhoods across New York’s five crowded boroughs.
Pledging to be a “fiscal activist“for the city, Thompson was sworn in as New York City’s first black comptroller on January 1, 2002, by his own father. Prior to administering the oath that day, Judge Thompson joked about his son “Billy,” and hinted that the post might lead to greater things. Stating that if his son performed his “usual good job, if you listen to your father and if God spares my life, eight years from now, I want to be back up here.” The comment was a veiled reference to the mayoral race, and newly elected Mayor Bloomberg appeared to joke on the dais, out of earshot, that he was happy that the elder Thompson had not said four years.
Thompson faced great challenges upon taking office. A major budget crisis loomed, caused by both a flagging American economy and the aftereffects of September 11th. Thompson’s office issued a report in May of 2002, warning that the budget shortfall could top $6 billion. There was hope that federal aid for rebuilding would help the city, but it was not likely to be forthcoming quickly enough to be of immediate assistance. A shortfall would mean a possible $500 million in budget cuts, with municipal layoffs, fewer police officers on the street, closed fire department companies, and a reduced garbage pickup schedule. In his report, Thompson appealed to state and federal lawmakers for relief. “Washington and Albany must now stand up and realize that New York City is not crying wolf and that we need additional help,” Thompson asserted, according to a New York Times report.
In his inaugural address, Thompson expressed his hopes for the future of New York City. “At this time of tradition and change it is a particularly daunting task to make decisions that will affect the lives of New Yorkers,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “And so it is with a sober understanding that I accept such an awesome responsibility of leadership in this majestic city, a city of fearless people.”
Bond Buyer, September 27, 2001, p. 31; January 28, 2002, p. 39.
Communications, April 23, 2002.
Crain’s New York Business, May 17, 1999, p. 44; December 18, 2000, p. 3.
Jet, March 4, 2001.
New York Post, February 20, 2002, p. 48.
New York Times, September 6, 2001, p. A22; January 2, 2002, p. B7; May 10, 2002, p. B8.
Pensions and Investments, December 10, 2001, p. 6; December 24, 2001, p. 2.
Additional information is available on the website for the New York City Office of the Comptroller, http://www.comptroller.nyc.gov/ (May 27, 2002).
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