(l-r) top: Brian Benjamin, Brad Lander, Kevin Parker, David Weprin, Corey Johnson; bottom: Reshma Patel, Zach Iscol, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, Terri Liftin
Democratic New Yorkers are being handed an extensive ballot for this month’s primary elections, with all of city government on the ballot and the first full implementation of ranked-choice voting. The race for New York City Comptroller, too-often neglected by the press and voters, is of great importance given the responsibilities of the job and the fact that whoever wins is all but certain to eventually run for mayor, as a long list of prior and current comptrollers have done.
The city’s chief fiscal officer and budget watchdog, the comptroller has a number of core and key responsibilities, and a lot of wiggle room to have additional impact.
Though, as the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas points out, the comptroller is “almost entirely an advisory watchdog role,” it is tasked with evaluating city contracts with outside entities, auditing city government agencies for waste and inefficiency, making recommendations and proposals to improve city government, and serving as fiduciary to the city’s five public pension funds. It is both a political and technical role as the comptroller can make suggestions to the mayor and use the platform to advocate for reform but does not have the final say in allocation of resources or just about anything.
Gelinas discussed the limits and importance of the role of comptroller, as well as a rundown of the candidates and key issues in this month’s Democratic primary, along with City & State NY’s Jeff Coltin and Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max on a recent episode of the Max Politics podcast.
There are nine candidates running in the Democratic primary for comptroller, some veterans of city and state government and others coming from the private sector. Some of the candidates met last week for two debates -- which included a number of contentious moments and showed important differences among the candidates’ backgrounds and platforms.
There will be another televised debate on Sunday June 20, the final day of early voting and just before the June 22 primary day, when most votes are expected to be cast.
Below is a partial overview of each candidate’s stances on some of the major responsibilities of the office of comptroller, including some of what they’ve pledged to do if elected. To see and hear much more from each candidate directly, watch Gotham Gazette’s 30-minute “Decision NYC” video interviews with each of them. In those interviews, the candidates discussed their qualifications for the position and how they would approach key aspects of the job.
Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council and has been a member since 2014, representing the 3rd district in Manhattan. Widely viewed as the candidate to beat in the race given his name recognition, he briefly ran for mayor before dropping out citing mental health challenges and then months later relaunching as a candidate for comptroller. Johnson has since won the endorsements of many of the city’s major labor unions and a number of his peers in the City Council, among others. In a guide put out by NYC Votes, the voter engagement arm of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, Johnson cited his top three priorities are as COVID-19 recovery, building a stronger and fairer economy, and ensuring an equitable, balanced budget.
Johnson has emphasized how overseeing the city’s $90-plus billion budget as speaker uniquely qualifies him for the position, saying in the Decision NYC video interview, “I know the budget process inside and out.”
He has promised to create a “COVID-19 Dashboard” that will track the billions of dollars of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan so that New Yorkers will have easy access to the information. On structural changes to the budget, Johnson has proposed a comprehensive look at the city’s procurement process, assessing why it takes so long for a bathroom to be built in a public park or a nonprofit providing social services to be paid by the government. He has also indicated a need to dedicate a higher percentage of the city’s contracting budget to MWBEs and has rolled out a policy to create the CLIMB Fund, which would provide low-cost financing to smaller, minority-owned businesses.
Taking a broader view, Johnson wants to make sure the comptroller’s office is preparing for the “out-years” after the stimulus package, in which there could still be large fiscal gaps and the city may need to tap reserves, find inefficiencies, and take other measures.
Johnson, like many of his fellow candidates, has declined to state what he sees as the proper size of the NYPD budget but has stated that the response to gun violence, which is on the rise in the city and nationally, needs to be a lot more holistic.
“You can reform, you can invest out of law enforcement while at the same time recognizing that there is a need to go after violent crime, there is a need to go after illegal guns,” Johnson said in his interview, touting crisis management and violence interruption programs that have been successful in Queens and parts of central Brooklyn. As speaker, Johnson was at the center of last year’s highly-contentious city budget process and he came away severely bruised over the question of NYPD funding. Another city budget process is now unfolding as the primaries are happening, with a new spending plan required to be in place by the July 1 start to the new city fiscal year.
Performance-based budgeting is key, he said, and measuring the performance of any city agency against benchmarks set in accordance with the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR).
Oversight & Auditing
With the audit function, Johnson has said he wants to look annually rather than every four years, as the charter requires, at four specific agencies: The Departments of Housing, Preservation and Development; The Department of Homeless Services; the Department of Education, and the NYPD. He wants to use these audits to address the homelessness crisis and to bring down the amount of money the city is spending on settlements for police brutality, among other goals.
Of the roughly $240 billion in assets that comprise New York City’s five public pension funds, Johnson has said he would like to work with managers to bring down the fees paid to outside investment managers on Wall Street, looking at whether normal index funds could be used instead.
He noted that the primary responsibility of the comptroller is to help gain the best returns on investment, and indicated that the “activist” approach employed by current Comptroller Scott Stringer, levying assets to effect industry change and divesting some funds from the fossil fuel industry, is not a given.
However, where there are opportunities to invest in the green economy and take money out of the gun manufacturing industry, Johnson said, the office should come up with that research and present it to the trustees of the five boards. Johnson also indicated in one debate last week that he would like to see a change in the charter to make it easier for the comptroller to invest pension funds more quickly to be more in tune with market fluctuations.
Lander is a City Council member who has represented the 39th district in Brooklyn for just over a decade. Prior to that Lander headed up two nonprofits: The 5th Avenue Committee and the Pratt Center for Community Development. He is the most left-leaning voice in the race, winning the endorsement of progressive icons like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as the Working Families Party, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and The New York Times editorial board.
On the podcast, Coltin of City & State characterized Lander as “the most clearly ideological candidate,” an assertion backed up by Lander’s campaign policy priorities, which center a just and green recovery for New York.
Lander is making an argument for long-term financial health that involves city government investment in green infrastructure and climate resiliency while socking money away in the newly-authorized rainy day fund reserve. The growth of headcount at city agencies, an oft-discussed area of city spending, is something Lander says should be looked at in a nuanced way. He expressed support for the recent de Blasio policy to hire only one new city employee for every three that leave at certain agencies as well as using a “program to eliminate the gap,” or PEG, which tells city agencies to identify certain levels of savings that can then be presented to city budget officials for decisions about what to cut and not.
Lander wants to put more resources toward affordable housing and wants to expand “social housing.”
Oversight & Auditing
Lander has said he wants to make audits “more strategic” and focus primarily on performance. The Department of Corrections, the Department of Homeless Services, and NYCHA are all on his “watch list,” as well as spending on capital projects, which is currently not an area that has a dedicated audit team in the comptroller’s office, he said.
“We can build a capital projects and infrastructure investment program that more efficiently creates good jobs, mitigates climate change, and gets us ready for the future,” Lander said in his Decision NYC video interview.
Lander is a proponent of ‘defunding the police’ and reinvesting billions of dollars elsewhere, opposing this year's budget in the City Council because it did not re-allocate enough of the police budget toward social services. “$11 billion we’re spending on policing,” he said in the interview, “we’re not getting our money’s worth.” As comptroller, Lander says he would audit NYPD spending and push to shift many social service functions to police alternatives. He also plans to use those audits to identify habitual offenders in police brutality settlements and “intervene proactively.”
Within the office of the comptroller Lander wants to establish a new audit team to focus on agency sustainability and environmental justice as well as lean heavily on internal equity audits that look specifically at how an agency is treating its employees.
In one of the recent debates, Lander also indicated that he would like to strengthen the office’s Bureau of Labor Law to do more to help New Yorkers have good working conditions. As comptroller he would also author an “exploitative employers wall of shame” to shine a light on the city’s worst bosses and force them into changed practices.
With the pension funds, Lander plans to continue divestment from the fossil fuel industry but assures that it will be done while still maximizing returns and joining strategic alliances with other shareholders to force climate action. He has promised to bring “an equity and sustainability lens to the portfolio” to ensure quality investments while divesting and putting assets in the hands of a diverse set of managers and advisors to break the cycle of racial wealth gaps and income inequality.
Lander also wants to save money by minimizing the fees being paid to Wall Street. In the first debate, when prompted if he would offer a competitive salary to the chief investment officer in order to attract the best talent, Lander responded, “We would save money by bringing more talented people in house, because right now when we don't have it we wind up paying for expensive consultants.”
A state senator from Harlem, Benjamin was an investment advisor at Morgan Stanley and currently sits on the board of Trustees at his alma mater, Brown University. He worked for years in affordable housing development in New York and New Jersey.
Benjamin has highlighted issues of transparency and accountability as reasons for an ever-growing city budget that doesn’t seem to improve services at the same rate. “You’ve got to dig into the mechanics of the execution in addition to highlighting the topic,” Benjamin said of holding the mayor and City Council accountable and digging into the budget, in his Decision NYC video interview.
Benjamin wants to use the budget to increase government support for MWBEs and has released plans to explore a pilot program that would allow small businesses and MWBEs acting as vendors for the city to register their contracts with the comptroller’s office earlier so the office can follow the process and identify problems as they arise. He also wants to expand the thresholds whereby MWBEs can be granted city contracts separate from tighter procurement protocols.
Oversight & Auditing
Benjamin says he would use “programmatic” and “outcome-based” audits to hold city agencies accountable, making sure not just to expose bad actors but also to shine a light on what is working in city government and how other agencies can learn from it. He says he would make sure NYCHA, the Department of Education, the MTA, and the NYPD “face sufficient oversight.”
One of the cornerstones of Benjamin’s campaign has been police accountability and better public safety. When asked on the Max and Murphy podcast how big the budget of the NYPD should be he declined to give a specific number, saying there should be some reallocation of resources but “we need to have a thorough audit to be very clear about what needs to be defunded because it’s not essential for public safety.”
Benjamin is also promising both equity and sustainability as a component of his audits, centering hiring practices, equal access, climate resiliency, and innovation.
On the fiduciary duty to the pension funds Benjamin said community input has to be part of the conversation and since there are five independent boards, it should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. His view, he said, is that the funds “not only need to provide retirement stability for those hard-working members who are part of the plans but also should be as much as possible invested in things that help make society better at large.”
He is a believer in Economically Targeted Investments (ETIs) aimed at revitalizing communities often left behind as well as investments in affordable housing and permanent supportive housing in order to help mitigate the impacts of the affordability crisis. Benjamin also supports the divestment of funds from the fossil fuel industry and from private prisons as well as investment into what he calls “the entrepreneurship class” of New York City. Small businesses and minority-owned businesses are proven to have better returns, he claimed.
Caruso-Cabrera is a former investigative financial journalist with CNBC who first entered the political field during the 2020 election cycle, mounting a primary challenge to representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is the leading female candidate in the race based on fundraising and polling.
Caruso-Cabrera’s campaign for comptroller hinges largely on the argument that she has spent years “following the money” and investigating financial crises across the globe and that she brings a level of independence none of the elected officials in the race can match. She says the common truth she has found in her reporting is that those who can least afford to pay when disaster hits end up paying the most and she doesn’t want that for New York City.
Caruso-Cabrera says the budget has gone up dramatically in recent years but she hasn’t seen it reflected in the landscape of the city. She vows to ensure the city is delivering better results for all its spending, and providing services like free broadband to needy families and free CUNY.
Oversight & Auditing
Caruso-Cabrera argues her background, independence, and approach would give her the best ability to hold the next mayor accountable. Her experience as a journalist, she says, also gives her the platform and skillset to tell the city’s “financial story” and use the bully pulpit built into the office to effect change.
As comptroller she plans to be more aggressive on audits, saying there is a lot of “low-hanging fruit” that can be examined for efficiency. In particular she would look at Health + Hospitals, the NYPD, and the Department of Education. Within the NYPD, Cabrera has emphasized the need for evidence-based programming and a shift of some resources toward the Cure Violence program and Madison Method to promote a more holistic approach to public safety that involves conversation between communities and law enforcement.
Caruso-Cabrera believes in “activist investment,” but carefully done -- she supports divestment of pension funds from the fossil fuel industry and says she would also want to ensure that companies being invested in were not using indentured servitude within their supply chains. She also supports increased contracting with asset managers who are women and people of color, arguing that the management teams should reflect the city they represent.
A former marine who served in Iraq, Iscol is the founder and executive director of the Headstrong Project, a nonprofit healthcare organization aimed at providing mental health resources to veterans. Formerly a mayoral candidate, he has marketed himself as a nimble and competent executive who has varied experiences, independence, and a focus on public service. Iscol has made the city’s economic recovery and full reopening of schools to in-person learning central issues of his campaign, along with discussion of how he would approach the core responsibilities of the comptroller’s office.
Iscol’s campaign has emphasized the responsibility of the city’s chief fiscal officer to take a more conservative approach when it comes to spending, pushing the mayor and City Council to tighten the belt, find more efficiency, and ensure that above all else what matters is that services are being provided well and objectives are being achieved.
He argues the city needs to save as a means of crisis preparation and that he wants to continue with the program to eliminate the gap (PEG) whereby the mayor asks city agencies to identify potential savings of a specific degree on an annual basis. Iscol has proposed taking a top to bottom look at the city’s budget every four years to find better ways of spending based on different agencies’ outcomes.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Iscol’s platform is a promise to require anyone who wants to do business with the city to provide a one-page memo outlining their commitment to New York. If they’ve moved offices outside of the city he wants to know why, he says, and what more could they be doing to provide income and opportunity to New Yorkers.
Oversight & Auditing
In his Decision NYC video interview, Iscol said on the audit function of the office that he wants to take a closer look at the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Education, what was known as the ThriveNYC office of mental health, and the NYPD; and that he would create a benchmark or index to compare their efficiency to similar agencies in other cities. This is in line with much of his campaign pitch which has indicated homelessness, mental health, education, and public safety as top concerns.
Iscol wants to approach auditing in a different way than it has been done traditionally -- shifting it to be issue rather than agency focused, and with outcomes as the most important metric. As comptroller he would audit the city’s response to a certain problem, citing education as an example in the first debate, sayin, “it’s not just about class size, it's not just about the quality of education, it's also about housing insecurity, about food insecurity, about technology insecurity, about public safety. And so we need to look at the holistic response that the city is taking to solving specific problems that New Yorkers are facing.”
Like a number of the other candidates discussing the pension funds, Iscol thinks too much money goes to outside fees for fund managers. He has said as comptroller he would look at the Canadian model, which brings “world class talent in-house” in an attempt to lower costs and increase returns.
Iscol’s platform also supports making Economically Targeted Investments with the pension funds, promising to make “a billion commitment to seed at least one dozen $500 million social impact funds to invest in New York City.” The funds would focus on specific areas, going toward either small businesses, restaurants, Broadway, arts and culture, microfinance, affordable housing, or new industry.
WATCH: Zach Iscol Discusses His Run for NYC Comptroller
Parker has been a state senator representing the 21st district in Brooklyn for 18 years. He is the majority whip, and the chair of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee. Prior to holding public office, Parker spent time working on Wall Street, overseeing the PAC at Peyton Webber. His campaign has emphasized this dual background in politics and finance as prime qualifications for holding the seat of comptroller.
At the center of Parker’s run has been the idea of equitable recovery and “economic justice,” as his campaign website puts it. This hinges on a platform aimed at providing capital and technical assistance to small businesses, specifically MWBEs. Parker stated in one recent debate that he would build a partnership with CUNY ensuring small business development centers at every campus to guarantee that there is access to capital, mentors, and technical assistance. Parker has also said he wants to look at areas for belt-tightening within the city’s capital budget and the budget for economic development.
Oversight & Auditing
When asked in one debate which agency was most in need of an audit, Parker chose the NYPD, saying that the “notion of police reform is literally number one for me in this city.” His platform indicates a desire to review the city’s public safety budget in order to eliminate over-policing and fund evidence-based programs. Parker has also spoken on the need to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities.
Parker has also signaled a desire to audit the Department of Homeless Services and to do so in a way that evaluates the pipeline between living on the street and making it to permanent supportive housing. He aims to expand the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program to ensure more affordable units, and to look critically at the city’s contracts with homeless service providers so there is trust between the shelter system and those entering.
With the city’s pension funds, Parker wants to use asset managers who are women and from communities of color, saying that can help build wealth among the underserved. He believes in investmenting the assets into cash-strapped small businesses within New York city and into the green energy economy, stating that he is a supporter of the divestment from fossil fuel companies but believes “the devil is in the details” as some power companies like National Grid are already practicing sustainability.
WATCH: Kevin Parker Discusses His Run for NYC Comptroller
Weprin is another veteran of New York government, including elected office. He is a state Assembly member serving the 24th district in Queens and a former City Council member. Prior to his time in elected office Weprin spent 25 years on Wall Street and served later as the deputy superintendent of banking during Governor Mario Cuomo’s first term. Weprin has run a more moderate to conservative campaign in relation to several of his fellow candidates. He focuses mostly on the traditional idea of the role -- protecting pensions, auditing agencies, safeguarding the city budget and economy, and holding the City Council and mayor accountable.
Weprin has promised to establish additional comptroller offices, one for each borough so that the office can be more accessible and helpful to small businesses in the areas, making sure they get the aid they need and providing financial support to underserved communities.
Weprin says he wants to review contracting processes and find ways to cut red tape so that nonprofits working with the city to provide social services are getting paid in a timely fashion. His platform also includes a promise to reduce fees on small businesses and lower property taxes for homeowners. He has been a moderate voice on spending, warning of deficits that may be ahead and drawing on his experience working to balance city budgets after 9/11 and the 2008 recession to make his case as a prudent fiscal officer.
Oversight & Accountability
Weprin has said he thinks the charter requirement to audit agencies only in some way once every four years is too scant and that he would want to audit every city agency at least once a year. He wants to concentrate the audit function on the outside contracting budget and how much the city is spending, saying in the first debate that he would require an audit of every outside contract over $100 million.
When asked which agency needed an audit most, Weprin indicated the Department of Education, adding in his Decision NYC video interview that a lot of the work being done through outside contracts could be accomplished from within the DOE by existing staff. Unlike many of his fellow candidates he is not a supporter of ‘defunding the police,’ arguing that a decrease in NYPD budget would continue the rise in gun violence. Weprin has been endorsed by all of the police unions.
Weprin has said his focus with the pension funds is much more on economic return than activist investment. He is a proponent of diversifying portfolios but has said he does not believe ideological expression is within his fiduciary duties.
WATCH: David Weprin Discusses His Run for NYC Comptroller
Patel is another outsider to politics who has entered the race for comptroller, though she knows the comptroller’s office well and has significant relevant experience. She spent eight years as a financial advisor, working with the deputy comptroller for public finance and aiding the city with bond issuances and debt management. She has spent more recent years consulting on data analytics and impact evaluation. She is president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club and sits on Manhattan Community Board 6.
Patel believes the city's outstanding bonds should be restructured right now with interest rates low in order to generate savings to fill future budget gaps. She wants the budget to focus on promoting job growth and funding essential infrastructure, especially in needy communities.
Patel has said that ciy services are not being provided equitably and though there is a large budget a lot of community groups feel they don't see enough of it in their neighborhoods. She wants to reform the procurement process so new companies and nonprofits offering essential services are paid quickly and efficiently as well as increase the city’s commitment to contracting with MWBEs. Patel also centers climate change in her agenda, promising preservation of green spaces and funding for access to clean air and water for communities hardest hit by the climate crisis.
Oversight & Auditing
Patel believes audits need to be done more often and more thoroughly and that data collection should be happening on an ongoing basis with the people receiving services. Patel has said in a number of interviews that as comptroller she would look at how city government is pouring funding into agencies but non-service costs are high and promised benefits are not getting to communities in need. Her platform indicates a focus on equity in agency audits, both looking at them internally and in services provided.
She wants to look specifically at the Department of Homeless Services, citing inconsistency between servics and how long individuals end up staying out of the shelter system once they leave, arguing that there is a lot of room to save money by creating more durable solutions. Patel is also interested in auditing the NYPD, saying that the city is spending too much on litigation, arbitration, and settlements.
Patel is a proponent of careful activist investment and wants to leverage the power of the city pension funds to support small businesses and start-ups within New York City, especially those run by women and people of color, and those that are positioned to help build back an economy that is prepared for the next crisis.
She is also a supporter of diversifying the pension funds’ asset management boards and believes in the divestment of the assets from the fossil fuel industry. In order to create a “sustainable and equitable” pattern of growth, Patel says, this will involve also examining how prepared all companies being invested in are for climate change.
WATCH: Reshma Patel Discusses Her Run for NYC Comptroller
Liftin is an attorney and a chief legal and compliance officer in the asset management business. She has worked for a number firms managing pension funds and has emphasized this technical training as a unique qualification for the role of comptroller. She has also campaigned partially on her detachment from the political establishment and a promise that she is not seeking any office but this one. Liftin, like Weprin, has run a more moderate to conservative campaign, focused on maximizing the market performance of the pension funds and ensuring transparency within city government while sticking to the nuts and bolts of the job.
Liftin has argued that spending in the city spiraled out of control over the past eight years and that a more cautious and conservative voice needs to come in to ensure transparency and efficiency. If elected comptroller she has said would reevaluate the amount of debt being issued by the city and make sure city contracts with third parties are tied to results. Annually, at the time a contract is either re-registered or not, Liftin says there should be someone within each agency helping to centralize the decision-making process and find areas for cuts.
Oversight & Auditing
Liftin indicated she would start her role as chief oversight officer by looking at the past seven to eight years of audit reports to track where money has been spent and how. The most critical next steps would involve accountability, she argues, suggesting in her Decision NYC video interview designating someone within each audited agency as responsible for following up on the deficiencies revealed.
Liftin has said she would like to reevaluate capital projects, which rely on debt-issued funding. “We shouldn't be easier on the money that is spent than is borrowed,” she said. Her platform also promises satellite offices set up throughout the city so New Yorkers have direct access to the comptroller’s office and can hold their own government to account for its promises.
Liftin also said she is “very concerned about the gap in what is underfunded in our pension system.” The gap references the amount the city government has to pay when the pension funds don’t meet requirements on returns, billions of dollars that comes out of the city’s operating budget each year. Her goal, she said, is to create transparent and honest accounting so that there can be clear solutions.
Liftin is not overtly in favor of activist investment and has said she would reorient the portfolios to focus on increased returns. She would also leverage the size of the assets to push for lower management fees and to broaden the scope of the managers being screened and selected.
On divestment from fossil fuel holdings specifically Liftin has stated she would prefer to work within the system to push those companies towards clean energy. She also said that the fixed 2% for Economically Targeted Investments should not be exceeded.
Pan is an 18-year-old college student from Ozone Park who is making an unlikely and long-shot bid for comptroller. He says his age ensures he can’t be swayed by political interests and lobbyists, and that since the comptroller position is one of management his lack of experience in public policy and finance won’t much matter once he hires the career experts for the technical aspects of the job. Pan’s priorities are to cut city debt, reform the NYPD, desegregate schools, and increase transparency.
Pan’s plan to ‘slash debt’ involves cutting down time for contract approval and barring individuals convicted of corruption charges from obtaining city contracts. His platform also includes a reevaluation of spending on capital projects, and making construction bids increasingly competitive. Pan also advocates for reassigning or cutting “unnecessary middlemen and C-Suite Executives” or anyone else forming a “redundant payroll.”
Oversight & Auditing
With the audit function, Pan says one of his priorities is to make it so that audits can be more easily consumed and understood by the public.
In the oversight capacity, Pan is a proponent of reforming the police department and restructuring public safety. He believes in further investment towards the police body camera program, transferring school safety officers to the Department of Education, and imposing a hiring freeze on the NYPD.
Within the city public school system, Pan has also stated that there needs to be a more holistic approach to admissions so students from all different economic and learning backgrounds end up combined in the same schools and have access to the same resources. This is part of a larger platform Pan has on education to desegregate schools, expand funding for extracurriculars, and reduce class sizes, though these are mostly things the comptroller can only influence through reports and audits and the bully pulpit.
On the pension funds, Pan’s policies emphasize selecting asset managers with proven returns, avoiding conflicts of interest, and employing caution on market timing. He is in favor of divesting the pensions from the fossil fuel industry and into the green economy, and wants to redirect assets toward affordable housing and other community causes.