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Harry Wilson on the Campbell Conversations

Republican Harry Wilson is one of four candidates running for the GOP nomination for governor of New York in the June 28 primary
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Republican Harry Wilson is one of four candidates running for the GOP nomination for governor of New York in the June 28 primary

Four Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination for governor of New York in the June 28 primary. This week, Grant Reeher talks with one of those candidates, Harry Wilson.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is one of the Republican candidates for governor of New York state, Harry Wilson. Mr. Wilson is a business person with prior experience as a corporate consulting executive and as an adviser in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Mr. Wilson, welcome to the program.

Harry Wilson: Thank you, Grant. It's great to be with you.

GR: Well, I really appreciate your taking the time. So let me just start with a couple of very basic questions. If you could be brief on these, I know you have a lot to say on them. And then we'll get into some more details about your platform and your views. But first of all, briefly, what is the case against electing Kathy Hochul into the office?

HW: Sure. So, look, I think we have the most broken state out of the country, highest taxes, highest cost of living, rising crime. Washington Post ranked it the most corrupt government, the state government in the country. And I think Governor Hochul and her seven years as lieutenant governor and nearly one year as governor has not only not fixed the problem, I think she's made it worse. And so that's why I think we need a change. The only way to change that is to change the direction of the state is by changing governors. And that's why, as my offer is, I've spent 30 years fixing broken organizations, which is what I think New York state desperately needs.

GR: I want to get into some of the corruption issues a little bit later in our conversation. But okay. So that's the problem. Now, you said you've got this experience in the corporate sector. Is that why you think you can do better than Kathy Hochul?

HW: In part. And I also think that there is either a number of reasons that no disrespect to the governor, but I think, look, I've come into companies over my entire career that are in or near bankruptcy, that suffered from mismanagement, that failed to serve the customers. And as a result, were in danger of going out of business. Now, New York state is not in danger of going out of business because that has the power to tax. But we are in a slow death spiral because we've been leading the nation in outmigration for over a decade. That is a question of people firing our state. And of course, all the rest of us are left to bear the burden of that over a smaller population base. And so, you know, my case, what I would do is exactly what I've done in company after company come into the government and refocus it on the things that really matter to people, make sure we're world-class at delivering those services and then strip away the rest. And we've already done that at a high level. That will deliver $25 billion or more in spending reductions, all which will get back to the taxpayers of the state, which pays for a 20% cut in income taxes and a 20% cut in property taxes. A total game-changer for families struggling to get by. That's just one part of our turnaround plan. It's an important part. And so that's an example of what I think. If you have someone who's laser-focused on delivering for the customers of the state, which are the voters and taxpayers, we could be a dramatically better place to live and work because we are an awesome state. So my whole life, rather than college and business school and I know how much the state has to offer. As you know, I'm the only candidate from upstate New York. I grew up in Johnstown in a working-class Greek immigrant family, and blessed to live the American dream. And I think all New York kids deserve that opportunity. And I think the bad policies that have always squelched that opportunity for too many kids, it's unacceptable. And I know it can be fixed.

GR: So you used a lot of language from the business sector there. You talked about customers as opposed to citizens. And that really leads into the next question that comes out of what you just said. And that's… okay, so those are some of the ways in which you could apply, you see the way you could apply your experience with the corporate sector to government, but what are you, what are some of the most important differences between a business and a government in terms of how they need to operate? You mentioned that, you know, the state can't technically go out of business because it can tax its citizens or its customers, but they're different kinds of entities. And I wanted to probe a little bit about how you see the differences there.

HW: Yeah, absolutely. I'm answering two respects. One is I think the similarities are greater than the differences. If you define it properly. And what I mean by that is, you know, obviously, there's no profit motive in government, nor should there be. You know, but the question of, you know, the question for a corporation is, what's the mission of the corporation? And that's the same question for state government. What's the mission? And to me, the mission is providing the environment and circumstances for the highest quality possible, the highest possible quality of life at the lowest possible cost. I think it’s what all New Yorkers want. And so those things are very similar. But of course, there's no profit motive. You don't have a lot of the tools you have in the private sector. You don't have outside shareholders, but you do have outside voters and taxpayers. And those are the equivalent of our shareholders. And so that's why I think, you know, if you define it more broadly, the commonalities are much more significant than the differences.

GR: Okay. And the other aspect of this, most of the other candidates in the race on both sides of the aisle have more public office holding experience than you do. You have experience, obviously, in the Treasury Department. But could you address the concern that that might have, at least for some voters, that, you know, you don't have the political experience that some of them do?

HW: Yeah. So I'd say two things. One is ultimately the job of governor is my opinion, not the politician in chief. It's the executive of the state government, which is a $220 billion, 200,000-person enterprise. And I would say none of the candidates have had experience. And I do. And so, yes, they are all career politicians. I'm not. I think there's a lot of liabilities associated with that. But the second piece is, to your point, I spent less than six months in public life running the turnaround of General Motors. In those six months, we saved 1 million jobs. We took General Motors, which had been shrinking for 55 years and on the verge of bankruptcy for decades. We made it profitable and had record profits ever since. And I got paid by the U.S. Treasury, I think, over the pace of those five months, like $60,000. That's what it cost the taxpayers for all that expertise. So I would stack up by six months of experience and the value we created for the American economy over the decades of experiences my opponents have never really delivered anything for the people, the taxpayers of the state. And so that's the difference between my approach. And I think the other folks are effectively running to manage the decline of the state in different ways. Some would hasten the decline, some would just manage it more slowly. I'm running to actually fix it and make the state a much better place to live and work. But I know it can be. And it once was.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Harry Wilson, a Republican who's running for governor in this year's gubernatorial election. So let's get into the meat of the financial issues that you already highlighted earlier in your comments. And when you were talking about outmigration and New York being on a slow death spiral, the state does perennially rank at or near the top for tax burdens relative to other states. You mentioned both income and property taxes. Are there certain high taxes here that you think are the most damaging to the state's overall well-being and more damaging than others?

HW: Yeah, it's those two income taxes and property taxes. You know, we have the highest overall tax burden in the country. Income taxes is probably second and property taxes is first and depends on where you live in the state and your circumstances. You know, if you're a middle-class family in upstate New York, property taxes are more significant than income taxes. If you're an upper-middle-class family in the New York City suburbs, income taxes are more significant. But in either case, they're the top two. And that's why I focus on those two things. We wanted to deliver relief for people in a way that makes their quality of life better lives and more affordable. And to keep them here. Because, you know, when we if you're and as you remember, I found companies that are shrinking before I came in, and I can reverse the trajectory to help them grow. But I always say to people, it is so much more fun to be in an organization that's growing than an organization that is shrinking. When you're shrinking, you're constantly worrying, you're constantly cutting It's always a zero-sum game if you're growing, the expanding pie helps everybody. And that's why the states that have been growing, whether it's a Florida, a Texas, a North Carolina, Tennessee, they end up spreading that burden over a much broader base of people. And everybody wins when you're shrinking, everybody loses. And that's why it's so fundamental to get this right and tackle the things three things that drive outmigration. And we talk to people, this is true both in our conversations with thousands of New Yorkers, but also in our polling. It's crime, taxes and cost of living. Depending where you live in the state, you may change the sequence of those three things. But those are universally the top three things. That's why we talk about it so much. I think everybody says, “how do you feel about this issue?” I'm always happy to answer any question, but at the end of the day, politicians talk too much and accomplish too little. And I'm laser-focused on delivering exactly what we say in our three pillars in our first year. And that will make the state a much more affordable, much more prosperous, a much safer place to live and work. And then we worry about other things. But that's you know, that's the going to be the mission. You've got to focus on the things that matter most to people and deliver on those things and prioritize. Because if you don't prioritize the things that matter most either not get anything done.

GR: So let's unpack a little bit the turnaround plan. And, you know, you're talking about 20% reduction in taxes, which is enormous. How are you going to do that with the pieces of the puzzle there without cutting into the meat of the services that the state offers its citizens and that it needs to offer its citizen?

HW: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And look, I am you know, I'm a limited government conservative, but I do believe that the programs the government does do should be world-class. And so that's kind of the animating influence. In terms of the dollars, so we've been very deliberate how we developed the plan. We will cut at least $25 billion in spending, and that pays for all the tax cuts we just talked about. That's the math of the property/income tax cuts. How do we get the 25 billion in spending? I'll give you specific examples in about 30 seconds. But first, some context. So if all we did was grow the budget from where it was three years ago, which was not well managed three years ago, I would say it was terribly managed three years ago. It's just gotten that much worse. If you just grew that by inflation, which is, you know, is a record highs. The budget would be nearly $30 billion smaller than it is today. That's how much we've gone off the rails in the last three years. And Governor Hochul deserves a lot of that blame in her latest budget. And then secondly, if you compare us to, forget about Florida, which is half our size of this budget, even though it's bigger in terms of population, let's look at Massachusetts, deep blue, Massachusetts right next door. Massachusetts spends one-third less per capita than we do. So that would be $70 billion smaller than our budget. So when I talk about 25 billion, whether you get there from where we were three years ago or Massachusetts, it is small relative to how far off the rails we are, but it does come down to specifics and we've already laid out the path to $25 billion. A lot of it comes down to I'll give you two or three examples. These are things that don't affect the lives of everyday New Yorkers, but do affect politicians who use these dollars to pay off special interests for campaign contributions. So, Governor Hochul has two slush funds. One is $6 billion and one is $2 billion. She proposed three totaling ten. She ended with two totaling eight that have almost no they have no legislative role beyond the initial allocation and no controller oversight. So she can use those as broadly as she wants that language around it is one paragraph for each of the two is that it's that broad. You drive a truck through it and she is going to use that to, you know, to basically give money and benefits to politically favorite constituencies. And there are a lot of well-documented cases where this the Buffalo Bills Stadium or the Penn Station redevelopment or a lot of the corporate welfare, where she's doing that right now, that should be zero. That doesn't serve anybody except her reelection prospects. And that's unacceptable. I think that's corrupt. So that's one that's a big example. The second example is corporate welfare. You know, this is something that Andrew Cuomo really ramped up in his time and Kathy Hochul has continued to build on, which is a allocation of taxpayer dollars by politicians to politically favored businesses. The return on investment for taxpayers is quite small. There are some high-profile failures like Buffalo Billion and you know, Solar City. And most of these programs, costs $800,000 for a job, a public money to create a job. Terrible return on investment. You know what Florida's economic development budget is? Zero because companies want to go there because it's a low tax business-friendly environment. And we have so many other assets that Florida doesn't have. We have the best universities in the country. You cannot stack up Florida's university system hours any day of the week because we are far superior and all that talent that's graduating from those schools, some of which are our kids. Some which are kids who come here from other states are leaving because we don't have the jobs to support them. It's tragic. It's a total lose lose. And so if we create a much more business-friendly, low tax or a regulatory environment, we create that. We don't need to give taxpayer dollars to bribe businesses to come here, which is basically what it is. That's over $5 billion a year. So you see, you've already got halfway there. And two things that don't affect the average person at all. And that's why I actually think the opportunity set is much bigger than what we're talking about. But I always under-promise and overdeliver always the opposite of what a politician typically does. And that's why I wanted to commit to what I know. What will get done is the 20% of the property tax cuts.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I’m Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Harry Wilson, the Republican who's running for New York state governor in this year's election. Well, before the break, you were discussing in detail your turnaround plan and how it would go after certain aspects of state spending that you think are not needed. I have another question about a big chunk of the state budget, which is Medicaid. And when you look at Medicaid in terms of let's just compare it to California, I believe that New York per capita spends about twice as much as California on this and that that is another you know, you mentioned Massachusetts as a blue state to compare it against. That's another blue state. Do you have plans for how you would try to reform the Medicaid system in New York?

HW: Yes, I do. And it's a hugely important issue. And this is a classic example when talking about Grant in that we have the most expensive Medicaid in the country by a lot. Not even close. And yet we have quality outcomes that are near the bottom. That's a total lose-lose. How is that acceptable that we spend the most, but yet deliver good quality health care to people who are impoverished and need support, need help? And so it's because there's a pervasive lack of accountability across all elements of New York state government, because we have politicians who say, I want to spend more as opposed to actually deliver outcomes. So I measure outcomes, not inputs. I think that's how we define compassion. How do we actually help people, not just how much money we spend when it's ill-spent? And so I'll give you an example. So home health is one of the largest components of the Medicaid budget. New York State has 6% of the country's population, but spends more than half of the home health dollars in the entire country, or nine times the national average on that. Now, home health can be an incredibly effective tool. It can be cost-effective. It could be very good for the patients who get to stay in their own home. So it could be a win-win, but because there's no accountability, because the eligibility requirements are drawn so broadly and the care requirements for providers are reimbursement been drawn so broadly, there's no there are no quality controls around it. And so the beneficiaries don't have good outcomes and we spend a heck of a lot of money. So that's so, so this kind of approach of, say, Cuomo talked about this, but then he put health care executives in charge of the redesign. And those folks, predictably, did what is best for their institutions, as opposed to what's best for the patients. And so because I have a lot of health care experience, I would focus on reorienting the Medicaid program. So it actually focuses on quality outcomes for its beneficiaries, and that will both result in better, better services, but at a lower price. So Massachusetts as an example, they spend. So they're more expensive than California, but they're a third lower per capita. But we're there. So there are 100 bucks per person or 150. And so it's a big difference. But their number one public health and that's that should be the goal is how do we deliver a top-five public health program at a reasonable cost? And I think we have a long ways to go in both. But that's how it reoriented every part of the Medicaid program, which is not necessarily what the special interests who are driving lobbying dollars want to hear. But it’s what the people who benefit from Medicaid and should benefit from Medicaid need and want to hear.

GR: I want to change now to crime. That's another one of your pillars. And certainly, it has emerged as one of the top, if not the top issue for voters in the state. When you ask them what they're concerned about and I know you have a lot to say about this, but if you could be brief, I want to try to because I want I wanted to let you elaborate on the budget issue. But I also want to squeeze some other questions. And before we stop. So if you could briefly, what are the most important policy changes when it comes to crime, especially violent crime that you think the state needs to make in order to get a better handle on that?

HW: Yes, I'm sorry, brevity is not my strength, but I’ll be as brief as I can be. There’s a lot to talk about, a lot of problems. But the short of it is we have a 14-page anti-crime plan making New York safe on our website at Harry Wilson for governor dot com and it has four principal pillars, repealing bail reform, supporting our men and women in law enforcement, firing rogue district attorneys, and then a long series of changes that don't get as much attention but are necessary to holistically attack the root causes of the surge in crime we've sadly experienced over the last three years on a statewide basis include everything from addressing the discovery reforms that have led to fewer prosecutions erroneously some of the parole reforms. So the issues with the whole that have led to a culture of failure and dangerousness within our prisons, it's led to record defections of correction officers that we desperately need. So it's a long list of things. We did it by taking a holistic approach of interviewing people across the law enforcement spectrum and understanding and understanding what is not working. What's led to the spike in crime and then addressing policies that would fix each of those problems?

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is New York gubernatorial candidate Harry Wilson. Okay. So related to the crime issue, the New York state legislature and Governor Hochul seem to think that more gun control is an important piece of this. Give me just your quick assessment of the package of gun control laws that the state just recently passed.

HW: So this entire debate, I think, epitomizes what's wrong with politics, is politicians predictably go to their talking points in their corners. And instead of attacking the root causes, the root causes of crime and gun violence are not law-abiding citizens and restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens almost 100%, maybe even 100% of the problems are driven by three categories of people criminals, the mentally ill with violent tendencies and purveyors of hate, like this monster who drove from Conklin to Buffalo for the Top’s tragedy and we have done a horrible job on each of those because they require hard work and focus, and instead the politicians default to their talking points. So that's why you have to talk about crime and our attempt to do it. You know, there used to be a very robust effort to break up what's called the iron pipeline of illegal guns flowing to criminals in New York state from other states. That has been dismantled in the last few years. That should be that should be reinvigorated. We should not be allowing illegal guns to get in the hands of criminals. We should be protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens who are doing things right and follow background checks and the right process. But we you know, those are all things that we failed to do on the criminal side. On the mentally ill, we've actually reduced the number of psychiatric beds in the state for the last three years at a time when mental illnesses is spiking. And obviously, people face a lot of challenges, particularly coming out of the pandemic. So despite spending all this money, we spend in the wrong places. And so an area where actually can make a difference, we're not investing the proper resources. And then third, and finally, the purveyors of hate. There had been two years ago formed a domestic terrorism task force that had not even met the governor, hadn't even made her appointments to it until after the Tops tragedy. So we have these potential institutions in place that aren't even being managed properly to actually address the core problem. I believe we tackle those three things that we actually will see a dramatic reduction in violence of all kinds and people will feel a lot safer. But we're doing a terrible job in each of those three that the things that really matter make a difference.

GR: And briefly on the just in the last few days Supreme Court decision on New York's stricter provisions about permitting the permitting process for handguns, striking that down. Is that something then that you approve of? You're in you're you're in agreement with the Supreme Court on that?

HW: Well, look, I think I think the Supreme Court's ruling, as I understand it, from my brief read of it, is that they basically said, look, you can't have arbitrary standards on constitutional rights. You can have objective standards. And that's what they that they struck down. And so that intuitively makes sense to me as a matter of constitutional law. I'm not a constitutional legal expert, obviously. But that said, this really makes sense to me. And I think this is, again, a classic example. So as you watch Governor Hochul, she spent, you know, apocalyptic language around this change when really the court had a very narrow decision around a specific piece of the law that 44 other states did not have. There was only six states that were affected, as I understand it, by this issue. And so, you know, that's a classic example. Politicians demagoguing an issue as opposed to the root cause, which I think was what we need to focus on.

GR: You got about four minutes or so left and I want to squeeze a few questions and if I can, I'm going to get a lot more political now with this one. One of your Republican opponents has made an issue of your lack of a relationship with former President Trump. He's called you a “Never Trumper” on many occasions. And I have to say this has puzzled me on a number of levels, as it would seem to me that someone who's supported Trump is going to have a very steep hill to climb in the general election in a state like New York, even steeper than a Republican would normally have to climb in the state of New York. So I just wanted to get your thoughts on this issue of your relationship with Trump. Can you clarify it? Can you clarify your non-relationship? Just give you a few seconds to talk about that.

HW: Sure. Well, look, I think the attack is totally dishonest, it’s not accurate. That's not how I characterize myself. I did vote for the president in 2016. I agree with many, many of his policies. But in 2020, I wrote in Nikki Haley, a conservative Republican. And so that's the basis for the completely distorted accusation. The reason he does that, he doesn't have a positive vision or record to run on. And so he resorts to name-calling that he thinks will resonate with the base. The voters are smarter than that. They know it's not true. And that's why I think his attacks have not really hit home. In fact, if you notice, he actually stopped doing that for the first, he had a disastrous first debate performance where he did that nine times. He stopped doing it. He realized it was ineffective and ineffective, which is not true.

GR: So so how would you characterize yourself in terms of your view of the former president at this time? I mean, it seems to be a litmus test among Republican candidates this year.

HW: You know, I don't agree that's a litmus test. I think what people are looking for is they want to have someone who's going to fight for them. And that's one of the things that a lot of Republican voters saw in the president and that's one of his chief appeals. They want someone who's not part of the Republican establishment. They want someone who is not a career politician who just sells out the people of the state to roll over, to cut a deal. And that's, I think, a big part of how I'm different from the rest of the field is I am an outsider. I'm not beholden to anybody. I can't be bought. I can't be bullied. I've negotiated incredibly complicated deals, far harder than the state budget, and that's why I'm going to deliver for the people of the state. And so that's what I think people focus on. And I think what people are focusing on, are you this kind of Republican or that kind of Republican, it distracts from the core message of what we're trying to do. And that's why I resist that all the time, because I think people just really need to understand who I am and what I can do as opposed to anybody else who's not on the ballot.

GR: So we just have a couple of minutes left. One minute, really. I want to squeeze two more questions. This is kind of like our lightning round, now we've got the lightning round. But you mentioned that you're from upstate and you were the first in your family to attend college, but you've made most of your money downstate. So convince me in 30 seconds that you're still an upstater.

HW: Sure. Well, so I spend all my available free time back home in Johnstown, where my a lot of my family, a lot of my friends live today. So I had yes, I would have loved to have gone to Johnstown after Harvard, but there weren't any jobs available for me. And so that's why I care so much about the upstate economy. That shouldn't be the case. I shouldn't have to live somewhere else. Now like I've built a great life and all that. So I'm happy in Westchester with my wife, who grew up there. But I would have loved to have come back to Johnstown. I just it just wasn't an option at the time. And that's what that's why I want to fix, because I want every kid to do that, which if that's what's in their best interests.

GR: And so last and again in about 30 seconds, you've talked already about the corruption and the political culture in Albany. Every candidate says they're going to change that. Tell me what your special sauce is. You've already mentioned your corporate experience, but is there anything that you'd want to add extremely briefly on this?

HW: Yeah. So, you know, a lot of the companies that have failed that I’ve come in to had this exact same problem and I had to cut through it to make sure that it worked for the true stakeholders of the company. So that's exactly what I would do at Albany. I have fought my own friends in these cases because I believe so deeply in having proper governance and ethical conduct. I think that's the foundation. And so that's why I think I'm different than anybody else who talks about it, but actually hasn’t fought for it at the most difficult circumstances.

GR: All right. We'll have to leave it there. That was Harry Wilson. The primary for governor is this Tuesday, June 28. And you can find my earlier interviews with other candidates for governor on the Campbell Conversation webpage under the local programming tab at WRVO dot org. Mr. Wilson, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me and be well on the campaign trail.

HW: Thank you so much, Grant. Great to be with you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, Conversations in the Public Interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.