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The Number Cruncher

NYPIRG's Bill Mahoney breaks down the stats so the public can figure out what’s going on in Albany

by Ali Hibbs on June 8, 2011

Photo by Ali Hibbs


Ever wonder which political entities in New York State receive the most money from “The Donald?” Or which businesses the State Pension Fund is most invested in? Maybe you just want to see a comprehensible breakdown of who happens to be funding your potential candidate, or how consistent their voting record is. These are things you have a right to know. It’s just not always easy to find this information or to make sense of it once it is found. The truth is out there. It just happens to be in the form of backlogs of public records and seemingly indecipherable streams of numbers that would discourage all but the most dedicated truthseeker.

If you’re not a math whiz or computer geek, don’t despair. Meet Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group. Also referred to as “the incomparable Bill Mahoney,” “spreadsheet whiz,” “data guru,” and “wunderkind,” this guy knows how to make sense of the mountains of records and endless scary numbers that represent the political functioning of New York State—and he’s willing to share.

At age 27, Mahoney has received quite a bit of media appreciation in recent years for the services that he provides in his position at NYPIRG, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to research and advocacy in areas of public interest. He’s pretty sure that all the accolades are because he makes life easier for journalists and political entities that utilize the information he makes accessible.

“The data that the state makes public is often put out in these large databases that may have thousands of records and are poorly organized,” explains Mahoney. “Often they’re just in PDF form, which makes them impossible to sort. I go through those and put them in a more user-friendly format. This enables reporters and others to interact with the data in an easier format and find what they’re looking for a lot quicker. I also go through much of the information myself, looking for anything of interest that might be buried.”

When he finds something interesting, he interprets the data and finds a way to render it more easily comprehensible—perhaps in the form of a chart or graph, which he then provides to a list of journalists and organizations that are likely to have use for it.

Mahoney and his colleague, Russ Haven, recently have stepped up to fill the considerable shoes of Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s erstwhile legislative director and chief lobbyist. Horner left that position earlier this year, after more than 30 years with the organization, to become the vice president of advocacy for the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey. At NYPIRG, he was well known as an outspoken and enthusiastic advocate of good government practices. Horner says it’s too early to tell what will happen there now that he has departed: “I’ve only been gone for a couple of weeks!”

But he also says that he has faith in the men he left in his stead. “Bill Mahoney and Russ Haven seem to have split up my work, and my sense is that they’ll be able to pick up the slack,” he told Metroland. “Bill is very tall; I suppose you noticed that. He’s also deceptively smart and extremely clever, which helps when trying to figure out the political connections or backdrop to any given issue. He intuitively knows how to follow the money. I used to write the reports before he came on but, with his knowledge of databases, it made sense for him to take that over.”

Now that Horner is gone, Mahoney’s job description involves quite a bit more lobbying than it used to. Mahoney now regularly testifies before the government and lobbies officials regarding specific issues—particularly campaign finance reform and redistricting practices. This Tuesday, he sat before a panel of Democratic legislators spoke about the importance of an independent redistricting commission. An independent commission is necessary, said Mahoney (and NYPIRG), due to a history of blatant gerrymandering by majorities on both sides of the political aisle. “As if that isn’t enough,” Mahoney told the panel, “recent redistrictings appear to have targeted specific individuals who have posed a threat to powerful incumbents by drawing those potential challengers’ houses into different districts.”

Campaign finance and redistricting practices are two things that Mahoney believes stand firmly in the way of progress toward good government goals. “Good government is about politicians that are more concerned about their constituents than their own hold on power,” he says. Lower contribution limits would compel elected officials to reach out to their constituents rather than rely on funding from special interests, and nonpartisan redistricting would ensure better representation (and, consequently, more political influence) for those from certain areas and socioeconomic backgrounds that are most often disadvantaged as a result of the current process.

Mahoney grew up near Buffalo, in Amherst, N.Y., the son of a teacher and a chemical engineer, “which is probably where I get my head for numbers.” He says that he comes from a “football family,” which boasts at least two members who have played for the NFL and one who coached for the Chicago Bears. “It’s tough when I watch the Bears play the Bills.”

Mahoney played football himself in high school and at Canisius College in Buffalo, where he majored in history. (He also considered going to school for physics, but an aversion to calculus apparently was the deciding factor.) After graduating from college in 2005, he moved to Albany and began working at NYPIRG as an intern. Before very long, he was established in a more permanent capacity as NYPIRG’s resident “number cruncher” and “spreadsheet guru.”

“Ever since I came to Albany in 2005, there’s been a nonstop string of scandals,” he says. “You can’t go two months without something happening, some legislator getting arrested. It never ends. I think it’s reached a point where New Yorkers are fed up. We need constituents who are involved with this government and who are closely following the issues that affect them rather than just sitting back on the sidelines and being told about what happened. People need to play an active role in making sure that their voices are heard.”

And that is why he does what he does, Mahoney finally admits. Playing an active role requires accessible, intelligible information about the functioning of government and its elected officials. He doesn’t want to tell anyone what to think, but he wants to be sure that people have the resources they need to do their own thinking. He hopes that thinking will, in turn, become voting and earnest political action.

Right now, Mahoney is pursuing his master’s degree in history at the University at Albany even while he steps into his expanded role at NYPIRG. He doesn’t mind the work, but wishes he had more time to spend with his girlfriend. He’s not certain where his future will ultimately lead; he may remain involved in politics or, perhaps, find a position teaching at a university. Right now, he says, there’s still a lot to accomplish here. When redistricting and campaign finance reform have been achieved (two things that he points out Cuomo promised to have done in the near future), he may have to adjust his focus, but “the great Bill Mahoney” doesn’t seem worried that there will be any shortage of good government issues to haul out into the light of day. And he’s happy to do the hauling.