Short Hills hedge fund manager and philanthropist Leon Cooperman says he didn’t vote for Barack Obama but agrees with the administration that America’s wide income disparities need to be addressed.
Where he parts company with the president is how that debate is being carried out. In an “open letter” to Obama that became an Internet sensation, the self-described “high-income taxpayer” accuses Obama of “setting the tenor of the rancorous debate now roiling us that smacks of what so many have characterized as ‘class warfare.’”
In the Nov. 28 open letter, Cooperman urges the president “to rise above the partisan fray” and “set a tone that encourages people of good will to meet in the middle.”
Cooperman’s letter was widely circulated via e-mail and later excerpted in the New York Post. It was variously praised and condemned by bloggers, and Cooperman discussed it with The New York Times financial blog and with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News.
Although the letter offers no specific solution to fixing the nation’s economic woes, Cooperman said in a Dec. 9 interview with NJJN that the income gap should be closed through education and expanding the economy — not “through bashing wealthy people for no particular reason. The wealthy people didn’t prosper at the expense of the people who are less wealthy.”
It is, as Cooperman will admit, a personal cri de coeur. As chairman and CEO of the Omega Advisors hedge fund, his worth is reported at $1.6 billion, according to Andrew Ross Sorkin in The New York Times. In the letter he describes his own rags-to-riches story; raised in the Bronx, Cooperman writes that his parents were Polish immigrants, his father was a plumber, and that he was the “first member of my family to earn a college degree.” After 25 years at Goldman Sachs, he started his own private investment firm 20 years ago.
The letter also refers to his own philanthropy, saying he has signed investor Warren Buffet’s “Giving Pledge” to donate a majority of his wealth to charity.
Among his philanthropic endeavors are the $5 million Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future to endow Birthright Israel, Jewish summer camps, and mitzva projects through United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ; a $1.3 million gift to the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange; and major support for JCC MetroWest, whose facility in West Orange bears the name of Cooperman and his wife, Toby.
In 2010, Cooperman said, he had already given away some $100 million in his lifetime.
“I never, ever, ever would have written that letter if the president had said, ‘We are in very difficult economic times and all of us have to do more, particularly those who can afford to do more,’” Cooperman told NJJN. “I have been saying for a year now that anyone making over $500,000 a year should have a 10 percent tax surcharge for the next three years as we work our way out of this problem. I have no problem paying taxes. I have no problem supporting people who are less fortunate than myself. My charitable giving is probably 100 times annually what I spend on myself.”
Although he doubted that 1 percent of the American people control 99 percent of the wealth — as supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement argue — Cooperman said he recognizes the fix the economy is in.
“There is a very wide disparity in income between people, and the disparity has probably never been greater, so I am sympathetic to that view,” he said.
Cooperman told Van Susteren that in past presidential elections he voted for Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, George W. Bush, and John McCain.
“I didn’t vote for Obama, and I’m happy I didn’t vote for Obama,” he told NJJN. “I hope he is a one-term president.”
But, he added, “there is no question that Obama has a tough hand because there are a bunch of crazy people in Congress. I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I vote issues, and one of the problems today is that there are no moderates in Congress. We’ve got a bunch of radicals on both sides.”
Cooperman said he would not have gone public if it had not been for what he called “the divisive, polarizing tone” of the president’s rhetoric.
Reaction to Cooperman’s letter among those active in the Jewish community was, perhaps predictably, polarized.
Conservative talk show host Michael Medved praised the letter on his radio program.
One local Republican thinks that Cooperman “put his finger right on it.” For more than 30 years. Jack Schrier was active in Morris County GOP politics, serving as a freeholder and mayor of his hometown of Mendham.
“Obama has gone so much to the partisan side that he has doused the flames of cooperation that have existed,” Schrier said. “What is happening now is there is an anti-Obama feeling in Congress, even among Democrats. It is that anti-presidential feeling that is causing a lot of the problems. He is an igniter, not a uniter.”
But Simon Greer, president and CEO of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice, said he appreciates Cooperman’s frustration, but thinks he may have picked the wrong target.
“The letter is angry, but why so much anger?” asked Greer, who in January will become head of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. “There is a lot of anger in America rightfully or wrongfully at Wall Street and the hedge funds and the banks. I don’t think it emanates first and foremost from the president. I think it emanates from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and a lot of corners.”
But Greer suggested that the time is ripe for all those who would like to fix the broken economy to work together.
Said Greer: “This is a moment when someone like me and someone like Mr. Cooperman should be sitting down and saying, ‘What do we do to solve these problems?’”