A conversation with... Louis Grumet: Confessions of a policy wonk

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Why would a guy who, by his own self-description can't even count, want to work with a bunch of accountants? Several reasons. "I love public policy," says Louis Grumet. "I'm a public policy wonk. I believe government can make life better, and I've spent my life trying to do that." In 2000 when he was asked to become the Executive Director of the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants, he knew that was one place he'd have a real chance to influence policy.

He also liked the kind of people he knew he'd be working with. "I was struck by the intelligence of CPAs. CPAs are extraordinarily bright. They read a lot. They're knowledgeable. The core of their existence is ethics. Ethics in the Internet world is as important as constitutional issues in a democratic world. I thought if I could help define ethical issues, push standards higher, it would be a good challenge."

Under his leadership, the NYSSCPA has become much more policy-oriented, more so than any other state accounting society. In fact, the New York branch may produce more comments on more issues than all of the other branches combined… often placing them in disagreement with the AICPA. This shift of focus… a key goal for Grumet, has required dramatic staff changes during the last eight years. Now, he says, the Society has 65 committees that are all working on substantive issues.

Another important goal for Grumet was growth. "When I came here I had a brass plaque on my desk that read, 'It's the Membership, Stupid!'" At that time there were eleven chapters in NYSSCPA, now there are 16, with more than 30,000 CPAs in public accounting, government, education, and industry. Grumet may not know how to count, but he clearly knows how to multiply.

His ability to set an agenda and then push it through may be why the NYSSCPA tapped him as leader in the first place. "I wasn't looking for a job," he says. In fact, by the time he was asked to take the top spot at the accounting society, he'd already spent a lifetime achieving great results in some powerful positions.

Humble beginnings

A big part of Grumet's motivation to "make life better" for others came from his own upbringing, as part of a poor family in West Virginia. To get through college, he relied on scholarships, loans, and full-time work. If that financial lack slowed him down, it wasn't perceptible. Before he finished his formal education he would earn a BA from George Washington University, a JD from New York University Law School, an MPA from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and become a Certified Association Executive.

One of the employers that helped him earn his way through school was the Democratic National Committee. When he applied for a job there, the guy in charge asked him why he wanted to work for the DNC. "I want to change the world," was his answer. That must've been the right thing to say because he was hired and went on to help elect Lyndon Johnson. Later he went back to see the man who had given him the job at the DNC and asked how he could thank him. He answered, "Help the next guy find his way." Those words would be one of the guiding principles of Grumet's career.

After leaving school, he held various high-level positions, including Special Assistant to the Secretary of State of New York who was, at that time, Mario Cuomo. In that job, he negotiated treaties with the Iroquois nations and worked with anti-poverty groups, migrant worker programs, and local governments, always focusing on using government to make things better for those without resources.

He also served as Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Education of Children with Handicapping Conditions in New York… the youngest person to fill that role in the state's education history.

Eventually, Grumet would become the Executive Director of the New York State School Boards Association. In his 14 years there, he built programs that served a quarter million handicapped children. He shut down 75 private facilities for the disabled that were receiving public funding but didn't meet state standards. Once the facilities were shut down, 5,000 kids were moved into what he describes as less restrictive environments. "I'm a tough regulator," says Grumet. And his record backs up his statement.

One thing is clear… Grumet is a bulldog when it comes to accomplishing his goals. While working for the NYSSBA, he took strong advocacy positions for programs such as early childhood education, better management for school boards, and higher educational standards. One of his major accomplishments involved suing his former boss, Mario Cuomo… eleven times. The legal issue was one of separation of church and state. A religious school in the Hassidic Village of Kiryas Joel was receiving government funding from the state of New York. Grumet saw this as a constitutional violation and sought to have the funding stripped away. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was finally settled, in favor of the NYSSBA under Grumet's direction.

Outside of the office

At work, he may be a tough regulator and a policy wonk, but at home, he's a guy who loves children and dogs, especially poodles. His own household includes two much-loved dogs, one a labradoodle and the other a standard poodle. He says he migrates towards smart people, which makes sense for a man of his education and career choices… and family. His wife, whom he met when they were both in law school, is now a college dean. Together they have two daughters - one is an attorney, the other a budget director - and three grandchildren.

His spare time is spent indulging in a favorite hobby… reading biographies and history books. Currently he's combining his love of books with his love of policy, by writing his own book on church/state relations. When that one is finished, he's already planning another one, this time on Native American relations in the United States.

For a guy who says he can't count, his lifetime accomplishments have been countless, and he's far from finished. Watch for his first book to hit store shelves next spring.

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