Tom DiNapoli peered out of the 15th-floor windows of 110 State Street in Albany—“The Taj McCall,” the comptroller’s staff call the building, after Carl McCall, the predecessor of Mr. DiNapoli’s who shepherded the building to completion—and pointed out the landmarks below. There was City Hall. Over there, an historic church. To the side, the Hudson River. And right in front, the red granite roofs of the Capitol.
“You see, when they fire their cannons at me, they don’t quite hit. They come up just short,” said Mr. DiNapoli, tracing an imaginary shot with his finger from the statehouse to where he stood, an office just out of reach of the governor’s supposed artillery.
Among the incoming ordnance are Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to add a 401K-style sixth tier to the pension fund, a plan to take away some of the comptroller’s ability to audit government contracts, and the governor’s push for greater flexibility over governmental spending.
Despite being a Democrat, Mr. DiNapoli, has been fending off the state’s power class since he became state comptroller five years ago. This was after the then-comptroller, Alan Hevesi, had resigned en route to prison, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, in the heaviest part of his steam-rolling phase, tried to convince the Legislature that it should abandon its legal prerogative to name a replacement in favor of a candidate recommended by a panel of former comptrollers. The Legislature, never much keen on abandoning its prerogatives, balked and then voted in Mr. DiNapoli.
He had the dual advantages of being close to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and beloved by his fellow lawmakers, who hailed their appointment of him as if it were the election of an assemblyman to pope. “Nice Guy Tom,” as he is known around Albany, was called a role model for their children, “as perfect as God has made anyone” in the words of one lawmaker, “Mr. Clean,” in the words of another.
But Mr. Spitzer was apoplectic.
He visited the districts of even Democratic lawmakers to denounce them before their constituents for going back on their word and naming someone who in his view was manifestly unqualified for the job just because of they liked him. Mr. Spitzer went up to lawmakers and asked them if they would support someone who had “never done this before. Never invested a penny. Never made an asset allocation decision. Don’t know a swap from a derivative,” and allow that person to invest their pension money.
In a press conference immediately after Mr. DiNapoli was named comptroller, the governor called the proceedings “an insider’s game of self-dealing that unfortunately confirms every New Yorker’s worst fears and image of all that goes on in the Legislature of this state.”
Lawmakers, he said, had asked “not who was best qualified among the 19 million New Yorkers for this job, but rather, who among us will receive as a virtual gift this job that we control?”
“There was a lot of hostility early on,” said Mr. DiNapoli, in his typically understated manner. Five years later, he sounded still a bit taken aback by all the furor. He said he had been a big supporter of Mr. Spitzer’s and that there had even been rumors that he would join his administration. He said Mr. Spitzer personally lobbied him to run for an open State Senate seat, but in the end he became a symbol for all that the governor wanted to purge from the Capitol.
“[Mr. Spitzer] was riding high at that point so a lot of the editorials going back that far were against me,” Mr. DiNapoli said.
And they stayed against him when Mr. DiNapoli went before the voters of the state for the first time in 2010. Then, he ran against Harry Wilson, a Republican and wealthy former hedge fund manager who had served on President Obama’s auto industry task force. The comptroller’s office was still being investigated by then Attorney General Cuomo for pay-to-play allegations that occurred under Mr. Hevesi’s watch, and Mr. Cuomo refused to endorse or campaign alongside Mr. DiNapoli. Mr. Wilson outspent Mr. DiNapoli two to one and garnered the endorsement of practically every editorial board in the state.
He was bolstered by his old colleagues in the Legislature—Speaker Silver introduced him to a group of Chinatown retirees as “one of us”—and, mostly, his allies in the labor movement, who contributed a quarter of all his campaign funds. (The average statewide for unions was 8.5 percent of total contributions, according to Bill Mahoney, an analyst at the New York Public Interest Group.)
In a nail-biter of an election night, he declared victory at 2 o’clock in the morning with a four-point lead over Mr. Wilson, and told those still left at the ballroom in the Sheraton in Midtown, “From the bottom of my heart, I thank my brothers and sisters in labor.”