Eliot Spitzer Could Use Comptroller’s Office to Engage Pension Funds in Politics

The Great Divestor?

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The obscure and unsexy nature of the job he’s seeking has added a level of farce to Eliot Spitzer’s comeback. That’s a little skewed; it’s the “downgraded” nature of the job that makes Spitzer a credible candidate. Like Mark Sanford, he’s only asking voters to put him on probation with a job less glamorous than the last one. (Anthony Weiner, who wants to be promoted from minority status in Congress to the most powerful municipal job in America, is the outlier.)

But it’s not a powerless job. If elected comptroller, Spitzer takes hold of $140 billion in assets, and stewardship of several hundred thousand pensions. He’s written in the past about how pension funds could be used for greater purposes, like steering money away from the wrong industries. He wrote this for Slate after Newtown.

If a major union pension fund or university endowment has an investment with Cerberus, it surely doesn’t want to be tarred as a passive owner of the company that sells semi-automatic weapons with no background checks or concern for the use of the weapons. Those investors have enormous leverage over the Cerberus. And all those investors collectively, if they spoke with one voice to the management team at Cerberus, could wield vast power. Ownership has both responsibility and power. It is time for every comptroller and pension fund manager with an investment in Cerberus to use that power.

And after Cerberus sold the Freedom Group, Spitzer celebrated, suggesting other pension fund managers take heed.

Imagine if the pension funds and endowments that own much of the equity in our financial services companies demanded that those companies revisit the way mortgages were marketed to those without adequate skills to understand the products they were being sold. Management would have to change the way things were done.

Imagine! For a pretty obvious reason, Spitzer hasn’t had to answer many follow-up questions today about what sort of comptroller he’d be. But surely this is what he’s thinking. One of the private equity funds that the pension fund’s invested in is, of course, Cerberus.

UPDATE: Matt Zeitlin does some reporting on how Spitzer would be limited or empowered by the new job.