Thomas DiNapoli was once a rising star in the corporate world.
It was the early 1980s, and the Long Island, N.Y. native ascended the ranks of the telecommunications industry to a position in management at AT&T. Conventional wisdom said he should have gone to business school and earned his MBA.
“But I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do,” recalled DiNapoli, who, as the son of a union household and a student of the Civil Rights era, had always valued people over profits.
He traded his corporate career for a degree at The New School and a life in public service.
Drawn to its focus on labor relations and personnel, DiNapoli enrolled in the MA Human Resources Management program at the Graduate School of Management and Urban Professions at The New School (now the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy). He channled the training and skills he acquired at the progressive Greenwich Village university into 30-plus-year-career in New York State government—first as a New York State assemblyman and later as state comptroller, a role designed to ensure that state and local governments use taxpayer money effectively and efficiently to promote the common good.
From his shift from the private sector to politics, to his passion for public service, to his work to transform the New York State pension fund—America’s third largest—to reflect environmental and social concerns, DiNapoli is living the New School mission.
“When you’re young, you don’t really know where you’re going to end up in life, but the knowledge I gained at The New School has proved to be of immense practical value,” DiNapoli says. “I chose The New School because it puts the focus on people.”
Returning to his alma mater for the Public and Urban Policy Program Speaker Series hosted by Milano and the Center for New York City Affairs, DiNapoli shared his experiences administering the New York State Common Retirement Fund, his primary responsibility as comptroller. Boasting one million members, retirees, beneficiaries, and 3,000-plus employers, it is one of the largest institutional investors on the planet—and one that holds considerable sway over the fund’s portfolio businesses. DiNapoli weilds this influence to promote socially positive business practices on a wide range of issues, including climate change, LGBT rights, and political spending.
On the issue of gender diversity, DiNapoli announced the fund’s plan to vote against all board directors standing for re-election at companies without female board members.
“We’re putting all-male boardrooms on notice—diversify,” DiNapoli said, adding that there is “ample research” that board diversity benefits company performance.
Reflecting The New School’s commitment to sustainability, DiNapoli declared the fund’s commitment to fostering a low-carbon economy. This effort includes a recently announced $2 billion increase to the fund’s low-emissions equities index, which excludes or reduces holdings in the worst carbon emitters and shifts investments to lower-emitting corporations. The fund was the first public pension fund in the United States to create such an index.
“The low-carbon economy is underway, and no matter what happens in Washington, we’re committed to that reality,” DiNapoli said to applause.
Adding to his plate, DiNapoli reports on state finances, manages and issues state debt, reviews state contracts, conducts audits of state agencies and public benefit corporations, and oversees the Justice Court Fund and the Oil Spill Fund, among other responsibilities.
Moving from the private sector to local politics usually means a pay cut and a loss of job security. But that didn’t stop DiNapoli, who caught the public service bug early in life. Inspired by “voices from the social movements, particularly the Kennedys,” he ran for and won his first elected office—a trustee position on the Mineola, New York Board of Education—at 18, making him the youngest person ever to hold public office in New York State.
Then the corporate world came calling. After graduating from Hofstra University with a bachelor’s degree in history, he landed positions in the telecommunications industry, working for New York Telephone and later AT&T. It wasn’t until May 1986, during his final semester at The New School, that he decided to leave the private sector. That spring, DiNapoli was perched over a typewriter, pounding out a final paper for a class at The New School, when a letter landed on his desk. It was from New York State Assemblywoman May Newburger announcing her retirement.
“I was on a business track at AT&T at the time and getting my master’s in management at The New School at night,” DiNapoli recalled. “But as soon as I read that letter, I knew I would run. It threw me into a frenzy of phone calls to rally support, but I still turned that paper in on time the next day.”
That same year, he ran for the New York State Assembly and was elected to represent the 16th District in northwestern Nassau County, an office he held for the next 20 years. In 2007, DiNapoli was elected state comptroller by a bipartisan majority of the State Legislature. New York’s voters elected him to the position in 2010 and again in 2014.
Over the last three decades, DiNapoli has emerged as a leading voice on environmental, education, and local fiscal issues. Given his early interest in politics, his career in public office was likely preordained. But it may have been his decision to come to The New School—an innovative, forward-thinking university frequented by progressive economists and social scientists—that started him on a path from the corporate world to public service.
“Being at The New School offered a stimulating contrast to my nine to five life and broadened my perspective in very significant ways,” he said. “It’s a source of pride for me that I went to The New School.”