(l-r) Kevin Parker, Brad Lander, Brian Benjamin, David Weprin
The four Democratic candidates running in this year’s election for New York City Comptroller appeared one-by-one Sunday afternoon at an online forum hosted by several downtown Manhattan Democratic clubs. The comptroller is the city’s chief fiscal officer, responsible for auditing city agencies, leading management of the public pension funds, analyzing the city budget, approving city contracts, and providing broad oversight of city government and other entities that impact New Yorkers.
It was the first forum of the comptroller race, which will be decided in a June primary featuring ranked-choice voting, followed by a fall general election. There are Republican candidates declared at the moment, and the Democratic primary winner will be heavily favored to win given the city’s massive voter registration imbalance.
The four participants were, in order of appearance, State Senator Brian Benjamin of Manhattan, State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, State Assembly Member David Weprin of Queens, and City Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn.
The clubs hosting Sunday’s forum were Downtown Independent Democrats, Coalition for a District Alternative, Grand Street Democrats, New Downtown Democrats, United Democratic Organization, Village Independent Democrats, and Village Reform Democratic Club. The moderator of the forum was Cameron Krause, co-president of Village Independent Democrats.
Along with the forum, the candidates were asked to fill out a lengthy policy survey from the Downtown Independent Democrats, covering a wide range of topics, and all but Parker submitted it to the club.
During the forum, candidates were allowed an initial five minutes to present themselves and their candidacy. That was followed by ten minutes of Q&A from forum attendees.
Benjamin, who represents District 30 in the State Senate, appeared first and said he was “the only candidate running in this race who has relevant investment management experience.”
He previously worked for Morgan Stanley and served as a delegate for President Barack Obama and as a member of Obama’s National Finance Committee. Benjamin’s campaign was recently in the news because of a potential straw donor scandal, as reported by The City, that the campaign is attempting to deal with.
In his introduction, he discussed his “overarching fundamental principle” to his candidacy as “holding the Mayor of the City of New York accountable for the billions of dollars that are spent on the city budget and safeguarding over $230 billion pensions.” He said because the comptroller is the chief investment officer of five separate public pension-related funds, his experience in finance would help secure the mandated 7% returns on them. If those return goals aren’t met, the city has to support the pension fund using “dollars that can go towards other resources.”
Benjamin said another key tenet of the comptroller’s job generally holding the mayoral administration accountable. He said the NYPD “needs a lot of management,” and that he has been “very, very forceful” in saying part of the department’s budget should be reallocated elsewhere. Benjamin said there need to be specific audits of the police department budget to have a better sense of what the next steps are.
The NYPD “is a part of our public safety plan,” he said, adding that it “must also include investing [in] our communities, investment in education, investment in economic development,” specifically in marginalized communities.
Benjamin said the city has “a crisis when it comes to homelessness” and that the comptroller’s office could assist through creative management of the public pension funds. He suggested, through the pension funds, purchasing distressed hotels across the city and converting them into permanent supportive housing. He said the plan would “make good returns for the retirees, and at the same time provide [an] important, useful service.”
Benjamin also said the city “has to have a strategic plan around our nearly 600,000 families that need affordable housing.”
When asked about what current Comptroller Scott Stringer, a term-limited Democrat now running for mayor, was doing right, Benjamin said Stringer had “done a very good job in terms of shareholder activism.” He pointed to Stringer’s work in divestment from fossil fuels, commissioning a study on the topic that will be presented to trustees of the five funds.
When asked about what he’d do differently, Benjamin said he wanted to hold the NYPD accountable, as the department has “been running amok for too long.” He said he would audit and investigate the department, and “be very clear about what we’re getting for the resources that we’re spending.” Benjamin has had a focus on policing and criminal justice reform at the state level. He also said he wanted to be more active than Stringer in approaching the homelessness crisis and referencing his previously-made point said he could make the case to trustees that the issue was one to invest in, and how to invest, because his knowledge meant he could advocate effectively and that he “actually understands” the issue.
Benjamin said the city needs a comptroller “who has the values but also understands the nuts and bolts of financial analysis and financial management, in order to move the ball forward.”
Responding to a question about mental health challenges among homeless people, Benjamin said “obviously there's a very important role for the mayor to play here.” He suggested the comptroller could investigate spending and make sure some was properly disbursed to mental health providers, as he’d personally heard of providers not receiving funding. He again advocated for looking for long-term solutions and permanent housing for homeless people.
Asked about using hotels as supportive housing, Benjamin said key issues were making sure they provided necessary services to individuals that end up there: he pointed to there being “some folks who just need a permanent place this day,” versus “some folks who need a lot more targeted help.”
He also pointed to the city’s $6,000 in spending per month for each family in temporary shelter and said he “cannot be convinced by anyone that we can’t figure out a way to do that on a permanent level that's less expensive to the city [and] provides a return from a pension standpoint.” He said “public pension funds should protect the retirees but also have a public sort of benefit.”
Parker, who represents the 21st District in the State Senate, said the city needs “somebody with experience, knowledge, and understanding of the system, but more importantly, the vision of how to lead us forward.”
Parker currently serves as Majority Whip and Chair of the Committee on Energy and Telecommunications. He previously served as Special Assistant to Comptroller H. Carl McCall. Parker has faced criticism for his history of violent and volatile behavior.
In his introduction, Parker highlighted his experience — his tenure leading the Energy and Telecommunications Committee, two years on the Finance Committee, over a decade on the Banking Committee, and over a decade on the Insurance Committee.
While he said New York cannot “tax our way out of this crisis,” it’s important to raise taxes on multi-millionaires. Of the pension fund, he said “if it doesn't make dollars, it doesn't make sense,” and he wants to use it “to invest in funds that invest in New York businesses.”
Parker also wants to put together an Economic Justice Council of business leaders, labor leaders, community leaders, and clergy leaders to start “working together to build a way forward.” He also committed to auditing the NYPD and making sure it continues “to protect and serve every single New Yorker, but to do so in a way that's transparent that provides accountability.”
Parker supports investing in young people by expanding activities like middle school athletics and he suggested that boosting youth engagement in extracurricular activities “will decrease the amount of gang activity, which will decrease the amount of crime and violence that we're seeing in our communities.”
In response to a question on if state legislators should receive outside income, Parker said he personally doesn’t but that it’s been legally approved by an ethics panel (Benjamin and Weprin both earn outside income). He said officials should make sure to disclose that income in the filings required of them, which are public information.
When asked about potentially interfering in plans to tear up East River Park, Parker called it “the best question I’ve gotten in the entire time I’ve been through this process.” He promised to look into it, as he would “have to learn a little more about it.”
When asked if he would consider having the office administer the pensions of all taxpaying New Yorkers who wanted that, he said “absolutely,” and it “would be a fantastic opportunity particularly to build wealth over time.” He said there would have to be a legal mechanism passed to allow this to occur.
Parker said that from the comptroller’s offer there should be “specific attention paid to women- and minority-owned businesses,” and that minority groups should have more access to city contracting opportunities. He also said payments need to be consistent, as late payments are the “kind of things that kill small businesses in general, and Black- and Latino- and women-owned businesses in particular.” He also pointed to the lack of pension plan investments in businesses owned by people of color, and said “we have to change that.”
When asked about pension divestment from fossil fuel stocks, Parker pointed to his experience on the Senate energy committee, and that there’s “nuance that needs to happen.” He discussed National Grid, a large utility firm, and said you can’t “cancel” the company for using gas when it “is also the largest sustainable energy producer in the entire state.” Parker said that because of this nuance, it had to be looked at in a “company by company, investment by investment” method.
Weprin, who represents District 24 in the State Assembly and before that represented a similar swathe of Queens in the City Council, said he was running for comptroller “because I really feel I can contribute to rebuilding New York City.”
Weprin’s former roles include Mario Cuomo’s appointed Deputy Superintendent of Banks and Secretary of the Banking Board for New York State, and New York District Chairman of the Securities Industry Association.
In his introduction, Weprin pointed to experience, including that he chaired the City Council Finance Committee from 2002 to 2009, where he said he helped transform the post-9/11 deficit into a surplus and which he said gave him deep familiarity with the city budget and city finances. He also noted his more recent work chairing the Assembly Corrections Committee for the last four years and serving on the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. He stressed his work on criminal justice reform and oversight of the state prison system.
When asked about upzonings for more housing, Weprin said he supports increasing transparency, looking into the economic impact of the process, and making sure there is significant community input. He said that he “was not as involved in [this] issue” of land use during his time in the City Council, “but I think it's certainly something that we should be looking at.”
When asked about auditing, Weprin said currently, all New York City agencies are audited once every four years, but he would do it annually, though he noted more personnel would be needed. He said there is a lot of financial waste in the city, and he would audit to make sure that was minimized, especially in contracting. As an example, he pointed to the Department of Education's contracting budget, which “could be used for teachers and support personnel to actually provide teaching in our classrooms, during normal times as well as during the pandemic.”
He said he has supported small property owners during legislation passed at the state level in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which helps renters as well as smaller landlords and homeowners who have “to make their payments” too. He added that he was “less worried about these multi-billion dollar landlords.”
In response to a question about jails, Weprin said he supported closing the Rikers Island jails and auditing the correction department budget.
Weprin, who unsuccessfully ran for city comptroller in 2009, recently had to pay down a significant campaign finance debt from that campaign and did so in order to start this election with a clean slate.
Lander, who serves as Council member for the 39th District, said there were “hard and important years ahead” for the office of comptroller and the city.
A co-founder of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, Lander was director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Fifth Avenue Committee before being elected to the Council. While Lander has experience with city agency oversight and the city budget, he does not have the finance experience that the other three candidates have to varying degrees.
In his introduction, he pointed to a 15-year career in community development and planning, running the aforementioned nonprofits. He mentioned that the City Council had recently passed his bill to protect fast food workers from unfair firing without just cause, and he pointed to a long list of progressive policy efforts he had been involved in, including the fight for a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, and better protections to Uber and Lyft drivers and freelancers, as well as legislation for safer streets, banning plastic bags, implementing participatory budgeting, and strengthening campaign finance laws.
He said his achievements were the result of working closely with activists and community leaders and taking “a good hard look” at data. Lander has worked toward greater transparency and accountability in the city’s capital budget, though that remains an ongoing challenge. Lander said at the Sunday forum that he wants to look at investing capital budget dollars in projects to stem the climate crisis and create green jobs.
Lander said he has already supported investments in clean energy, culture and the arts, affordable and supportive housing, and in “sustainable innovation to bring our city back to life and create hundreds of thousands of good green jobs.”
He said his job as comptroller would be to make sure the city was “spending our dollars smarter” by carefully investing public pensions and responsibly auditing agencies, and those tools “can help us confront our biggest challenges,” which he said were economic recovery, the affordable housing crisis, and public safety.
In response to a question about auditing city contracted organizations, Lander said while the city collects information on what organizations are effective and which provide proper services and use money effectively, “it doesn't share that information with the public enough.” He said that was true “across a lot of the areas where we contract for services.” Particularly regarding homelessness contracting, Lander said “the public absolutely has a right to know” about the organizations being hired by the city.
Lander mentioned his support for a comprehensive planning process in the city, with legislation he’s pushed for recently introduced at the Council. He said that included asking how much additional housing the city thinks it needs, areas for job growth, preservation efforts, and how to factor in concerns about the future of the planet. He said given that set of inquiries, they would make decisions on how to allocate funding such that it’s distributed fairly, increases equity in communities across the board, and ensures permanent infrastructure is created and supported.
Asked about the city’s fiscal future, Lander called it “a day-one job” and pointed to the possibility of more federal aid for local governments, especially given the Democrats’ recent electoral wins in Georgia Senate races. He said he supports revenue-raising proposals at the state level, especially by closing the loophole on carried interest for hedge fund and private equity managers, and taxing billionaires, though he also acknowledged the city would have to make budget cuts.