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City Comptroller Candidates Pitch Manhattan Democratic Clubs

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(l-r): Brad Lander, Brian Benjammin, David Weprin, and Kevin Parker)

The four Democratic candidates running in this year’s election for New York City Comptroller appeared one-by-one at two recent online forums hosted by Manhattan Democratic clubs.

The West Side Democrats, during a forum moderated by district leader Joan Paylo, hosted the candidates on January 12, while the Uptown Community Democrats and the Audubon Reform Democratic Club, with moderators Curtis Young, co-president of UCD, and Maria Luna, district leader of the ARDC, hosted them on the 14th.

The four participants in both forums were City Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn, State Senator Brian Benjamin of Manhattan, State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, and State Assembly Member David Weprin of Queens. They are the four current candidates to be the next chief fiscal officer for the city, seeking to succeed term-limited Comptroller Scott Stringer. They are all Democrats, competing in the June primary, with the winner all-but-certain to prevail in the fall general election given the city’s heavy Democratic voter enrollment advantage.

At the first event, candidates were given time for a brief opening statement, after which Paylo asked them a series of questions, differing by candidate. Each candidate had 15 minutes in sum. At the second, candidates were given three minutes for an opening statement, followed by four questions from Luna, which dealt with transparency in city contract proposals submitted to the comptroller's office, settlements in litigation against the city, bonds, and the time it takes for contracts to be paid out to nonprofits. Young then asked questions from attendees of the forum, sent in via an online chat box, which was followed by closing remarks.

Brian Benjamin
Benjamin opened the second of the forums by noting he was “the only person running who actually has investment management experience, which is so critical.” In both forum introductions, Benjamin stressed his education — he attended Brown University for public policy, and Harvard Business School for investment management.

He also focused remarks on his work in the State Senate, where Benjamin is chair of the Budget and Revenue Committee, and said he was “very involved in helping to make sure that our private prisons were not getting pension money.” He discussed efforts to get the state comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, to divest from private prisons as well.

Benjamin added that his priorities involve safeguarding pensions, having a plan for affordable housing, and holding the NYPD accountable.

He told Luna that when it comes to city contracts, “there should be a real transparency around what are the guidelines that we are requiring for any company.” He said small, minority- and women-owned businesses have a hard time getting contracts from the city or even applying for contracts, because the process “is completely rigged towards the big companies.” But he added that there was a second hurdle as well — that it takes a very long time to get paid, and the city “should provide transparency around that process.”

He later elaborated that “one of the reasons why it takes so long is because there are all of these bureaucratic procedures are in place,” in part to prevent corruption and “dot the i’s and cross the t’s.” However, he said because of the financial situations of nonprofits, they “cannot afford to wait a year,” and he committed to designing “an expedited plan that makes sense, that protects the taxpayer dollar, but at the same time helps our small businesses grow.”

Benjamin further discussed transparency when asked about settlements, pointing to the NYPD’s costs to the city in settlements — over $200 million. He said “we don't have a lot of transparency as to where that money goes,” in terms of the causes of the settlements, and pointed to a bill he introduced in the Senate requiring the State Comptroller and the City Comptroller to provide more detailed reports. Benjamin said “if we're going to make sure that we don't have another George Floyd situation, we have to make sure that there's more information that is provided to the general public as to where there could be problematic police, who needs to be reined in more quickly, as opposed to them growing and causing us more problems in the future.”

When it comes to bonds, Benjamin told Luna that following his undergraduate degree, he spent time working in the treasury department for a multinational corporation, “where my job was to issue the municipal bonds and also the commercial papers. I’m very familiar with how that works.” Like the other candidates, he noted record low interest rates.

Regarding a public bank, Benjamin told Young he’d been working with senators “because we do need Albany legislation to help make that happen.” He stressed his commitment to the cause: “we need a public bank. I'm committed to it. I'm going to work with the state to help make that happen, and help provide the key information to convince some of the legislators who are not on board as to why this is a better for the city of New York, particularly in a crisis.”

Benjamin said Thursday that he “supports the spirit behind the people who want to cancel rent,” but there are logistical issues. “You've got people who don't need their rent cancelled so now you're going to create this whole system where you're going to have all this pressure on the landlord and the property tax structure which we now have to figure out,” he said. “I am very committed to [making] sure that people are not kicked out of their homes, but at the same time, we need to do things that are constitutionally bound and are most efficient ... the idea that the multimillionaires downtown don't have to pay their rent because we have this broad bill didn't make sense to me.”

Regarding homeless housing, Benjamin said that temporary shelters are being used in a permanent way, and it was expensive. “We can invest, we can look at some of these distressed hotels, we can purchase them, and we can provide working with permanent supportive housing operators, provide permanent supportive housing at a much lower cost,” he said.

He added that he wanted to use the comptroller’s office to hammer out real plans to build affordable housing. “We know we need over 600,000 units of affordable housing. We know we need it at the $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 [annual income] increment levels. We know what we need. We just don't have a plan to get there. And I think if you have a plan to get there, then the comptroller can be a part of that investment.”

Brad Lander
“[Making] government work better for people,” Landers said, “[is] the approach we're going to need for the daunting challenges we face to secure a just and durable recovery to help millions of families.”

Lander committed to investing in a Green New Deal, minority- and women-owned businesses, job creation, and affordable housing. He also said he would soon present a plan “to create a new shared equity homeownership program modeled on Mitchell Lama,” and he would “undertake smart, hard-hitting, values-driven audits” of city agencies like the New York Police Department. At both forums, he committed to divestment public pension funds from fossil fuel companies, a process that has begun under Stringer.

When asked by Luna about city contracts, Lander said he had co-sponsored a bill because he wanted “more transparency on the contracts while they're moving through the administration before they get to the comptroller,” because “right now you can't see the contracts until the comptroller registers them.” The proposed bill, he said, would require the city to create a public, transparent database for contracts.

He added that, similarly to how the public advocate’s office has a worst landlord’s list, if elected comptroller he would establish a most abusive contractors or employers list “so that we're shining a spotlight on those folks who aren't living up to obligations, and then putting policies in place to make sure everybody does.”

Lander told Luna that the two biggest kinds of claims the city settles are police misconduct and city drivers injuring pedestrians or cyclists. The former, he said, is “just tragic,” and “one thing we must do is make better use of that settlement data to require change by the agencies to hold the officers accountable who are responsible for those settlements.” Because of the repeal of Section 50-A, a state law that allowed police to shield misconduct records, he says it’s now possible to increase transparency.

He pointed to a plan on his website “for getting city agencies to make sure their drivers don't drive recklessly. Then we can save lives, prevent injuries and save money.”

Lander has already passed a yet-to-be-implemented law that uses data to find reckless drivers across the city, not just at government agencies, “and say to them, you have to change the way you drive, we're going to give you an opportunity to do so. But if you can't, we're not going to be able to let you keep your license and keep your car.”

When asked about bonds, Lander said, “right now, interest rates are at historic lows,” and since the federal government “has created some new authority for cities and states to borrow at these very good interest rates, of course it's a good time to refinance city debt. But you have to do it very carefully.” He said he would also make sure to have a strong deputy comptroller for public finance “who’s got a history of working in the bond markets.”

Lander told Young that the Inwood rezoning “was too much about gentrification and displacement and not enough about working class folks and a fair city,” and he supported “rezoning for new mixed-income, affordable developments, including a lot of affordable housing for low-income and working-class families in neighborhoods...that [are] mostly whiter and wealthier.” He said he’s “trying to practice what I preach on affordable housing,” and suggested his own Brooklyn district as one where more affordable housing should be created. Lander is currently negotiating a rezoning of part of Gowanus in his district that would lead to significant development, including more housing, some of which would be rent-capped.

Lander also got into his resume, and how he sees his experience as preparing him for the job of comptroller. He discussed his tenure leading nonprofits Pratt Center for Community Development and Fifth Avenue Committee, where he had to raise money, balance budgets, and invest in community development, and his work on ten city budgets as a Council member, including his focus on capital budget reform. He also mentioned being of the Council members who brought participatory budgeting to the city.

Kevin Parker
Parker opened both forums with his credentials as State Senate Majority Whip and chair of the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Telecommunications, and said he was running “because I think my experience, my leadership, and most importantly my vision separates me from the other candidates and I think is exactly the kind of vision and understanding that the city needs.”

When asked about city contracts, Parker told Luna that he was ”certainly open to the idea of posting statuses on public contracts on websites...It’s certainly one of the things that I will review and diagnose and fix from the very beginning because it's been a major hindrance to the operation of the city.” He later told Young that not only was he open to adding a section to the comptroller’s website showing the status of all contracts, it was “just a shame that we don’t do that already.”

“Not only do we need to deal with the contracting end of it and make sure that we have more access to contracts and that we're paying people on time, but we also need to look at the pension fund in that same regard,” Parker told Paylo about MWBEs. “The reality is that African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, and women represent over 60% of the population, and they got 2% of the money under management for the pension fund.”

Parker also said that “the work of diversity also has to do with the money managers. Blacks, Latinos, Asian women represent less than 2% of those who are managing the money in the pension fund. I don't think that's right.” When asked how he would find candidates of color, he said he’d find them “the way he finds them all the time”: through professional organizations, his own experiences, and that his “Rolodex was ample.”

Parker said he’d grown up in NYCHA housing in Bushwick, and that the Legislature didn’t do nearly enough for public housing. He “along with probably a lot of my colleagues, believe that NYCHA needs a management order badly. They kind of are not efficient, don’t seem to use money well, and have not done a great job at garnering resources and putting them where they need to go.”

When asked about settlements, Parker said “a lot of this stuff is actually decided by the corp counsel and, or the Law Department, and so it really depends on what the claim is,” but “I do think that we need to do a better job at administering those claims.”

In response to a question from Paylo about bonds, he said, “I'll use my judgment in the way of guiding the state and to having better rates and to have good fiscal health.” He also said, “the state, since I've been there, has improved. We've got on time budgets, we have paid our bills, and we have one of the highest bond ratings in the entire country. And that's been one of the things that we worked on in the Finance Committee and certainly one of the things that I'll continue to pay attention to.”

Parker told Paylo that he’d heard complaints from those leading nonprofits that the way their contracts are processed by the city was hurting them, “and when you mess with the financial health of nonprofits, particularly the community-based nonprofits, you actually have your hand in the pocket of New Yorkers [who need, are counting on those resources to feed their families. And so we certainly need to do a better job.”

When asked about public banks by Young, Parker said he had heard Weprin’s answer and he “thinks some of the answers that David gave, I think makes sense.” He said there was a “parallel track” that needed to be taken: making sure banks do what they’re supposed to be doing, and then also looking at the public banking process. He also suggested conducting studies to figure out the feasibility of the venture.

David Weprin
Weprin gave the grim reminder that “this is probably the worst fiscal crisis we have ever been in, and we'll be in for many years to come.” He said while the incoming Democrat-led U.S. Senate meant there was likely federal aid on the way, it wouldn’t be enough, and is “really not going to get us through this, in and of itself.”

In both forums, Weprin pointed to his finance experience, having been Chair of the Finance Committee of the City Council for eight years, Deputy Superintendent of the New York State Banking Department for four years, and his 25 years in municipal finance experience with major Wall Street firms.

Weprin spoke to his history of progressive legislation, including that in his four-and-a-half years chairing the Assembly’s Corrections Committee, he’s “been involved in every progressive legislation in criminal justice reform.” He also cited authoring two progressive bills that became law over the past two years — an Adoptive Bill of Rights, which allows adult adoptees for access to their original birth certificate and medical history, and the Religious Garb bill, which prohibits discrimination against employees based on clothing or facial hair worn in accordance with their religion.

When asked by Paylo about making sure pension investments meet the legally required standard of 7% annual returns, Weprin said he would involve fiscal experts, bring labor to the table, and suggested bringing the private sector in “to bail us out.”

When Young asked if he would be “willing to implement socialist principles into [his] philosophy as controller,” Weprin said while he supported many progressive issues, “you have a fiduciary obligation as Comptroller.” When it comes to investing pension monies, he said he didn’t think the job was “inconsistent with picking companies that are also socially responsible but do a good return.”

He also said “there's no question we need affordable housing throughout the city,” and suggested utilizing economically targeted investments to fund it. He pointed to ETIs again when asked about investing in infrastructure across the city. According to the city comptroller’s website, ETIs are designed to address market inefficiencies by providing capital to underserved communities citywide, by allocating 2% of pension assets towards investments in those populations.

“I'm not a supporter of defunding the police,” Weprin told Paylo. “I'm certainly a supporter of using police resources differently, and having better community relations and mental health training.”

He also cited a Gotham Gazette op-ed he wrote over the summer, reaffirming Tuesday his support for progressive wealth taxes, legalizing marijuana, implementing a tax lien, and an online sports betting tax.

When asked by Luna about city contracts, he said there should be more transparency throughout the process. He added that “something has to be done to streamline the process once you get a contract, because not-for-profits can't afford to wait a year or two to get paid and to operate.” Weprin later told Young he would commit to adding a section to the comptroller’s website showing the status of all contracts, so that the public can see how money is being spent and contractors could see where they were in the process.

Weprin said Thursday that the city has a division that deals with claims against the city, but he thinks it needs expansion and “the settlements have gotten out of hand in some ways, and there's a lot we can do through that division to make sure that the city is not paying out multimillion dollar settlements that could be settled [for] a lot less.” He added that prevention of problems, “like actions of city employees or departments,” also needed some attention.

There’s “no question that we need to effectively manage our bond issues,” Weprin told Luna. He said current “historic” interest rates need to be taken advantage of “by having creative bond issues and reducing the interest on those bonds by refinancing new bonds.”

When asked about a public bank on Thursday, Weprin said the public banking system did not work in the ‘70s and he thinks the city should “work with the private sector to make it more competitive and efficient.” He added that there were enough financial institutions where he’d “be hesitant to create a public bank,” but “I think we can use what we have now in financial services to make them more friendly to underserved communities and minority communities and certainly as comptroller I will make that a priority.”

by Nuha Dolby for Gotham Gazette

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