How Ray McGuire Would Run New York

For more interviews in this series, click here.

Howard Wolfson: You have a remarkable life story. Can you relay a bit of that to our readers?

Ray McGuire: I come from Dayton, Ohio. I was raised by my single mother and grandparents. I didn’t know my dad. Those three raised me and my two brothers. And at any point in time, we had half a dozen foster children at our home. I grew up across the street from the Howard paper mill, which is now a condemned, I think, EPA waste site. The entire neighborhood has been razed. While I was growing up, sometimes that paper mill emitted fumes that were so strong, the only way we could breathe was to open the refrigerator door.

And it was from that neighborhood that in the fifth grade, there was a teacher, Ellen Moore, who called my mother and said that they had built a school in the south of town, and maybe we should apply there. Which we did. I was fortunate to get in. We didn’t have any money, so I started on scholarship. I used to walk three-quarters of a mile to a mile to get to the bus. I went to the school, the Miami Valley School, from sixth grade to 11th grade.

And in 11th grade, I had a 4.0. I was averaging 28 points per game playing basketball. I was president of the school. And there was another teacher, Robin Melnick, who said, “If you’re as good as they say you are, why don’t you go test yourself against the big boys and girls in the East?” So I took a Greyhound bus around New England by myself at 16, looking at schools, and landed at a school in Connecticut called The Hotchkiss School. When I arrived, I noted my classmates had on those short-sleeved shirts with alligators that cost more than my entire wardrobe. That’s kind of the beginning. [When] I grew up, we didn’t have money, but we had everything that money could not buy. And we had the things that we needed.

I remember some of the sacrifices my mother used to make: whether she was going to pay the gas and light bill, or whether she was going to put food on the table, or pay rent, or tithe to the church. But through her sacrifices and those of my grandparents — and their prayers, because this is a walk of faith — I was able to come East and start my education, and go on to college and graduate school at Harvard Law School — college first, and then law school and [Harvard] business school.

So I came to New York City with three things. I had a great education. I had a lot of debt, because everything that I had done had been on scholarship and financial aid. And I had no money.

HW: It’s really a great American story. I’m wondering what lesson it teaches you about our country or about your own journey. Is it that with hard work, anybody can succeed? That people need powerful mentors? Or is it about the nature of family and faith?

RM: I think it’s all three. One: faith, clearly. Two: the support of family — and teachers for that matter, which gets to the whole education system. Three: It comes down to opportunity. I was lucky. Had it not been for luck, my life would have been determined by that ZIP code, where the Howard paper mill [was]. And I know that I wouldn’t have had these opportunities. We need to be outraged about that.

And it has to do with work ethic — but my sense is that when people are given the opportunity, they’ll have the work ethic. Then you need to have mentorship, the teachers. So I had home, I had faith, I had opportunity, I had teachers. All of which opened me to a world of possibilities.

HW: So you had that world of possibilities, and you decided to come to New York to work on Wall Street. You were one of the few senior African Americans on Wall Street for a very long time. What was that like?

RM: It was a foreign world with a foreign language. There were no members of my community — nor members of any community of which I had known anything — who had gone to the corporate finance side of Wall Street. [There were] people who were in different parts of Wall Street — municipal finance, because that was what was being demanded by many of the mayors around the country, [and] a number of people in sales and trading. But when I entered into this business, there were one, maybe two or three others in the world of corporate finance — which is where, as you know, you advise senior managements and CEOs and boards of directors. It’s the client-facing part of the business, which is where firms’ reputations are made. And so when I came in, if I were to go to lunch with somebody who looked like me, I’d have had lunch alone for a lot of years in corporate finance.

I learned about the business while having a hot dog at the Tasty restaurant in Harvard Square with a classmate, who said, “I’ve seen you in a section. You’d probably be pretty good at this investment banking stuff.” I said, “What is it?” I interviewed [at First Boston], and there were two summer associate jobs for half the class. They invited me back to a second round of interviews at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Boston. I’d never been in the Ritz-Carlton. So I get there, and I thought it was a cocktail party, which was how it was advertised. I go into this room. The room empties. There was one person left who takes his chair, turns the back of the chair toward me, straddles the chair, and says, “You got five minutes, shoot your best shot.”

And so I’m looking, I’m thinking, “What do you want me to say?”

He says, “I don’t know, but you’ve got four minutes and 45 seconds.”

HW: I guess you came up with something!

RM: You know, I’m from the neighborhood. A guy comes at you that way, you’ve got nowhere to go. Right? So I said, “Listen, man” — I got nothing to lose, so it didn’t much matter to me. I said, “Harvard College, Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School pride themselves on taking the cream of the crop. I pride myself on being the film off the top of the cream.”

And he says, “We’ve got half the business school class interviewing here. Why you?”

I said, “In the heat of battle, it’s better to have me with you than to have me against you, because somehow I’ll find a way to win.” I got one of those two jobs, and that began my career on Wall Street.

So if you ask me how I’ve gotten here, I would say it’s prayer, preparation [and] performance. And when you grow up in the neighborhood, you’ve got to have a little bit of paranoia.

HW: When you think about issues around diversity on Wall Street — and it’s certainly more diverse today than when you started — are the challenges around racism? Are they around ignorance? Lack of opportunity? Lack of understanding? What’s the block?

RM: There are still many unconscious biases that exist. Whether that translates into overt racism — I would say no. But unconscious biases do have an impact on how we think about talent, how we think about promoting talent, how we think about giving talent opportunity. And we still have a ways to go. We’ve made some successes, [but] the number of Black and brown people in corporate America, on Wall Street in senior positions, is still not as representative as it should be.

And one of the things that I have done consistently in my career is extend the ladder, the way that people like Frank Thomas and Vernon Jordan — rest his soul — and Dick Parsons have done for me. I have made certain I return every phone call and every email, because there are people out there who can benefit from that. I’ve been fortunate to have touched the careers of so many thousands of mentees now. And in addition to that, [I’ve made] certain that I’ve invested in growing businesses, especially Black and brown businesses, and creating wealth along the way.

But if the question is where Wall Street is — Wall Street still has got a ways to go. Our society has got a ways to go, but Wall Street still has got a ways to go.

HW: In addition to your business career, you became involved in civic life as a philanthropist, somebody who served on boards. And now you’ve decided to run for mayor. Over the years, I’ve talked to successful businesspeople who were involved in politics at the donor level and decided to run for office, and they find that the world of politics is very different when you’re a candidate. Tell me how that transition has been for you so far.

RM: It’s been a bit eye-opening. There are so many needs out there to address. I know today that the city is broke, is broken and divided. People are looking for something different. You hear people express [it] with passion. That’s the thing that I’m hearing consistently: The same old, same old will not meet this moment.

HW: Let’s talk a little bit about your ideas for the city. Tell me how you see our city’s schools today.

RM: I see our city schools today in a state of disrepair and crisis. Based on the latest reports I looked at, third- through eighth-grade Black and brown kids — and I’m going to round the numbers up slightly — but 70% are below proficient. And that to me is inexcusable. If there is a right to have a quality education, that right should be independent of ZIP code. If we have a responsibility to support our children becoming viable members of our community, then we have the responsibility to give them the education that is necessary for that to occur. Today that is not taking place. Researchers at Brown found that the average student made only 50% of normal learning gains in math and 60% to 70% of learning gains in reading last year, compared to a typical school year.

Now, look at the statistics I gave you. We are in a generational crisis, and there is no outrage. No outrage. It should not be the case that in many of our schools, children don’t have crayons. That’s a travesty.

HW: So what’s the McGuire plan to address that?

RM: Well, No. 1, I will surface a catch-up plan for schools, which I think should begin immediately and be further implemented under my administration. It’s going to be focused on accelerated learning. The federal stimulus bill has a hundred and some odd billion dollars earmarked for K-12, and low-income districts in New York are expected to get a larger share of the funding. I’m going to fight to make sure that we get every possible dollar of that.

And we need to expand educational services. They’re going to help our students get back on track. I want to open the public schools for full and in-person summer sessions. I want to offer extended school hours and weekend instruction during the 2021 school year. Families will have the option to opt out if they prefer to have their children [take] summer jobs, which is also going to be an important part of this.

HW: What role do charter schools play in your education agenda?

RM: Charters play an important role, as do district schools, as do magnet schools. I am for whatever the best education is that we can get for our children. That includes [charters]. I would rather not get caught up in the debate on charter versus anything else. If it gives our children a quality education, then I am for it. Including charters.

HW: I’ve heard you talk with real passion about career and technical education pathways for kids. Could you speak a little bit about that?

RM: Let me outline what is included in the plan, which I call “cradle to career.” The challenge we have today is that by the time many of our kids get to pre-K, they’re already behind. And so I want to start earlier. As our children are developing, they’re learning. So I want to start at zero to four, so that by the time our kids get to pre-K, they’re on [track]. I want to have affordable child care. I want to have affordable care for the parents. I also want to make sure that teachers and those early child-care supporters are appropriately compensated.

And then I want to ensure — for my accountability as the mayor — that each of our children can learn to read by the end of the third grade. Why is that? Because between zero and the end of the third grade, all the educators and all the science will tell you that children are learning to read. After that, they’re reading to learn. And far too many never learn to read by the end of the third grade. We find ourselves passing them along. [That] is unacceptable, because we know the pipeline that’s creating.

I want to make certain that by the beginning of sixth grade — this gets directly to the question — we expose our children to the possibilities. They can become welders. They can become programmers. They can become coders. They can become software engineers. We expose them to the opportunities. And I want to have at the foundation of this, that they also are financially and digitally literate.

Summer jobs are going to be important. I had a summer job. I dug ditches. I laid tile. I changed bedpans. I built boxes. I was a gofer. It kept me out of trouble and exposed me to different opportunities. I want our children to have the same thing, so that by the time they get to the 12th grade, they can choose to go into that career or job, where they can go to a two- or four-year college.

So if it’s career and technical training, then yes, I’m for that. Because I want them to have that exposure. Not everybody’s going to become a botanist, a painter, a software engineer. But at least they will have the choice. They will have the skill set. And we will have given them the opportunity to explore that in a summer job — which is going to be a public-private summer job, with the private sector [stepping] up to provide those jobs. By the time our children graduate, they have options they can pursue.

HW: You’re running in some measure on your success in business. The city faces an economic crisis due to Covid. How would you solve the economic challenges that are confronting so many New Yorkers?

RM: If I think about the biggest challenge that we have — and education is right at the core of this — I think about a draft that I wrote before I went on this path, that identified the impact of systemic inequities in education, in health care, in the economy, in the criminal-justice system. We have to begin to address that. And the way we’re going to do that — there’s no social justice without economic justice. My plan calls for the greatest and most inclusive economic comeback in the history of this city. It calls for the creation of 500,000 jobs that are focused on “Go big, go small, go forward.”

“Go big” is focused on infrastructure. Let’s rebuild the city. Let’s focus on bridges and highways and parking, subway elevators and sewers, and truly affordable housing. We need to focus on broadband because we’re in a digital divide now. And we need to make certain we also have clean energy and we focus on climate resiliency. That’s the “Go big” part.

But what is also critical is “Go small,” which focuses on small businesses, because small businesses are responsible for 50% of the workers in New York City. And what I want to do there is to take 50,000 of those small businesses. I want to pay for 50% of the workers’ salary for one year. I want to allow city permits and licenses to renew for one year without any fees. I want to see if we can negotiate a holiday for the FICO credit scores. I will also have a deputy mayor for small businesses. And I’m going to supplement this with support, with capital that can be used for either low-interest loans for those beginning, or grants for those who now need a lifeline, and/or equity that we invest in the community banks.

And then my other plan, “Go forward,” is to focus on the MWBEs [Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises]. In 2020, we spent $22.5 billion dollars, of which $1.1 billion, or less than 5%, got to MWBEs. Eighty-two percent of the MWBEs received nothing. There’s clearly an opportunity for us to invest, and when we invest, all boats rise in a rising tide. That’s the only way we’re going to bring this city back.

HW: Some of that sounds potentially expensive. We’re facing a $4 or $5 billion budget deficit currently. Will you need to raise taxes in order to implement that agenda?

RM: At one point I said, “Everything’s on the table.” And everything will be on the table. But the thing that we need to be sensitive to is that we cannot tax our way out of this. We can neither tax nor spend nor cut our way out of this. I look at what the federal government has done and what New York State and New York City are likely going to receive — and that Biden has talked about increasing taxes. I don’t want to alienate New Yorkers. We don’t need to do that. My anxiety is that we could be headed down that road unnecessarily. If there are specific targeted plans that an increase in taxes is going into fund, like infrastructure, then we should consider it. But it doesn’t seem to be that we ought to alienate people in the city and the business community. That is not something for which I stand.

HW: You must hear from folks in the business community who are concerned about quality-of-life issues. They’re concerned that their workforce has learned to work from home and doesn’t want to come back to the central core; that they have left New York and aren’t necessarily going to be coming back. How big of a concern is that to you?

RM: It’s a real concern. I know others are saying that maybe I’m fearmongering, but I’m looking at the out-migration in this city, which is real. And I can’t take it for granted. Others have said, “Historically we have called these people’s bluffs.” Okay, well, that was when I didn’t have something called Zoom. All the experiences we had before in the ’70s, when business and labor and government came together, none of those experiences had the advent of technology. And today we do. An important part of the workforce is work[ing] from home. Do I think there is a need in the city for us to be together? Absolutely. And will that occur? Yes. But we need to be sensitive to the implications of the policies that we adopt with people who have options. Even though they have love, they have options.

And the other thing is that we need to bring the city together. Yes, quality of life is critical. But we need to have one New York. And divisive language is not going to bring us together.

HW: That sounds like something of a critique of our current mayor. Am I reading that correctly?

RM: It wasn’t intended to be, but it can certainly be interpreted that way. Would I resist that interpretation? No, I would not. The language, the narrative today is too divisive, and the leadership continues to fuel that language. We cannot survive with that. I want to be clear: We cannot survive that way.

HW: One of the challenges you would face as mayor would be a rising crime rate and significant distrust between communities and police. We had a 40% increase in murders in the last year. It was the largest single-year increase since World War II. What is the McGuire plan to bridge the divide between police and communities while also bringing crime back down?

RM: At the core of this is a culture of respect, accountability and proportion. Today, that respect has been breached in many ways. Because we haven’t held those people [in the police] who are serial abusers — for whom we pay $200 million dollars a year, who have created a cloud over the entire force — we have not held them accountable. In addition, in all too many instances, we have been disproportionate in how we’ve responded. It has been said by others, [and] I agree, that if the only thing that you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In many Black and brown communities, it’s a sledgehammer. We need to get away from that.

What I’ve outlined in my safety and justice plan is for the mayor to have accountability for public safety and for the actions of the NYPD. I want to create a new chain of oversight and accountability that starts with City Hall, including a deputy mayor for public safety who will interact in a day-to-day role to manage that department.

I want to make certain that we hold the entire chain of command accountable for an officer’s conduct. I’m going to look at the spending that’s occurred over the past few years, where we’ve increased by $1.2 billion in operating budget since 2010. And I want to go back to something that we had before that worked quite effectively: community policing. That includes hiring officers who are representative of the areas they serve, who can build trust with the community.

And then I want to create emergency social services — a citywide network of 24/7 emergency response units for mental-health issues and substance abuse. We would have it operate in every precinct in every borough, which means I’m going to invest in mental health, homelessness and youth services embedded at the precinct level, so we can make certain that when we respond, we respond proportionately. And we’re also going to give the NYPD crisis-intervention training.

I also want to make certain that we combat what you’ve identified here in terms of murders. I want to highlight that we’re up north of 100% in gun violence. We need to increase the number of people who are seizing illegal weapons. I know that prior administrations have attempted to focus on the Iron Pipeline — which we should continue to do, which is where the guns are manufactured — and the 10 precincts or so where we see the highest number of incidents.

HW: Some of your answer there is around better management and oversight of the police department. Can you talk about a management challenge you confronted in your business career and how you dealt with it?

RM: Yeah, I can. It was called the great financial recession, where Citi was on life support. And I had to manage through that, which means that in the client-facing business, where clients are relying on your expertise and judgment and trust — in the midst of a crisis where that’s all been called into question — you have to lead. You have to manage through that. Which means you have to set out a vision, and you have to have enough credibility with your team so that you can retain the team that you have and attract and recruit the best talent in order to get yourself out of the crisis, which was what I had to do at the depth of the financial crisis, building that team.

And it was a team that I had to build globally, which means that I’ve had to manage budgets that are often bigger than most state budgets — $20-billion-plus revenue. Which means that you had to perform. I [ran] that business longer than anybody in the history of Wall Street.

HW: As you think about the campaign now, where we’re roughly three months away from the election — this is the first time that New Yorkers are going to have a ranked-choice election. You presumably will be voting for yourself first. Who’s your second choice?

RM: I’ve yet to decide on that. I’m looking at how this all plays out. I’m an outsider. As I said before, I didn’t get termed out. I’m not looking for a promotion. I have not been part of any administration. That means I’m unencumbered. There’s nobody in my pockets. And what the city needs is a leader in whom they can believe and trust. So I’m trying to figure out other than me who fits that profile, and as this election goes on, I’ll see if there’s anybody who rises to that.

But that’s what New Yorkers need. We need something different. We can’t manage by press releases. We know there are administrations where the execution has actually occurred, and all New Yorkers benefited from that. We’ve gone backward. We can’t afford [that], especially in the midst of a crisis. Some of these crises existed before Covid. They’re now being exacerbated by Covid. The leadership of this city at this most critical time — it is not something that comes down to political calculus. It comes down to what’s in the best interests of New York City.

HW: There’s still plenty of time between now and when people vote, but today there are certainly people ahead of you in the polls. Can you sketch out your game plan — how you get from here to there, and success?

RM: I don’t pay lots of attention to polls. But since you brought it up, I would have your audience take a look at the latest Crain’s poll [of readers] that has me at the highest end by a significant margin. And both when it comes to ranking high on first choice, but also ranking high — 27% of the voters had me as their first choice, with 41% of those voters saying that the economy is by far the most important issue. If I look at this poll, and I look at what the community is telling us the important issues are, and I look at where I rank, I’m in the indisputable position of being No. 1. Which means that the more my message gets out into the community, the more it’s going to resonate.

People recognize the beginning of my story. And they recognize the challenges I’ve had to go through, with both conscious and unconscious bias, to get to the position that I’ve been fortunate to get to — humbled to get to. And they recognize that my focus is on what’s in the best interests of New Yorkers, especially those who are the most marginalized. And if you add to that the fact that I have outraised every candidate, and I want to take matching funds away, because we decided we did not want to use taxpayers’ money, especially in a crisis. People are debating whether they can put food on the table or pay rent. We did not want to use taxpayer dollars. If you look at the absolute dollars that I’ve raised relative to anyone else’s, I far outraised. I combine this with a poll that has been conducted where people are identifying their concerns, and I’m at the high end of that. So my path to victory is talking to the voters and letting them know that I care.

HW: Are you able to actually to get out now? Given Covid, is there going to be more in-person campaigning?

RM: Sure. I was out today. I was out yesterday. I’m going into Covid-protocol environments and having conversations. I’ve been to Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Harlem.

When people talk about who’s supporting them, this person is proxy for a number of people, especially those who have been most injured in this city — Gwen Carr, who is, as you know, the mother of Eric Garner. Gwen Carr, who has been approached by practically every candidate, looked across the candidates and said that for the future of New York City, I am the person she supports.

Look at the momentum that we have. When people match the name to what we’re trying to accomplish and the track record of what we have done to improve lives — [creating] jobs, being a mentor, creating wealth — that’s what New Yorkers want. That’s what I’m going to do for New York. This ain’t about me. This is about we. And at a crucial, crucial moment in this city’s history.

HW: I want to go back to one thing you said in the answer before. You used the terms “conscious bias” and “unconscious bias,” and I’m wondering, given that, were there instances on Wall Street that you believe you were the victim of overt racism?

RM: After 36 years, I’ve had so many. There’s so many, you tend to move them back into the recesses. But they’re there — moments when, before anybody knew who I was, someone would walk into a room and ask for Ray McGuire, and I’d raise my hand and say “I’m Raymond McGuire” and the audience turns crimson. Or when someone says, “Cut the light so we can see your smile,” or when your boss doesn’t speak to you for six months. Yeah.

HW: Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have?

RM: I think you’re pretty thorough. As you know, I’m not a politician, so I didn’t spend my entire career trying to deliver messages, especially messages that are just headline messages, but you actually don’t believe in them. I’ve given people what I believe in, who I am, and you know, my North Star, which doesn’t change — which means I don’t have to remember tomorrow what I told you today, because it’s going to be the same. I’m trying to deliver my truth and my views and my beliefs to the people of New York to convey to them that I’m here for them. Not because I’ve got any other agendas. Because I love the city.

For more interviews in this series, click here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Howard Wolfson has worked in New York politics for nearly 30 years and served as a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg from 2010 to 2013. He is currently a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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