Now for Something Completely Different

Nearly a decade has passed since Charles Millard had the good sense to visit Wise Guys during what seemed like an unlikely campaign for a City Council seat from the Upper East Side. It was unlikely because he was a Republican, he was running against an incumbent, and nobody had ever heard of him.

Of course, he had a few things going for him, not the least of which were intelligence and energy. He won, and went on to become an in-house critic of the Council’s go-along, get-along culture. This, as you might imagine, didn’t make him particularly popular with his colleagues, which is a pretty good testament to his character. It also suggested that his tenure would be short and free of pleasant memories.

For a while during the early 1990’s, Mr. Millard and Council member Sal Albanese, a Democrat, were cross-party allies of a sort, both of them choosing dissent not for its own sake (or for the attendant publicity that dissenters inevitably get) but as a reminder that the Council had yet to establish itself as a serious legislature, despite claims to the contrary. Getting Council members to take themselves seriously has never been a problem; getting them to do the work so that others might take them seriously is, well, not the most rewarding of tasks.

Mr. Millard’s frustration was evident. Operating under the understandable but mistaken belief that things had to be better in Washington, he tried to win promotion to Congress in 1994. Political science students may recall that way back in 1994, before a chunky intern changed the face of modern politics forever (or for a year, whichever comes first), the nation was kind to Republican candidates for Congress. Not so the reconfigured, triborough 14th District, with the silk stockings of the

Upper East Side jammed into a drawer with the sweat socks of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Astoria, Queens. The one-term incumbent, Carolyn Maloney, directed her rhetoric not against Mr. Millard but against Newt Gingrich, then just another demonic revolutionary threatening the status quo. Mr. Millard lost badly, and summed up the experience in a phrase that any Monty Python fan would recognize: “She turned me into a Newt.”

He got better.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani rescued him from the Council by naming him president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation in 1995. “In the Council, being a member of the loyal opposition doesn’t necessary lead to accomplishments,” Mr. Millard said. “But at E.D.C., I was given a chance to get things done.” And now, 10 years and five children after entering public service, Mr. Millard is taking a private-sector job with Prudential Securities that no doubt will help keep fresh milk in the refrigerator and new shoes on all those little feet.

I’m not in a position to tell you what kind of job Mr. Millard did at the E.D.C., although it seems fair to say that somebody has been doing something right in recent years. The agency has been involved in deals leading to the construction of the Condé Nast tower and the new Reuters building, the proposed construction of a movie studio at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard and the development of high-tech businesses in Silicon Alley. “The bottom line about E.D.C. is that we try to create an environment where people can be self-sufficient and feed their families,” Mr. Millard told me.

I know that some of the E.D.C.’s corporate retention deals, known to critics as corporate welfare, have come under fire, perhaps rightfully so. But Mr. Millard and I have had long talks over beers about the plight of government agencies trapped by the reality of political boundaries while trying to work with the creators of our famously borderless economy. Say what you will about the merits of individual deals, or condemn outright the whole notion of corporate retention, but Mr. Millard’s big-picture, philosophical view of his dilemma offered a hint of the complexities he faced, and that others in the corporate-retention business will continue to face as long as capital is borderless and local governments aren’t.

At 42, Mr. Millard is young enough to return to politics should he choose, but he seems ambivalent about the prospect, as, unfortunately, any sane person would be. “One of my frustrations in elective life was the incredible amount of energy and time that was focused on merely myself,” he said. “It was about getting my name in the paper or getting my face in the newspaper, none of which advanced the cause of any bill or constituent service. Rather, it advanced the cause of raising money for my campaign.” While the work and energy level didn’t diminish at E.D.C., he said, “at least things were getting done, so you don’t get the feeling that you’re focusing on things that don’t matter.”

The shame of American politics is that so many people find themselves strangers to their families in the pursuit of things that don’t matter-like raising money, and raising more money. Mr. Millard no doubt considers himself lucky. He, at least, got a chance to do something real.