In announcing his Republican bid for governor on Tuesday, Harry Wilson has leaned heavily into his Johnstown roots. Not only did Wilson shoot his announcement video in Johnstown – including on the former dairy farm property where he grew up – but he also pointed to the city as the kind of community he hopes his policies will help.
“My upbringing in Johnstown has defined who I am as a person. It’s the most important part of my life,” Wilson said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Everything I have in life I owe to my family there, my teachers, my coaches. It taught me who I am as a person: my values, my work ethic, everything.”
Entering a primary race in which Rep. Lee Zeldin has gotten a lot of attention, Wilson said he wants to end tax cuts and regulations that he believes have been a detriment to places like his hometown.
“The reason I’m running for governor is to turn around the state. And I think bad policies out of Albany and failed leadership by career politicians has hurt communities all over the state,” Wilson said. “That’s true of Johnstown, but it’s true of communities from Buffalo to Long Island and everywhere in between.”
Wilson, 50, graduated from Johnstown High School before earning an MBA from Harvard University, which led to a lucrative career as a hedge fund manager. Wilson, chairman and founder of the Maeva Group, has also devoted much of his professional life to turning around companies in financial trouble. Last year, Wilson served as CEO of Genesis HealthCare, a skilled nursing facility operator, to develop and execute a turnaround plan that the company’s board chairman described as making “significant progress in a very short period of time,” according to a Genesis news release. Wilson also served as an adviser in the U.S. Department of the Treasury during President Barack Obama’s administration, when Wilson was part of a team that oversaw the restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler after the companies were bailed out by the government.
Wilson made a name for himself in state politics in the 2010 race for New York State Comptroller, in which he narrowly lost by about 4 points to incumbent Tom DiNapoli. Wilson considered running for governor in 2018, but ultimately decided not to enter the race. This election, the husband of nearly 25 years and father of four daughters, said the time is right for his family and the state, and he is backing his candidacy with $12 million of his own money.
“When I finished my most recent business assignment, I had an outpouring of people reaching out, asking me to run, saying the state desperately needed a turnaround,” Wilson said.
The son and grandson of Greek immigrants, Wilson said his father tended bar at The Rainbow, which was owned by Wilson’s uncle, while his mother worked at a sewing factory. His uncle, Peter Wilson, was mayor of Johnstown in the 1960s and 70s. While Wilson now lives in Westchester County, he said he still has many family members and friends in Johnstown and visits every few months.
Wilson said his focus will be to closely examine state spending and weigh whether it benefits hardworking families like those in Johnstown.
“Some of the biggest challenges coming out of failed Albany policies are excessive taxation and regulations that don’t serve the consumer and add cost and therefore dramatically increase the cost of living and make it very hard to work and do businesses in communities across the state,” Wilson said. “What I would do with the turnaround plan for New York is go through every dollar of state spending, all $216 billion dollars of it, every regulation, and ask simple questions. Does this protect and improve the lives of New Yorkers?”
Cities like Johnstown are facing declining populations. A draft of the city’s comprehensive plan cites U.S. census data showing that the population has been going down since the 1950s and currently sits at about 8,100.
Wilson has a track record that doesn’t strictly hew to his party’s line. In addition to his time working with the Obama administration, Wilson instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate last August as the CEO of Genesis. And on Tuesday, Wilson said he believes President Joe Biden’s presidential election was legitimate – a result that many leading Republicans publicly question without evidence.
But Wilson said his attention in the governor’s race is on practical solutions that affect New Yorkers.
“That’s what every business, every nonprofit, and every family has to do all the time. They have to constantly assess their priorities and make sure that they are investing their precious limited resources in the best possible way. Unfortunately, Albany doesn’t operate that way,” Wilson said.
Wilson enters a primary race that already features prominent names, including Zeldin, an attorney and officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and a four-term lawmaker representing the state’s 1st Congressional District in the eastern half of Long Island. Other candidates include Andrew Giuliani, who served in Trump’s administration and is Rudy Giuliani’s son, as well as Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive and 2014 GOP gubernatorial nominee. The state’s Republican convention is slated to begin Monday in Nassau County.
Longtime Johnstown residents like Craig Talarico, who recently served as the city’s Council-Member-at-Large under Mayor Vernon Jackson, said Wilson’s candidacy makes him proud of his city.
“It’s great to hear of this,” Talarico said. “It just goes to show you Johnstown can produce some good things.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.