The pro-abortion rights, former Obama adviser Republican running for New York governor

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JOHNSTOWN, N.Y. — New York Republicans spent years being rejected by Harry Wilson, a corporate consulting executive who repeatedly demurred a run for governor to focus on his family and career.

In February, he finally changed his mind. Now the state GOP is the one rejecting him.

By the time Wilson — a Westchester County businessperson who built a fortune after decades on Wall Street and advised President Barack Obama’s Treasury department — jumped into the race, the party had lavished endorsements and resources on Rep. Lee Zeldin. The Long Island congressman is a close ally of former President Donald Trump and recently said appointing an anti-abortion rights health commissioner in New York would be a “great idea.

Now Wilson will face Zeldin in the June 28 primary — alongside former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — in a race that could gauge just how far the party has shifted since the last time a Republican was elected New York governor in 2002.

“Look, I'm a lifelong Republican. I think I'm more consistent with the Republican Party than some of my erstwhile opponents. So I think I’m going to win the nomination,” Wilson said in an interview during a visit to his upstate hometown.

“Keep in mind these are the exact same people who begged me to run in 2018 and 2021. And I said no for good reasons. But the only reason Zeldin is where he is, is because I said no.”

Wilson, 50, is the kind of Republican who used to win statewide in New York — the term Rockefeller Republicans, of course, dates back to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s — but has become rare in 2022’s polarized environment.

He is the only pro-abortion-rights candidate in the GOP field, a position he says evolved as part of his Christian upbringing, but he’s primarily focusing on his resume: a former hedge fund manager who specializes in turning around failing companies and who was a senior adviser for President Barack Obama’s Task Force on the Auto Industry, which shepherded the 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler.

He later told a House of Representatives subcommittee that, though a “lifelong Republican,” his role with the Treasury was born from knowing his experiences could “serve my country in this time of great need” — evoking an old-fashioned display of bipartisan problem-solving in crisis.

He’s a contrast to Zeldin, whose positions on abortion, blasting critical race theory and rolling back many recent criminal justice reforms backed by Democrats may excite the GOP base.

But in a year when abortion is now likely to be figuratively on the ballot after POLITICO published a draft Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade, an anti-abortion rights stalwart like Zeldin might struggle in the general election. New York has not elected a statewide candidate opposed to abortion in decades. Democrats outnumber Republicans 5.9 million to 2.7 million and, in 2020, non-affiliated voters surpassed enrolled Republicans.

The need to pull Democrats and “blank” voters is a task that Wilson, who grew up in the blue-collar upstate city of Johnstown, has argued he is best positioned to do. Wilson said he doesn’t think being relatively late matters as much as people say it does. He has promised to spend $12 million of his own money in the primary.

Wilson had a trial run campaigning statewide: In 2010, he made a spirited bid for state comptroller that united The New York Times, The Daily News and The New York Post in their endorsements of him before he narrowly lost to incumbent Democrat Tom DiNapoli, who still holds the position.

All of Wilson’s not-Trumpness could be enough to make the Democratic candidate — likely Gov. Kathy Hochul — sweat in the general election for the first time in a long time, especially after a year that has shown success for moderates like New York City Mayor Eric Adams and peril for incumbent Democrats like former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. 

But without the party backing or name recognition enjoyed by the other GOP contenders, Wilson, despite already committing $5 million for ads through June, could struggle to break through to voters in time.

A business proposition

Wilson said he believes New Yorkers actually want unity over division, that “regular people, normal people living their lives,” are emotionally exhausted by the negativity of politics today. He grins regularly and earnestly, and his millions of dollars in advertising have primarily been for pro-Harry Wilson TV spots, rather than anti-everyone else.

There is a lot of non perfunctory hugging around his campaign: among his wife and four daughters after he addressed the party at the state convention on Long Island, among his childhood friends during a hometown campaign kickoff at Sam's Seafood Steakhouse in Johnstown, between Wilson and Sam the restaurateur himself, and again when Wilson’s 90-something Aunt Mary showed to support him.

It’s enough to make you wonder: What’s this guy doing in New York politics?

Wilson, who now lives in the small Westchester County town of Scarsdale, likes meeting people and throwing around new ideas, but he’s turned off by pettiness and power grabs, he says. Mostly because it translates to a lot of talking and little doing, antithetical to how he’s taught failing companies to revamp through the consulting firm he founded, the MAEVA Group.

So that’s his pitch.

“You have to serve your core customer,” he said. “And that's where companies usually get in trouble: if they fail to deliver on their core proposition to customers. So for the state, I would say, it’s the same question. The core customers are the voters and taxpayers of the state, and what do they want? They want a high quality of life at as low cost as possible. They want good public services and generally to be left alone otherwise.”

He’s got plans for public safety, plans — like many who have gone before him — to reform corruption in Albany, plans to lower taxes and plans to keep better track of where tax money goes.

But his proposals have nuances because they adhere more to the “core proposition” principle than hard and fast party positions, he says. On public safety, for example, he thinks Hochul and Democrats are just trying to thread the needle — particularly on the hotly debated state bail laws — to get reelected rather than focus on what will address the problems.

“And then on our [Republican] side, there's just kind of this dogma around overturning everything, which I generally agree with, but it's been without thinking through: 'What are the underlying problems people are trying to address?'”

He’d rather not focus on social issues, at all — a difficult ask in 2022 politics — because he thinks it will distract from his state turnaround platform. But he doesn’t shy away from answering the question: How did an anti-abortion Greek Orthodox Christian change his position and decide he supported abortion rights?

It happened in the early 1990s, he said, when he saw that abortion rates had hardly declined after more than a decade of anti-abortion rights administrations in the White House under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

“I always asked the question, 'what's the problem we're trying to solve?'" Wilson said. "The problem we're trying to solve is we do not want to have any more abortions that we could possibly avoid. I think the vast majority of people would agree with that.”

“And so is the path to have this endless legal battle between two implacable sides and not make any progress?" he asked. "Or is the better answer is to try and provide alternatives that reduce the number of abortions and set the legal battle aside? Within reason, obviously. So I basically came to the view that it was better to do the latter.”

Into the primary, with or without the party

The issue isn’t that the party doesn’t want Wilson as its candidate. Quite the opposite — he’s been on the shortlist since his comptroller bid, and he disappointed state Republican leaders by foregoing a gubernatorial run in 2018 in order to focus on his family.

The GOP wanted Wilson for at least one simple reason: He's quite wealthy.

Wilson, who is self-funding much of his campaign, spent his early career as an investor at The Blackstone Group, as a partner at Silver Point Capital and in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs & Co. He is the kind of rich that allows him to casually reference a friendship with Warren Buffett’s daughter amid their shared philanthropy work, and the kind that allows for him to outspend other gubernatorial candidates by the millions and target his ads to niche markets in small towns.

State GOP chair Nick Langworthy, at the party convention this spring, said he couldn't do anything about Wilson’s late entry, even though he considers him a longtime friend. Wilson’s announcement in February “took me very much by surprise,” Langworthy said, because they’d talked in April 2021 and Wilson had said that he would again be unavailable as a candidate.

Wilson said there was no dramatic or strategic reasons for his surprise timing. The truth is that, in 2021, he was legitimately unavailable — just as he’d told Langworthy back then — because he had just been tapped as CEO to revamp the struggling Genesis HealthCare.

But roughly seven months later, in late October last year, the group gave notice that their work would wrap up by November. Then Republican Glenn Youngkin flipped the Virginia governor’s mansion red and Democrat Phil Murphy won reelection by the slimmest of margins in New Jersey.

Wilson said the calls for his candidacy started cascading in, and “everybody said, no, these guys can't win, so you can win. This is our best shot, you have to reconsider.”

After weeks of gauging opinions from friends and business leaders, some preliminary polling, and strong encouragement from his wife and daughters, he realized the only thing holding him back was that he is quite certain he would have cleared the field in 2018 or if he jumped in earlier in 2021. He couldn’t count on it now, with the time deficit.

“But my older daughter said, ‘Dad, you always said to us, don't be afraid to fail. If something is important and you think you can make a difference, go for it,’” he said. “And I said ‘it’s not fair to use my own words against me.’”

The longshot moderate

Wilson can’t really fail quite as hard as some of his peers, an advantage to being a legitimate outsider whose identity and income does not ride on the election. At this point, all he has to lose is money, which he has already tossed liberally into advertising through the June primary.

Recent numbers from tracking service AdImpact show he’s toned down that commitment from $7.2 million to roughly $5.2 million through June 28. As of last week, he had spent $4 million on television ads, compared to Zeldin’s $3.7 million on TV and digital.

“On paper, he has a lot,” Democratic consultant Bruce Gyory said of Wilson. “There's a reason he ran a close race for comptroller and did well with editorial boards in 2010 and people thought he would make a good candidate last time. But my guess is he lost almost all of his name recognition from 2010 by now.”

Siena College polling from late April showed Republicans viewed Zeldin favorably by a margin of 36 percent to 14 percent, and Giuliani favorably by a margin of 38 percent to 31 percent. For Wilson, 75 percent of voters didn’t know enough about him or have an opinion of him.

The Republican primary candidates all hail from downstate, but historically the majority of votes for the June contest come from upstate. Wilson has hometown appeal, but it’s been decades since he left Johnstown for Harvard.

“Harry is one of the guys that, growing up, we always assumed would do great things — he was very good at anything he put his mind to,” said Michael Ward, a former high school classmate of Wilson’s who showed up to the campaign event at Sam’s. “With the state New York State is in, now is the right time. It would have been nice if it was sooner, but it’s definitely the time for him to do something,”

As days dwindle to the primary, Wilson has recently gone on the attack. In a new ad, he labeled Zeldin “Cuomo’s favorite Republican,” pointing to Zeldin’s time in Albany as a Long Island senator when he praised former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first year in office.

Zeldin’s team, in response, said the attack on a fellow Republican shows Wilson’s distance from the party and charged that his more moderate positions are the very reason he’s polling behind.

Zeldin’s team also pointed to Wilson’s donation to the campaign of his former classmate, progressive Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (which Wilson has since said he now regrets); the vaccine mandate Wilson imposed last year for some of Genesis’ 40,000 employees; and Wilson’s admission he wrote in Nikki Haley rather than vote for Donald Trump in 2020.

“When you're in fourth place in a four way primary, this is the type of desperate campaign you run,” Zeldin spokesperson Katie Vincentz said. “New York doesn't need another liberal. That's why Congressman Zeldin is the endorsed candidate of the Republican and Conservative Parties.”

DiNapoli, who is still serving as state comptroller, tipped his hat to his former foe, noting that Wilson has actually put in the money he said he would, both now and in 2010, which automatically makes him a “serious candidate.”

But it’s very possible that Wilson is more than a year late, DiNapoli said in an interview in March. And it might be that his brand of politician belongs to another era entirely.

“He really attempted to project a more bipartisan kind of image — whether that will be helpful to him in getting through the Republican primary in the polarized environment of 2022, I think is up for debate," DiNapoli said.

POLITICO's Bill Mahoney contributed to this report.