Nov

3

From the Issue: Third is the One with the Treasure Chest

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Illustration by Anne Scotti

It’s fall break a.k.a. Election Day weekend. So read about Jack Hidary, mayoral candidate and Columbia drop out. He’s gunning for third. 

Jack Hidary—tech entrepreneur, millionaire, and aspiring politician—will not be the next mayor of New York. According to a recent The Wall Street Journal/NBC 4 New York/Marist poll, even if Hidary sways every undecided voter, he will still be a whopping 60 points behind front-running Democrat Bill de Blasio. The only drama left is to see whether Hidary will outperform Adolfo Carrion—a career Bronx politician—for third-place.

Nonetheless, Hidary is teeming with optimism about his grassroots campaign on the self-created “Jobs and Education” party line. And, despite the steep odds against him, Hidary’s far-fetched bid for mayor exemplifies the perverse incentives of the NYC political system: one where making untenable promises and exuding charisma is more important than attainable policy changes.

De Blasio, once the white knight of the forgotten boroughs, is already beginning to temper promises made during the grueling race for the Democratic nomination. Undoubtedly, the legions of union workers and Brooklyn progressives will find Dante de Blasio’s afro decidedly less charming when his father has to renege on campaign assurances.

On the other side, Joe Lhota, the Republican nominee, must have spent so much time in the trenches of city government that he didn’t realize that calling members of the Port Authority Police “mall cops” would alienate many of city’s already-scarce Republicans.

Ideologically, Hidary is closest to the current mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Both are pragmatic political newcomers who made fortunes in the private sector before turning their attention toward governing. Like Bloomberg, Hidary is solution-oriented and futuristic—more inclined to discuss ShotSpotterFlex, a program that can triangulate gunshot sounds and report them to police, than contracts with police unions. In short, Hidary is more concerned with the policy than the pitch, which significantly hurts his election odds in a city with as many complex and hard-to-relate decisions as New York.

This isn’t to say that Hidary is merely wishful—the East Coast’s Elon Musk. Hidary has already had specific policy successes, drawing on his wealth and connections to make significant changes in New York and nationwide. In the last decade, Hidary has spearheaded two major policies that exhibit his pragmatic style. One, Cash for Clunkers, was implemented in the first Obama stimulus package: car buyers who traded in an inefficient vehicle would receive a rebate on the purchase of a new efficient model. In the fall of 2008, Hidary wrote a white paper with Center for American Progress, a liberal thinktank, detailing the plan; a modified version passed the House with bipartisan support before being put into law in June 2009.

Hidary also lobbied the New York City Council and Taxi & Limousine Commission to implement hybrid and high-MPG models by ending regulations that required taxi drivers to buy Ford Crown Victorias. In many ways, this is the paradigmatic Hidary change: a small restriction lifted that simultaneously promotes the larger social good (through cleaner emissions) and the small business owner’s pocket (through money saved on gas).

Being mayor of any large city, let alone New York, seems an impotent spot for a self-professed innovator. Even Bloomberg, who has forgone the prospect of running for further office, has been forced to compromise, notably over sick-day pay and the proposed West Side Stadium. Two-thirds of New Yorkers say they want the next mayor to move away from Bloomberg’s policies, which toe the line between well-intentioned and paternalistic.

Jack Hidary never has to work another day in his life, yet is virtually self-financing a quixotic bid for a thankless position. Why the hell would he want this job?

Though de Blasio has been heralded as the candidate of the outer boroughs, Hidary emphasizes the peripheral nature of his Brooklyn roots. Born in Brownsville before moving to southern Brooklyn, Hidary comes out of an ethnic potpourri possible in few places besides New York. His mother was raised in Colombia, and Hidary spoke four languages—English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish—growing up.

Though he was raised among small business owners, Hidary obviated this delineation quickly. He nearly graduated from Columbia in 1991 with a double major in philosophy and neuroscience, taking classes with Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist Eric Kandel and spending much of his last three semesters at the Columbia University Medical Center. Hidary also served as a University Senator and a liaison to the Board of Trustees. He left before graduating when he was accepted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Hidary began his first major business venture, EarthWeb, in 1994. Originally a web design company, EarthWeb developed into a platform for outside companies to design their own web sites during the tech boom of the 1990s. In February 1999, EarthWeb acquired dice.com, a jobs-listing website for the IT industry. Hidary and his brother, Murray, took the company public in 1998 in a $529 million IPO in the height of the dot-com boom. Originally priced at $14, EarthWeb stock more than quadrupled in value the first four days it was listed on the NASDAQ. Hidary made almost $5 million from the IPO, and became the president and CEO of the company.

The primary difference Hidary sees between other candidates, such as Lhota or de Blasio, is that he is a job-creator, rather than a career politician. However, as a recent article in Crain’s New York Business made clear, Hidary’s meaningful job-creation record is somewhat spotty. EarthWeb expanded rapidly after its IPO, yet fell victim to the dot-com bust and eventually laid off 100 employees. Dice.com, which Hidary retained after EarthWeb failed, entered bankruptcy in 2002 months after Hidary relinquished his role as chairman (it has since rebounded). Vista Research, a financial research concern that Hidary co-founded in 2001, was sold at its peak to Standard and Poor’s in 2005 before becoming worthless within years. A centerpiece of Hidary’s jobs plan is bringing tech companies to New York, but this seems to run in the face of the fact that, despite their immense valuation, tech companies don’t provide many jobs.

Perhaps the key verb in Hidary’s campaign is “unleash”: small business incubators in outer boroughs “unleash” the inner entrepreneur, community kitchens “unleash” the inner chef, new methods in the classroom “unleash” the inner student. This is an optimistic, even evangelistic, view of the relation between government and its citizens. Central to this vision is the role of technology as a quickly-implemented fix to intractable problems. Unfortunately for Hidary, basing your campaign on smart, reasonable fixes—like Cash for Clunkers or eco-friendly cabs—is far less poetic than proselytizing the need for income inequality in front of a closing hospital.

This brings up the question of why Hidary wouldn’t want to take part in the political process from the outside. He has considerable resources and access to influencers, and has had success in implementing small changes with wide-ranging effects.

“Private citizens can be very effective,” Hidary said, “but when you look at the range of challenges we have as a city, becoming mayor would be the most effective way to work with stakeholders to realize this vision.”

For better or worse, Hidary’s vision won’t be realized. He’ll be relegated to private life after the November 5 election. However, his run serves as an example of a larger trend in American life. The wellspring of American entrepreneurial spirit is now located in Silicon Valley and its ilk, not in Washington or the public sector. In a country with a gridlocked federal government and a declining global presence, maybe we could use some new ideas.

—Luca Marzorati

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