Michel Faulkner, left, and Scott Stringer at Tuesday's debate
Echoing more the calm and substantive public advocate debate from Monday than the rowdy, unproductive October 10 mayoral debate, on Tuesday evening the Democratic and Republican candidates for comptroller, incumbent Scott Stringer and Michel Faulkner, respectively, met for their sole debate ahead of Election Day, November 7.
The race to be the city’s chief fiscal officer has, like the public advocate contest, been a sleepy one, with the incumbent Democrat holding major financial and other advantages, and heavily favored, as the higher profile mayoral race has sucked up the attention of most of whatever small number of voters is paying attention to the municipal elections. It is expected to be another terribly low turnout election.
Unlike the Republican challenger for public advocate, J.C. Polanco, Faulkner raised enough money to qualify for a debate with Stringer. Polanco was granted a debate by Public Advocate Letitia James, and the two jousted for an hour Monday evening about James’ record, the role of public advocate, and a variety of other issues.
On Tuesday, Stringer and Faulkner competed in a debate largely focused on Stringer’s record over the past four years, with Faulkner accusing him of not being a tough enough watchdog and Stringer showcasing his record of accomplishments. Both advocated for their positions on a wide range of issues, from managing the many-billion-dollar public pension funds to monitoring the city’s ballooning budget, the potential impact of the Trump administration on the city’s finances, and what to do about the city’s public housing, NYCHA, and with the Rikers Island jail complex.
The debate, hosted at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan, was broadcast on NY1 television and WNYC radio, and moderated by NY1 political anchor Errol Louis, with questions also coming from WNYC’s Brigid Bergin and NY1’s Bobby Cuza. It was a spirited but respectful affair between the two contenders, though at times Stringer appeared to shrug off Faulkner’s criticisms, perhaps evidence of the air of inevitability surrounding the race. With a lot more money in the bank and higher name recognition, Stringer is expected to ride to easy victory with support from many labor unions and given the city’s massive Democratic enrollment advantage.
Faulkner, a pastor and a former New York Jet football player, throughout the night referred to his vision of the comptroller’s office as one of an activist auditor who gets things done, rather than someone who simply releases reports and talks about problems.
“Now more than ever, New York City needs an active fiscal watchdog. Someone who will manage our finances, who will push back on the mayor, and push back on City Council, and stop this runaway spending,” Faulkner said. “Scott Stringer has not been tough enough. I will be tougher, I will be better.”
Faulkner attacked a record that Stringer spent the night defending, going so far as to say that Stringer misrepresented who he was while campaigning for comptroller four years ago.
Stringer, meanwhile, defended his record as someone who delivered consistent returns for taxpayers and pensioners, and as someone who was not afraid to call out deficiencies either in mayoral policies or in agency mismanagement. He pointed, for example, to his audit of homeless shelters that exposed major problems with conditions and led to the city taking repairs much more seriously. More broadly, however, Stringer pitched himself as someone fighting for New Yorkers, especially for those struggling to afford the cost of living in the city and immigrants.
Much of the debate centered on two key parts of the comptroller’s job: managing the massive pension system and monitoring the city’s budget and financial health.
On the topic of pensions, wherein former public employees who are vested are guaranteed certain payouts, Stringer somewhat tepidly defended his record after Louis noted that this year’s returns have been around 2%, well below the comptroller office’s 7% actuarial target. Stringer noted that, over his tenure, pensions have hit this target, with a 7.4% return rate. When the pension funds themselves don’t adequately meet payout obligations, the city must make up the difference to the tune of billions in its annual budget.
“That is something that’s taken a lot of work,” Stringer said. He said that one reason for the pension fund hitting its target was changing the “internal workings of the Bureau of Asset Management.” The incumbent showed more enthusiasm in describing reforms he’s led to how the pension system is run, including changing the fee structure for investors hired to grow the funds.
Louis also asked Stringer about a movement among municipal pension systems to move towards investing in passive index funds, which, rather than being actively managed by investors, simply follow a market index such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average or S&P 500, and tend to outperform actively managed funds.
Stringer stated, however, that if the city had invested in an unspecified index fund over the past few years, the returns would be 6.9%, just below the 7% benchmark.
“So, we can’t just rely on the index,” Stringer said. “And that is why we have a varied asset allocation. We make sure that we protect the fund. We’re long-term investors, we’re not trying to game the system. On average, we’ve hit 7.4% the last four years. This year, we returned 13%. But at the end of the day, our strategy is to secure retirement security. We’re not trying to come in and out of funds, we’re not trying to create risk, and that is a conservative approach that I think has served the people who rely on us well.”
Stringer also stated that money managers would no longer be paid no matter whether they made or lost money for the city; rather, they would now only be paid if they did well. He argued that the city is leading “best practices” for pensions nationwide.
Faulkner said that he agreed with several things Stringer’s office did to “shore up the existing fund.” In fact, he largely strayed away from criticizing Stringer’s record in arguably the most important aspect of the job, instead pivoting to the city’s increased operating budget, though he did say the growing public personnel -- which has increased dramatically under Mayor Bill de Blasio -- has had a negative impact on the city’s pension system by increasing obligations.
Faulkner’s most prominent line of attack was, in fact, concerning the city’s rising budget, which has increased by about 18% since de Blasio assumed office, up to about $85 billion this fiscal year. Faulkner said de Blasio and the City Council had an excessive “tax and spend” approach, and that de Blasio tries to throw money at any problem to make it go away, such as with homelessness. But, Faulkner did not offer areas of the city budget he would cut, instead saying that he is sure there could be some savings to be found, and seemingly indicated he wants the city to actually spend more money on programs -- if only the city could keep more of its own tax money, he said.
Faulkner said that the city should aim to stop relying on the federal government for everything. He praised President Donald Trump’s federal tax reform plan as a positive that would put money in the pockets of average New Yorkers and allow the city to comfortably raise local taxes to fund certain priorities like affordable housing.
When NY1’s Cuza questioned the plausibility of Faulkner’s hope that the city would rely on the federal government to return tens of billions of dollars to the city, Faulkner said that rather than asking for the money back, New Yorkers should simply stop giving tax money to the federal government.
“We don’t have to wait for it back,” Faulkner said. “We just stop giving it to them. If it’s my money, I’m just saying, ‘well you know what.’ We need all of the political will in New York to be able to do that.” It was indicative of a pattern in which Faulkner did not seem to have fully fleshed out plans to present to voters.
Regarding the notion of asking the federal government for tax dollars that go elsewhere to be returned to New York, as advocated by Faulkner, Stringer said “I don’t deal in fantasy.”
“Right now, the Trump proposal would cost middle income New Yorkers billions of dollars,” said Stringer, who has been a frequent critic of Trump, while Faulkner has been supportive of the president. “We would lose $7 billion in New York State to this tax cut; 100,000 people who make less than $100,000 a year would be eviscerated by this tax cut. It is dangerous. It is the greatest risk we have right now, along with issues related to the Affordable Care Act and Health + Hospitals. And in no way is this tax cut a benefit to working people.”
On the growth of the city budget, Stringer defended his oversight work, saying he had pushed the de Blasio administration to find more savings, and said that due to his advocacy the city currently held its largest total amount of savings in its history. He said he is proud of the investments the city has been making, and offered a mix of praise and criticism for de Blasio -- the two have endorsed each other for reelection depsite frrequent sparring, mostly earlier in the term, when Stringer was toying with a 2017 mayoral run.
Also discussed were broader political issues of the day, such as affordable housing. Both Stringer and Faulkner criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plan, with Stringer saying that it is not going far enough in reaching the people who most need it. He reiterated his calls for deeper affordability in the plan, for using land banks, and for more aggressively building on city-owned vacant lots.
Stringer also referenced an ongoing threat of federal funding cuts to NYCHA, while Faulkner sharply responded by noting that Stringer had been criticizing federal disinvestment from NYCHA during the administration of Democrat Barack Obama. Instead, Faulkner said that the city could fund NYCHA through a federal tax cut.
Faulkner called out Stringer for simply releasing reports on NYCHA’s numerous shortcomings without proposing or implementing reforms, and, in cross examination, asked Stringer how he would actually fix the things he calls out. Stringer’s answer was to, first and foremost, elect a new president who will invest in public housing. Stringer also defended the results of his audits, noting that he has spurred action across city agencies, that hundreds of audits have led to 1,000 of his office’s recommendations being adopted.
Faulkner proposed that, in order to lift them out of cyclical poverty, NYCHA residents should have the ability to own equity in their homes. In something of a surprise moment, Stringer said that it was an impossibility today, but that he was open to exploring a path to that outcome.
On Rikers, Faulkner gave roundabout answers: he said that the facility should eventually be closed and that the way it’s operated needs to be immediately reformed, but that a closure plan being developed by de Blasio was not trustworthy. However, on the question of housing pretrial detainees within the boroughs rather than on Rikers Island, Faulkner was supportive, saying they should be held near courthouses.
Stringer, who proclaimed that he was the “first elected official to step up and say shut [Rikers] down,” took it a step further on Tuesday. “Let’s do it in three years,” Stringer said, significantly undercutting de Blasio’s ten-year timeline. “It is inhumane. I’ve walked those corridors, I’ve talked to inmates. I’ve done the data analysis. And it is inhumane.”
While Stringer and Faulkner were the only two candidates to qualify for the debate, two others will be on the ballot in November: Alex Merced is the Libertarian nominee for comptroller, and Julia Willebrand is the Green Party nominee.
Near the end of the debate, Louis moderated a “lightning round,” asking Faulkner and Stringer for quick answers to a series of rapid fire questions on a variety of topics, some personal or frivolous, others more substantive. The candidates were asked about ten questions, including whether they had ever ordered from Fresh Direct (Faulkner has not, Stringer has); whether the mayor should use taxpayer dollars to fund his legal defense from investigations that closed without charges (Faulkner gave a resounding no, while Stringer refused to comment because his office is involved in the process). Asked whether the proposed BQX streetcar was a wise use of taxpayer dollars, Faulkner said no while Stringer said “there’s a long way to go” and the project needs “vigorous review.”
Asked for the most recent book both had read, Faulkner answered with If They Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxas, a book about American exceptionalism. Stringer said Shark Detective, a children’s book he had read to his young sons.
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette