Gotham Gazette

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2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members

lander rosenthal

(photos: Emil Cohen & John McCarten/City Council)

New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, has declared his intention to run for city Comptroller in the 2021 election, joining Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, as the only declared candidates in the race.

The 2021 municipal election will lead to a sea change in city government, with all three citywide positions on the ballot along with the five borough president posts and all 51 City Council seats, about three dozen of which will be “open” due to term limits. Among the citywide posts, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer will be closing out their second terms and unable to run for another term.

Lander and Rosenthal are among the Council members who are serving their final terms, many of whom will be seeking higher office through the 2021 elections. Several Council members facing term limits are currently running in the special election for Public Advocate, which will be held February 26 of this year. The winner of that race will have to run for the office again this fall and, if victorious, will serve the remainder of now-Attorney General Letitia James’ term. That candidate could potentially serve two full terms in that office from 2022 till the end of 2029.

Befitting a race for comptroller -- the city’s chief fiscal officer tasked with auditing city agencies and monitoring city finances, among other responsibilities -- both Lander and Rosenthal are among the wonkier members of city government, with clear devotion to crafting policy, examining budgets, and evaluating contracts. They also both represent especially politically-engaged areas of the city that are often home to high voter turnout -- for Lander, it’s parts of brownstone Brooklyn; for Rosenthal, the Upper West Side.

Lander currently serves as the Council’s deputy leader for policy. He has master’s degrees in social anthropology and city planning, and was elected as one of a younger crop of progressive candidates in 2009 after leading a neighborhood group focused on affordable housing and social services. He was co-chair of the Council’s progressive caucus, which he helped create, and previously chaired the Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges in the last Council session, 2014-2017.

His district, previously represented by Mayor Bill de Blasio, covers Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington.

“I love serving this city, I love it,” Lander said outside City Hall on Thursday, when asked about the fact that he had recently filed with the city’s Campaign Finance Board to run for comptroller and his pursuit of the position. “I get up everyday thinking I get to work with my neighbors, with other New Yorkers to try to solve problems that make the city better and I love doing that and I would be really honored to keep serving the city.”

While he was reluctant to talk much about the next election, citing the nearly three years until the votes will be cast, Lander did say he believes his experience in the Council qualifies him for the position. “I think I have built a good track record here in the Council of working together with New Yorkers who are facing problems, helping come up with solutions and getting them implemented,” he said, citing his work on legislation ranging from freelancer protections, workplace scheduling for fast food workers to wages for for-hire vehicle drivers and anti-tenant harassment measures, among others. “Those are all examples of working with different kinds of New Yorkers facing different kinds of problems, many of them caused as a result of the ways our economy is shifting and changing, and coming up with policy solutions that we can implement here in New York that make people’s lives better.”

Rosenthal, who chaired her Upper West Side community board and worked in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget for seven years between 1988 and 1995 before running for the City Council in 2013, filed her paperwork for comptroller last year. This term she chairs the Council’s Committee on Women, having previously headed up the contracts committee through which she conducted several probing oversight hearings, particularly with regard to contracting at the mammoth Department of Education and problems with how the city contracts with human services nonprofits.

“I’m really excited to be running for comptroller,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “I think that the city’s $90 billion budget needs to be kept a close eye on, and I think it’s critical that the money goes to the people who need and deserve it. And it’s been my experience on the City Council that that doesn’t always happen.”

Rosenthal cited her work leading the Council’s contracts committee, particularly the role she played in breaking up an over-inflated contract awarded by the Department of Education in 2015 -- after she raised the issue, it was reduced from $1.1 billion to $472 million. “When I raised a red flag, people listened...Can you imagine having a comptroller who’s qualified to do these types of audits going after our $90 billion budget and making sure it’s fiscally responsible?”

She also said the next comptroller must be independent of the mayoral administration, a quality she said she showed in the school desegregation battle in her district when she stood with elected parent representatives pushing a rezoning plan to desegregate schools.

Rosenthal did not address Lander’s candidacy, though she said she expected several people to run for the seat.

Asked about his potential opponents and the issues he may run on, Lander was reluctant to respond, saying he was focused on a slew of bills he wants passed. “It’s a long time from 2021 and there’ll be time to talk about that race in a way that’s more like it’s a present election which it’s not yet,” he said. “So I’m not gonna start talking about other people running or my policy platform…There will be a time to talk about policy issues in the 2021 race but it is not in January in 2019.”

Lander has just under $137,000 in his campaign account, and has opted in to the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program that was recently approved by the City Council and will provide an 8-to-1 match for the first $250 of every contribution. Rosenthal has nearly $20,000 in campaign funds and is already abiding by the new rules of the public matching funds program. She said she has returned donations that are above the new limits.

Other potential candidates rumored to be mulling a run for comptroller include State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez of Manhattan. Both are Democrats. No matter who runs, the 2021 race is unlikely to match the spectacle of the 2013 Democratic primary between the eventual winner, Stringer, who was Manhattan Borough President at the time, and former Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was attempting a political comeback after having resigned from office over a prostitution scandal. Stringer won 52-48 percent. Now in his second term, Stringer is all-but-certain to run for mayor in the coming election.

The comptroller’s office, with more than 800 employees, is a big step up from the City Council or state Legislature, where members have roughly ten staffers working under them. As the city’s top fiscal officer, the comptroller’s duties include auditing the work of city agencies, overseeing management of the city’s $160 billion-plus pension system, analyzing city spending and revenues, and reviewing and approving city contracts.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article stated earlier that Council Member Rosenthal had begun returning donations above the new CFB limits. It has been updated to clarify that she has already returned all such donations. 

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