Our new US ambassador has a tough act to follow

The nominee for the USA’s Ambassador to New Zealand is one Mark David Gilbert.

Here’s the text from the Whitehouse.gov press release, 4 months ago:

Mark D. Gilbert, Nominee for Ambassador to New Zealand, Department of State

Mark D. Gilbert is a Director at Barclays Wealth (formerly Lehman Brothers) in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Mr. Gilbert was the Senior Vice President of Goldman Sachs in Miami from 1989 to 1996 and

the Senior Vice President Sales Manager of Drexel Burnham Lambert in Boca Raton from 1986 to 1989.

Mr. Gilbert was the Democratic National Committee’s Deputy National Finance Chair from 2009 to 2013.  He served on the Obama for America National Finance Committee from 2007 to 2008 and 2011 to 2012, and was a member of the Presidential Inaugural Finance Committee in 2009.  Mr. Gilbert was Finance Chairman and Advisor to the Klein for Congress Campaign from 2005 to 2006 and was a Trustee on the National Finance Committee for Kerry for President in 2004.

Before beginning his business career, Mr. Gilbert was a professional baseball player for several years and played in the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox in 1985.  Mr. Gilbert received a B.S. in Finance from Florida State University.

Let’s start at the bottom, as NZHerald led with the White Sox connection in their article on February 14th. While Gilbert was indeed a former Chicago White-Sox player, his career with mercilessly short, lasting, says Wikipedia, the 7 days from July 21 1985 to July 27 1985 and paid, says baseball-alamac.com, $60,000 for the year (the minimum). Amazingly enough he played 7 games in those 7 days – making 6 hits and 3 runs in 22 at-bats. The White-Sox played 162 games in the regular season in 1985 and are Obama’s favourite team. 

The largest chunk of text from the press release is reserved for Gilbert’s work as a fundraiser for the Democratic Party and Obama/Kerry, and this is why he has been tapped as an ambassador. The WSJ reports that he raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s reelection in an article that somewhat unnecessarily points out that he was not implicated in Barclay’s Libor rate-fixing scandal. (A scandal that even today is on the front page of the WSJ). But the NYTimes shows Mark Gilbert has in fact bundled over $3.3 million for Obama since 2007 – just out of the top ten bundlers for Obama.

While it’s ok in the USA to be rewarded like this for fund-raising efforts (and indeed it’s sadly ok for fund raising efforts like this), it’s not activity that helps with credentials for an ambassador to New Zealand, although it does show a certain loyalty to the President. Evidence of that influence is small article that mentions that his daughter, Dani, was a DNC (Democratic National Committee – the Democratic Party) employee, and that Mark and Nancy Gilbert had visited the White House “several times.”

So we need to look beyond baseball and fundraising for his credentials.

Gilbert is described as a banking executive by NZHerald, which is incorrect I believe, as while he works for a bank, he is qualified and is an investment adviser and broker.

Gilbert started his career, an unknown time after a degree in Finance from Florida State University in Tallahassee, at junk bond dealer Drexel Burnham Lambert  from 1986 to May 1989. Drexel famously collapsed in Feb 1990. He got out before then to Smith Barney from May 1989 to August 1989, and then Goldman Sachs from August 1989 to October 1996. He moved to Lehman Brothers in October 1996, and stayed after they were taken over by Barclays in September 2008. Lehman’s collapse was a signature event near the start of the GFC.

Gilbert’s roles were, in my opinion, far too junior and removed from New York and London to be tainted with any of the Drexel, Lehman or Barclays scandals. As a broker, which is a relationship sales role, he is someone who helps land, advise and retain wealthy individuals from Florida with his employing institution. While he is a Director at Barclays, the Herald writer may not have known that Director is a common role in banking, and it appears from Barclays own job ads one that is picked up when staff are around 30 years old (i.e. 7-10 years after entering as a new graduate.) Barclays itself has several CEOs, Group Heads, and so on, down to hundreds of Managing Directors and Directors.

He discloses some volunteer work with the Boca Raton Festival and the Sundance Institute on his FINRA Brokercheck report. These seem to be low key and fund-raising based. I found a reference to a one-off fund raising event for the Sundance Institute for example, and it seems he is a regular donator to their efforts, and he and his wife donated at least once to the Boca Raton Festival.

So I see little in Gilbert’s bio that gives indication that he understands either New Zealand  or the issues that are likely to be dealt with over his term.

What makes this hard is that Gilbert has a very very tough act to follow, with the departure of Ambassador David Heubner, a Princeton undergraduate and Yale educated lawyer (as was his dotted line boss Hillary Clinton) who was a superb representative here for his country. I suspect we were lucky with Heubner as he was also the USA’s first openly gay ambassador, and perhaps had to have impeccable credentials to pass throughout the US Senate confirmation process. Certainly he was perhaps more highly qualified than many other ambassadors we have received here.

We should not lose sight of the fact that we are a tiny country as far as the USA is concerned, and placement of ambassadors here would likely be regarded as a job for the boys. That’s said, Heubner has shown what a professional can do for relations, and I suspect there are  hundreds of career professionals inside the Department of State who would be very frustrated that the Ambassador to New Zealand role is not ever available.

Of course while New Zealand is an afterthought for the USA, the USA is of critical importance to us, and every other country in the world. This is reflected in the quality of our own representative to the USA, ex Prime Minister and ex-Director General of the WTO Mike Moore.

Gilbert does, it seems, have a reputation for hard work, and clearly and his wife get along with a lot of people, so I really hope they immerse themselves in NZ once they arrive.

About Lance Wiggs

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One Response to Our new US ambassador has a tough act to follow

  1. Sandy DiMatteo says:

    Actually, Clinton picked the first openly gay ambassador in the 1990s — the Hormel chili heir, who was our man in Luxembourg.

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