Spitzer has brought an explosion of public attention to the race for comptroller. Good: It’s arguably the second most important office in city government and shouldn’t be handed to someone in a walkover. Maybe now we’ll have a conversation about the job — and job qualifications.
Until Sunday, Manhattan Borough President Stringer was looking at that walkover, with an unimpeded path to the Democratic nomination. This being New York, any Republican would be ignored and Stringer would be set.
But Spitzer’s entry upsets that plan. Now there will be discussion, there will be debates. The public will learn about pension funds, auditing city agencies and approving city contracts.
And John Burnett will get a chance to tell his story.
The seventh child of Southern migrants who met in New York, he was born in rough East New York (which he calls “Vietnam”) before the family moved to Queens Village. He now lives in Harlem.
Burnett was, he says, “an ‘oops’ baby.” Pregnant at 43, his mother faced complications: “Her doctor told her that if she had me she would die and I would die (this was 1969). My parents made the decision to have me.
“The way I look at it, most people aren’t given a shot after they’re born; I wasn’t given a shot before I was born.”
His parents grew up in the Jim Crow South — James in Durham, NC, and Mary in Savannah, Ga. Their experiences informs Burnett’s mantra of “No excuses” — “How can I say, ‘This is difficult,’ when my father had it 10 times as hard?”
Starting out as a dishwasher, his dad did his job super fast so he could watch the cook. He learned to cook himself and eventually became the chef for an entire hospital. Even after becoming a Pentacostal pastor, he continued as a chef because he didn’t believe in living off his congregation.
Burnett says, “He always told me. ‘Son, work to create your own breaks. Don’t depend on anyone for anything.’”
After a year at Borough of Manhattan Community College, Burnett quit because he wasn’t learning anything. With no degree, he still talked his way into a margin-analyst position at Dean Witter.
In eight years, he rose to a “compliance” position which immersed him in SEC, NYSE and state securities regulations. He then moved to Smith-Barney for another eight years, as manager of the Global Markets compliance division.
Then, still working full-time, he went back to school at night earning a BS degree in Leadership and Management from NYU, then an MBA from Cornell.
And now politics.
He’d bring a common-sense, no-nonsense approach to city investment: “I believe in investing in an ethically and socially responsible manner [within reason] . . . If [say, green energy] is . . . earning at a comparable rate as other investments, sure I’ll support it. If it’s only yielding a small percentage, say 2 percent and I need it to earn eight, my dollars aren’t going there. That would be a violation of my fiduciary responsibilities in favor of doing something nice and social.”
He pulls no punches on the other candidates. Stringer is “a nice guy, but he’s not qualified.” And the one-time “steamroller”? “Being a bully doesn’t qualify you for anything. Being an opportunist doesn’t qualify you for anything.”
There’s not much love for Wall Street right now. How does he deal with that?
“Just because there are a few bad apples, it doesn’t mean the entire institution is bad. Anymore than the fact most of the politicians involved in scandals in recent years are Democrats. Does that indict the entire Democratic Party?”
What of the historic tension between African-Americans and the Republican Party? Burnett hauls out the heavy weapon that suggests this man truly has no fear.
“My goal is to get people on that side of the aisle tostop, question and frisktheir thinking. I want them to stop politically profiling me for my beliefs and judge me for who I am and what I can do.” Oh.
Whoever wins on the Democratic side — the son of family privilege or the favored son of the Democratic establishment — the race just gotveryinteresting. That person will face a man who truly embodies an up-by-the-bootstraps New York success story.