Edward V. Regan, Longtime New York State Comptroller, Dies at 84

October 20, 2014

By ROBERT D. McFADDEN

October 20, 2014

Edward V. Regan, a Buffalo Republican who knew little about high finance when he became the New York State comptroller but soundly managed billions in public pension funds and monitored hundreds of municipalities and state agencies for 14 years, died on Saturday in Greenwich, Conn. He was 84.

Mr. Regan’s wife, Susan, said he died at Greenwich Hospital, where he was admitted on Oct. 13 after an extended stay at the Osborn, a retirement community in Rye, N.Y. She did not specify the cause, but said he had long been living with Alzheimer’s disease.

After his political career ended, Mr. Regan served in the late 1990s as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, providing fiscal oversight for New York City; was the president of Baruch College of the City University of New York from 2000 to 2004; and taught classes on government at the university.

Throughout his tenure as comptroller, from 1979 to 1993, Mr. Regan (pronounced REE-gan) was his party’s highest-ranking state official, although United States Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato was by far New York’s most powerful Republican at the time. As politicians go, Mr. Regan, known as Ned, was as unflashy as they come: a reserved watchdog of the public cash box known for fiscal competence and political reticence.

When first elected, he disavowed higher political ambitions. He then ran for governor in 1982. It was a fiasco.

He went skiing in Vermont and had an aide in Albany announce his candidacy. But he despaired of fund-raising and dropped out when a seemingly formidable Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York entered the race for the Democratic nomination. Then Mario M. Cuomo beat Mr. Koch in the primary and went on to win the governorship.

Mr. Regan never again entertained serious hopes of becoming governor. But voters who elected him to four four-year terms, in 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990, liked his boyish good looks — he was a six-footer, with wavy steel-gray hair and a broad Irish grin — and his aura of rectitude in what many saw as Albany’s wasteland of corruption and profligacy.

A persistent critic of heavy borrowing and fiscal gimmicks to balance budgets, he swayed public opinion against a $2 billion bond issue for economic development and another for environmental projects, and lobbied for years against the state’s growing indebtedness.

Mr. Regan delivered a strong performance as the sole trustee administering the state’s public-employee pension fund, the second-largest in the country. His stock-investment strategies yielded an average annual portfolio growth rate of 13.4 percent during his last 10 years in office. During his tenure, the pension fund grew to $56 billion from $10 billion.

In the 1980s, Mr. Regan refused to yield to pressure to divest the pension fund’s shares in companies doing business with South Africa as a tactic to fight apartheid. Instead, believing such a move would hurt returns on the fund’s portfolio, he urged companies to voluntarily withdraw from the country.

At the same time, he noted, “Pension funds, long the most staid and quiet of shareholders, have suddenly awakened to the tremendous power they command.”

Mr. Regan was also a prolific auditor of the finances and performance of 400 state agencies and 1,500 local governments, and he issued hundreds of reports alleging waste and mismanagement and recommending reforms. But many of his reports were ignored, and the comptroller himself was often dismissed by other officials as ineffectual.

Mr. Regan was hemmed in by Democrats. In his early years in office, he worked in the shadow of his revered Democratic predecessor, Arthur J. Levitt Sr., who set lofty professional standards for modern state comptrollers and retired after a record six terms.

On his desk in Albany, Mr. Regan kept a picture of Mr. Levitt, who had defeated him soundly in his first bid for comptroller in 1970 but who supported Mr. Regan in his first successful run for the post. Mr. Regan credited Mr. Levitt with a decisive endorsement to beat the New York City comptroller, Harrison J. Goldin, in that race.

In Albany, Mr. Regan was the lone Republican among New York State’s top elected officials: the Democratic governors Hugh L. Carey and Mario Cuomo (and their respective lieutenant governors) and the attorneys general Robert Abrams and G. Oliver Koppell. His relationships with them all were occasionally contentious but usually cordial.

In 1988, prosecutors investigated Mr. Regan’s fund-raising practices after the disclosure of a memo written by a top aide advocating a policy under which “those who give will get” — suggesting, perhaps, that financial firms that provided the bulk of the comptroller’s campaign contributions would receive state business.

A public-integrity commission found that 60 percent of his campaign contributions came from the financial industry, compared with less than 10 percent for other officials. Mr. Regan denied wrongdoing, and no charges were brought. Still, the negative publicity emboldened his critics and left him politically weakened for his last campaign, a narrow victory over the former New York City Council president Carol Bellamy.

Mr. Regan unexpectedly announced his resignation in February 1993, effective in May, at what was arguably the pinnacle of his career. He insisted he was stepping down, to become president of the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College in Dutchess County, with nearly two years to go in his fourth term because he had achieved many of his goals.

But his announcement surprised other state officials and even his staff. The Legislature named H. Carl McCall, president of the New York City Board of Education, to succeed him.

Edward Van Buren Regan was born in Plainfield, N.J., on May 14, 1930, the oldest of five children of William and Allison Van Buren Regan. He attended primary school in Utica, N.Y., and graduated from the Nichols School in Buffalo in 1947 and from Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., in 1952.

In 1959, he married Jennifer Read. They had three children, Jane, Julian and Kate, and were divorced in 1988. In 1991, he married Susan Ginsberg. Besides his second wife and the children from his first marriage, Mr. Regan is survived by two sisters, Allison Hopkins and Caroline Lassoe; two brothers, William and Peter; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Regan served in the Navy as an intelligence officer in 1952 and 1953, but after the death of his father returned to Buffalo to run a family liquor business. He earned a law degree with honors from the State University at Buffalo in 1964.

In his first foray into politics, Mr. Regan won a seat on the Buffalo City Council in 1965.

In 1970, state Republican Party officials persuaded him to make what all acknowledged to be a hopeless run against Mr. Levitt for state comptroller. He lost by 1.3 million votes.

From 1972 to 1978, he was the elected executive of Erie County, a post he gave up to run for state comptroller.

Originally published by The New York Times