Democratic Primary: David Gruber Went from Investor to Political Guru

David Gruber at a debate hosted by the East Hampton Group for Good Government at the East Hampton Emergency Services headquarters on Cedar Street on Tuesday. Michael Heller photo

David Gruber, 66, was born in Queens and grew up in Roslyn, the son of an elementary school reading teacher and a certified public accountant, some of whose major clients were labor unions. Prominent labor leaders were frequent dinner guests, he recalled. “I would listen to them argue about politics … It was fascinating,” he said.

The oldest of three siblings, he was reading The New York Times cover to cover and I.F. Stone’s Weekly by age 10 and campaigned for Lyndon Johnson’s election campaign in 1964 at age 12. He went to high school in Roslyn and obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics from Hampshire College in Amherst, having chosen his major by “accident,” he said, enrolling in an electronics course appealingly titled “How to Fix Your Own Stereo” and finding it fascinating.

But he made a change upon graduation. “Civic engagement was more important to me than the theoretical enterprise,” he said, so he went on to earn a law degree, magna cum laude, in 1978 from the University of Michigan Law School, where he was on the staff of the Michigan Law Review.

His first job was in commercial banking as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, where he worked for nearly three years. But he realized that the “clients were having more fun than I was,” he said, so he went to business school at NYU at night and, after leaving his job, enrolling full-time at Columbia Business School. To pay the bills, he worked part-time for a lawyer whose client was Carl Marks & Co., Inc. He did not obtain his MBA because, eventually, “I got a job offer I couldn’t refuse” from the company, a family owned investment banking and trading firm.

He worked at Marks for 10 years until 1991, “in the business of analyzing, buying, supervising and selling businesses for private investment.” Businesses into which he personally delved ranged from movie theatres, apparel and animal feed to factory-fishing trawlers and bulk trucking. In one case, he functioned as the de facto CEO of an apparel company.

“That experience started to fuel my own desire to run my own business,” he said. He also felt the booming 1980s market, with sky-high price-to-earnings ratios, limited the options for Marks & Co. to breaking up companies or flipping them. “I was not comfortable doing that,” Mr. Gruber said.

He moved full-time to East Hampton, where he had been renting since 1987. With a partner based in New York, who had been a programmer at Morgan Stanley and also believed “quantitative methods” could explain market behavior, the two men “took three years to develop a black-box trading system” and set up a closed, private fund and ran it for a decade. “We were very successful,” he said.

Meanwhile, he built a house in 1993 in the Hardscrabble area of Northwest Woods where he still lives; helped found the Hayground School in Bridgehampton in 1995; and, in 1997 and 2000, adopted one-year-old Chinese girls as a single father: Lena, now a senior at Smith College, and Mali, who’s a freshman at Haverford College.

In 2004, he “took a sabbatical” to live in Paris with the girls. “We had a wonderful time,” a one-year stay turned into three, and “by the end of three years, I decided it was time to come home” because he wanted the girls to grow up as Americans. He returned to New York, where the girls attended the Lycee Francais in Manhattan, and spent weekends and summers in East Hampton.

His interest in local politics dates to the late 1990s. Concerned about airport noise, he was “a maximum donor to the Democratic Committee” in 1997, he said. In 1998, outraged at what he saw as “evidence of corruption” in town government, he joined forces with Pat Trunzo and other committee members to fight expansion of the airport, a battle that continues today. He ran for supervisor in 2001, losing by 185 votes, and served as Democratic Committee chair from 2001 to 2004.

“I served on every election committee” of the Democratic Party from 2003 to 2015, he said, including remotely from Paris. “My job was to write the strategy and the campaign literature.”

But by 2015, he witnessed what he called “a catastrophic failure” by the Democratic Town Board to follow the advice of the airport noise subcommittee he chaired to use a “less extreme” fee-based system to restrict access to the airport.

“Most of what we recommended was actually ignored,” he said, “which in a way is what moved me away from unqualified support for the Town Board.”

“That squandered years of work,” he said. “An enormous effort to solve this problem was squandered.” By 2017, “I felt I could no longer sit on the campaign committee,” where he had been making promises as a Democratic strategist that “I believed in and thought the people elected would do. It wasn’t just rhetoric. But by 2017, I no longer believed that.”