On the New York-to-D.C. shuttle a number of years back I found myself seated next to an older gentleman with scrub brushes for eyebrows and the unmistakable air of someone who was used to being in charge.

It took about a minute before I realized that my seatmate was former New York Governor Hugh Carey, the man largely credited with shepherding the Empire State through one of the worst fiscal crises in history and avoiding bankruptcy and a near total shutdown.

When I finally mustered the courage to speak with him, my greetings came out as an inaudible stammering squeak but managed to convey to him that I was a big fan.

Carey passed away last week at his Long Island summer home at the age of 92 and like many, I'm sure, I envisioned the possibilities if we had more national leaders of his ilk in our current financial malaise.

The 51st governor of New York, a seven-term Congressman from Brooklyn and a liberal Democrat, upset incumbent Malcolm Wilson in the election. Just nine days into his term he addressed the out-of-control spending of his predecessors and put it as bluntly and honestly as possible telling his electorate that "the days of wine and roses are over." He railed against skyrocketing state and local taxation and demanded what he termed "proper self-discipline."

He also called for deep cuts in the cost of government.

In 2011, of course, Carey's calls to fiscal action seem repetitive, but in 1975 they were widely viewed as off-the-charts radical. He assembled the brightest and most influential people in the state as part of his strategy including the leaders of the top municipal unions, the banks, and the Legislature and formed the Municipal Assistance Corp. and the Emergency Financial Control Board to take charge of municipal finances.

He famously received no help from Washington in the form of a potential bailout. As the Daily News headline proclaimed: "Ford to City: Drop Dead!" a tabloid encapsulation of then President Ford's stance on potential federal assistance to New York City.

To be fair, the remainder of Carey's tenure in Albany was far less stellar, but it's no coincidence that many of the problems New York was faced with have now been extrapolated to a national level.

But unlike now when there is an inarguable dearth of strong national leadership - on both sides of the aisle - New York had a CEO who got it done at a time when he had to.

 

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