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The politics of business

If there is an enduring image of Campaign 2012, it must be Mitt Romney hemming and hawing over his role with Bain Capital Co. amid relentless attacks from his Republican opponents for the presidency.

Part of the Romney routine includes a whole lot of squirming as he justifies how he turned around troubled companies -- sometimes at the expense of existing jobs.

Romney is not the only Republican businessman to find himself in that position. Just ask Harry Wilson, the 2010 Republican candidate for state comptroller from Westchester County.

Wilson is the fantastically successful turnaround guru who challenged Democratic incumbent Tom DiNapoli in the last statewide election. Unlike Romney, his father was not president of an automobile company or governor of Michigan. Wilson's dad ran a Greek restaurant in Johnstown.

Wilson battled the same arguments after The Buffalo News traveled to the Lewis County Village of Lowville to report how Wilson's Silver Point investment firm restructured FiberMark, a paper and fiber manufacturing plant dating to 1932. Silver Point's efforts, it turned out, also restructured the lives of FiberMark workers.

Silver Point's control resulted in a frozen pension, wage reductions, elimination of retiree health insurance, an imposed labor contract and charges against the company filed by the National Labor Relations Board.

"I know that nobody who works for FiberMark will be voting for Harry Wilson," Roger Turck, president of Steelworkers Local 1988 told The News in October 2010. "And this is a Republican county."

It was tough stuff. And of course, some of those same workers eventually ended up on DiNapoli ads across New York.

Fair enough. Politics ain't bean bag in this state. And Wilson will be the first to acknowledge that "turnaround" firms may, indeed, leave hurt in their wake while investors make money. But FiberMark would have closed, he says, without major changes.

"It's a terrible thing to lose your job or your expectations about a pension and to have those promises unfulfilled," Wilson told the Politics Column last week. "But you have to weigh that in the context of the broader human cost. Inaction makes the problem worse."

Indeed, FiberMark workers considered the Silver Point approach a raw deal. Things are tough enough on the Tug Hill Plateau without getting your pension frozen. And when newspaper stories and TV ads depict anyone out of work because of some rich guy from Westchester (or rich guy from Massachusetts), human feelings inevitably enter the picture.

Wilson then, and Romney now, say tough love is just what the country needs. Wilson still contends that New York State could use a turnaround expert; someone willing to make tough and unpopular decisions for the benefit of all. But nobody wants to hear that.

"The problem with the political debate is the guy who promises the most goodies tends to win," he said. "The reality is we no longer live in that world. We as a country should be mature enough to recognize that."

By existing both in business and politics, Wilson invited the argument in 2010 just as Romney does in 2012. The same debate will dog someone else attempting to mix the two in the future. It's possible, Wilson says, to combine both worlds, obliquely blaming 2010 gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino for his failure.

"Some argue that if not for developments on other parts of the ticket I would have won," Wilson hinted.

His ideas make good business sense. But even he acknowledges they may not prevail in a world of TV sound bites.

They didn't work for Wilson, Paladino or, ultimately, former County Executive Chris Collins. For them to work for Romney, he faces a major turnaround of his own.