The Wilbur Ross I know

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies during the House Oversight Committee hearing.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies during the House Oversight Committee hearing.
Jose Luis Magana/AP/Shutterstock
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies during the House Oversight Committee hearing.

The Wilbur Ross I know

Based on his effort to influence New York politics, it’s no surprise he’s now condemned for arrogance and dishonesty.
March 18, 2019

In his distinctive sing-song voice, my new boss admonished me on the night of our first holiday party. What had I done? My office hadn’t given explicit instructions to him and other guests which floor in the Park Avenue Armory the party was being held.

The year was 1995 and Wilbur Ross, then the multi-millionaire bankruptcy vulture and the newly minted CEO at News Communications, where I was executive vice president, had stepped off the elevator on the wrong floor and walked right into a women’s homeless shelter. I was told by those who arrived with him that he turned as white as a ghost and was visibly shaken. This was not the type of audience Ross was used to partying with; it wasn’t the crowd he expected at a cocktail reception hosted on Park Avenue.

I thought of that night recently as I was reading and watching all the coverage about now-Commerce Secretary Ross’ controversial decision – deemed illegal by federal courts – to add a question about immigration status to the 2020 Census. This is the Trump administration’s thinly veiled way to depress the count in blue states like New York and California with large immigrant populations. Ross looked befuddled and weary last week as congressional Democrats, led by Bronx-Queens Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, grilled him on the deception and obfuscation that led to this decision.

Having had a front-row seat to Ross’ effort to influence New York politics, I’m not surprised to see him now drawing widespread condemnation for arrogance and dishonesty.

It made sense that President Donald Trump tapped Ross for commerce secretary; he is a brilliant financier who amassed hundreds of millions (but not the billions he claimed to Forbes) as an investor in distressed assets. He made money from such unsexy industries as steel, coal, textiles and other under-performing companies. Ross was a savvy global investor, who was always on the road to places like China and Korea, in search of deals that he could buy at pennies on the dollar and then roll up into a critical mass that soared in value for him and his investors. He had one very high-profile failure as a coal tycoon, when a mine he owned – which had accumulated more than 200 violations from federal safety inspectors in just one year – had 12 workers die as the result of a methane explosion.

This same lack of interest in the conditions of the average worker has gotten Ross in hot water in Washington. In January, Ross shrugged off reports of federal workers turning to food banks after missing two paychecks due to Trump’s government shutdown. (Ross suggested that workers could just get bank loans to pay their bills. In fact, most banks weren’t offering such personal loans and Ross’ Department of Commerce Federal Credit Union was charging 8.99 percent interest for its shutdown loans.)

But, callous treatment of workers aside, Ross made money at even dying industries such as coal. What he couldn’t do, just like others in the Trump administration, such as Jared Kushner, is succeed in media. In the mid-1990s, Ross led a group of investors who bought a large stake in News Communications, a publicly traded media company that owned 23 weekly newspapers in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas. At the time of his investment, I reported to Chairman of the Board Jerry Finkelstein, the father of then-New York City Council President Andrew Stein. After Stein dropped out of the 1993 mayoral race, Finkelstein decided it was time to find a partner to co-invest in his company. After a protracted bidding process, he turned to me to vet three interested bidders: ex-junk bond financier Michael Milken, investing whiz kid Jonathan Steinberg and Wilbur Ross.

At the time, Ross was married to his second wife, the eccentric Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross. After Wilbur won the bidding process and decided to moonlight as the CEO of that company, we began working closely together. Within a few months it became clear to me that his motivation for leading an investor group was not a love of journalism or even a return on his team’s investment. The primary reason Ross decided to become an instant media mogul was to help his wife’s hoped-for ascent to the Governor’s Mansion in Albany.

As a veteran of New York’s publishing industry, I now fully realize that my idealistic views of journalism three decades ago was a product of my youthful naivete. Going back to the Hearsts and Pulitzers and even back to the many scandal sheets of the revolutionary era, newspapers have often existed as vehicles for those who had other political agendas.

It was nonetheless disheartening to work for someone who was so unsubtle with his hidden agenda. Betsy McCaughey Ross would call me almost every Tuesday afternoon, invariably just hours before my four weekly newspapers in Manhattan were going to press, saying she had a new column she wanted us to publish. Betsy had skyrocketed from obscure conservative policy wonk to GOP star when she wrote a cover story for The New Republic in early 1994 attacking then-President Bill Clinton’s universal health care proposal. Her piece was credited with playing a crucial role in killing the legislation, even though many of its claims were later debunked. One week, after a few consecutive weeks of publishing very similar columns on health care issues, I decided to push back, using our deadline as an excuse. “Betsy, we’re just about to send the paper to the printing plant,” I said. “Maybe your column can wait ‘til next week?”

“Should I call Wilbur and tell him to force you to run my column today?” she said firmly.

A few months later, after it became clear that the Rosses didn’t consider me loyal enough to their cause, I received a call from Finkelstein, who was still chairman of the company. “I need to see you at my office right away,” he said, rather ominously.

In the taxi up to his Third Avenue office I contemplated my next career move. When I got there, Finkelstein told me the good news and the bad news. “Wilbur was about to replace you as publisher with one of his board members, but I talked him out of it. You’re my guy and I won’t let him do that to you.”

I was shocked and relieved all at once. “Who did he want to replace me with?” I asked.

“Carl Bernstein,” Finkelstein replied.

“What? Carl Bernstein might have taken my job and you didn’t let him have it?” Bernstein was one of my journalism heroes when I was growing up and his Watergate reporting was one of the primary reasons I wanted to become a journalist.

Betsy’s career never took off in the way she and her husband had hoped. Pataki dumped her from his reelection ticket, saying she wasn’t a team player. When Pataki dropped her, she said she would not run against him or switch parties. She then proceeded to do both, trying and failing to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and then serving as the nominee of the Liberal Party. After losing by a huge margin, she faded from the spotlight – but reemerged during the Obamacare debate with claims determined by PolitiFact to be so blatantly false that they earned a “Pants on Fire” rating. She served on the Trump campaign’s economic advisory council, and continues to write columns.

Wilbur filed for divorce a day after the 1998 election, and he promptly lost interest in local journalism. He left as CEO shortly thereafter.

Tom Allon
is the president and publisher of City & State.
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