Tom DiNapoli, left, and Paul Rodriguez
The State Comptroller is New York’s top fiscal officer, a position that has been held by Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat, for nearly 15 years. As DiNapoli seeks a fourth full-term in office this year, he is being challenged in the general election by Paul Rodriguez, the nominee of the Republican and Conservative parties and a veteran of several Wall Street financial firms.
A relatively obscure position from a public point of view, the comptroller’s office acts as a watchdog over the state’s $220 billion budget, auditing the work and spending of state agencies and public benefit corporations, reviewing and approving state contracts, managing state debt, administering the $16.7 billion payroll for state workers, and overseeing the $272 billion state pension system, one of the largest in the country.
As New York recovers from the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the comptroller’s office has a crucial role to play. The threat of a recession is looming on the horizon, which could hurt state revenue and stagger that recovery, which has already lagged behind other states and the country.
DiNapoli, a former state Assemblymember, was first appointed as comptroller by the State Legislature in February 2007, shortly after the resignation of his predecessor, Alan Hevesi, under a cloud of scandal. DiNapoli went on to win statewide election three times, winning in 2014 and 2018 with the most votes of any statewide candidate. Polls show him with a commanding lead over his opponent this year in a race where New York Republicans have put very few resources as they mostly focus on the governor’s office.
As he runs for reelection, DiNapoli, who is also running on the Working Families Party line, has touted himself as a “steady hand” in helping mind the state’s finances, even though he hasn’t always been the loudest voice in the room. “I've proven from when I first started, that I've had a steady hand at the job,” he said in an October 20 interview on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast. “I'm not the flashiest guy in politics, this isn't the flashiest office in politics. But…we are so fundamental in our work to keeping New York State moving in the right direction.”
In his time in office, DiNapoli has slowly taken a more “activist investor” approach to the state’s pension fund, using his position to encourage companies to diversify their boards, urging them to take action to tackle climate change, investing in green industries, and methodically divesting funds from the fossil fuel industry. In June 2019, he released a Climate Action Plan for the pension fund, which included a $20 billion commitment to sustainable investments and a goal of reaching net zero emissions in its portfolio by 2040.
DiNapoli, who hails from Long Island, has insisted that he brings a “mainstream New York” perspective to his strategy and not a partisan one. “The comptroller’s office is not going to be the place that you do the potshots, you throw the bombs, that's not what the job is about,” he said on the podcast, responding to frequent criticism, including from Rodriguez in this year’s election, that he is not outspoken enough in holding his fellow Democrats to account. “If you start doing that, you really lose credibility, you then just become a partisan. So I think we strike the right balance.”
DiNapoli has sought to strengthen his office’s oversight powers and called for more anti-corruption legislation. He has supported bills to fully restore his office’s authority to review certain state contracts in advance, power stripped under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and also to ban companies seeking state contracts from making campaign contributions in certain periods.
DiNapoli has also supported campaign finance reform, long calling for public financing of elections and significantly lower contribution limits for statewide officials (In 2020, the State Legislature finally approved a public financing system that will go into effect for the next election cycle.)
Though he does not have a direct hand in approving the state budget, DiNapoli’s office affords him a bully pulpit from which he has called for more prudent fiscal management by successive gubernatorial administrations and the Legislature. He has been a consistent proponent of building up the state’s rainy day funds while also pushing for greater transparency in a budget that is often filled with pork barrel spending.
DiNapoli said that the pandemic has informed his recent work, as he has directed his office to focus on New York City trends, tracking federal relief funds, reporting on crucial revenue streams, auditing the MTA, and assessing inequities in housing affordability, food insecurity, and health outcomes. His office has issued a number of reports in recent years that have impacted the public policy discussion in notable ways, especially its examination of MTA finances.
DiNapoli’s campaign also boasts other accomplishments, including exposing corruption and theft of taxpayer dollars that led to almost 300 arrests and recovering more than $80 million in taxpayer money; working with the attorney general to create a Joint Task Force on Public Integrity, which led to recovering millions of dollars and the arrests of dozens of officials and contractors who stole or misused public funds; creating a new school accountability initiative to audit schools and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services statewide; creating a new Fiscal Stress Monitoring System to assess local government financial conditions; and developing a program to give women and minority asset managers the opportunity to partner with the state pension fund.
“I'm certainly mindful that I'm not a legislator. I'm not the governor. So in terms of making decisions on policy or budget, that's not the comptroller's role,” he said on the podcast, “but I do think we have an important opportunity to provide a thoughtful analysis and information to help guide policymakers, elected officials, and I think, equally important, having the public be informed.”
Rodriguez is running because he believes that DiNapoli has sat on the sidelines as the state has been plagued by corruption and wasteful spending over the last 15 years. His campaign platform is focused on tackling pay-to-play politics, exposing fraud and waste in state spending, professionalizing the management of the state pension fund, enhancing transparency about state debt and pension obligations, increasing oversight of the budget, and investing in New York businesses.
Rodriguez is banking on his experience as a Wall Street investor for more than 25 years, which included stints at major firms including Salomon Brothers, Merrill Lynch, UBS, BBVA, and Morgan Stanley. He has previously served as an executive board member of the Manhattan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Brooklyn-Kings County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and as president of the New York Young Republican Club. Currently, Rodriguez works in fundraising and development for the Archdiocese of New York.
This isn’t Rodriguez’s first run for office. In 2004, he unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat, and he was the Conservative Party nominee for New York City Comptroller last year.
Though Rodriguez has expressed personal respect for DiNapoli, he has been critical of his tenure. The comptroller, he argues, has turned a blind eye to corruption in Albany, failed to adequately use his oversight authority to rein in state spending, and has taken an inappropriately ideological approach to pension investments.
“The unfortunate truth is that during the 15 years that Mr. DiNapoli has been in office, it has coincided with…one of the worst waves of corruption in state government,” he said during an October 20 appearance on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast. He said DiNapoli was first assigned the office because, “He's not going to rock the boat, he's not going to really stick his neck out.”
Though Rodriguez concedes that the comptroller doesn’t have authority over the state budget, he has said he will be a louder voice for accountability. “Yes, there are limitations but there's no limitations on that bully pulpit and how you utilize it and how you call out the people in power,” he said.
He has even called for either banning or severely limiting political contributions from companies or individuals seeking state business, rather than a blackout period that DiNapoli has supported. “If you want to instill confidence in New Yorkers that they have a government that is clean and that is accountable to its people, you can't have this sort of thing,” he said.
As with other Republican candidates, Rodriguez has also been focused on public safety, which he says is essential to ensuring that New York remains a competitive business environment. “One of the necessary pillars for economic development for the city or for the state is public safety because you don't want to work, invest or or live in a place where you don't feel safe,” he said.
Rodriguez has raised concerns about the state’s high tax rates, particularly with inflation at record highs and the specter of a looming recession. He has, for instance, opposed the congestion pricing system set to be instituted in New York City, which he said will punish drivers as it helps raise capital funds for the MTA. “You can only squeeze blood from a stone only so far,” he said. “You can’t expect to simply solve all your problems with higher taxation.” But, he did not offer an alternative for the $15 billion in capital funds for MTA repairs and upgrades that congestion pricing is set to fund.
Among Rodriguez’s criticisms of DiNapoli is his reliance on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing in guiding the pension fund. Rodriguez has noted that the concept originated on Wall Street but has “degenerated over the years from a consideration or a tool in part of your investment management decisions to sort of an end game in and of itself, and to what I maybe crudely call a box-checking exercise.”
He also questioned DiNapoli’s focus on climate-related investments. “I certainly think that the whole issue of climate change as a whole should not be the primary driving force behind all the investment decisions that are made in the portfolio,” he said.
Rodriguez faces somewhat overwhelming odds in the race. Not only is he far behind in the polls, his campaign has shown almost no fundraising or spending.
Key Differences Between DiNapoli & Rodriguez
The differences between the two candidates were apparent at the sole debate in the race on October 19, hosted by Spectrum News. It was a relatively civil affair, as neither candidate tried to harshly attack the other and they even shared moments of agreement.
“When the comptroller's office was mired in scandal, a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats came together selected me to restore integrity and credibility to the office,” DiNapoli said in his opening remarks, arguing through the debate that he had accomplished that goal and that his experience matters in the trying times the state now faces.
Rodriguez said the public is barely aware of the comptroller’s office or the role he plays in state government. “I think part of this reason is because the office has for several years prioritized political activism through its pension plan, rather than its oversight powers to go after real corruption…I think we need a new direction and new leadership,” he said.
The candidates weighed in on a range of issues from their approach to preparing for a potential fiscal downturn and their pension investment strategies to taxes, economic development, ethics, gambling revenue, marijuana industry subsidies, the Buffalo Bills stadium deal, and more.
DiNapoli expressed optimism in shepherding the state pension fund through a possible recession with his current investment strategy. “We've weathered tough storms before…I’m confident that even if there's a downturn, short term for the markets, we'll be able to weather it,” he said. “The retirement security that we have guaranteed to our public workers, to our public retirees, we can deliver on that.”
He also later defended his activist investing practices. “I'm not interested in short-term quarterly results,” he said. “That's kind of the Wall Street mentality that got us in trouble when the Great Recession happened. I'm interested in long-term results and good corporate practices.”
Rodriguez, however, cautioned against DiNapoli’s approach, insisting that pension returns are being overshadowed by inflation. “I don't believe that public pension plans should be managed like private activist hedge funds,” he said.
When asked by the debate moderators, Rodriguez said he would support an extension of the state’s temporary gas tax suspension, which was approved earlier this year to limit the effects of inflation. DiNapoli did not take a definitive position on the issue. “I think that's a decision the governor and the Legislature are going to have to make,” he said.
Both candidates promised to closely monitor and audit the Buffalo Bills stadium deal, which was a last-minute addition to the state budget and will award $600 million in state subsidies to the stadium along with $250 million more from Erie County.
“[A]s we've done with other economic development programs, I'm sure this will be a part of our consideration when we do future audits when it's actually implemented,” said DiNapoli, who has been particularly critical of the state’s economic development strategy under former Governor Andrew Cuomo and now into Hochul’s tenure. “Hopefully with the Hochul administration, we'll see an improvement in that regard,” he added.
“[O]bviously it is the taxpayers who are basically getting the short end of the stick for this,” said Rodriguez. “We want to keep the Bills here, but we want to do it in a proper way, not just simply giving taxpayer money away to billionaires.”
The two were also on the same page in criticizing the governor and Legislature for awarding $350 million in economic development funds to Long Island in the state budget without specific purposes. “When has giving a politician or a bureaucrat just cash unallocated for unaccounted for, with no oversight, when has that made them or behave in a way that's more honest or ethical? It really hasn't,” Rodriguez said.
“There should not be these large lump sums that have no definition as part of the state budget process. It's not the proper way to do business,” said DiNapoli, who added that the proper way to allocate such funds is to determine projects ahead of time and line out the expenses in the budget agreement.
With the state having legalized mobile sports betting, they both agreed that the state needs to set aside revenue raised from it to help those with gambling addictions, which is part of the law. And they both expressed some concern about the state’s support for the marijuana industry.
“I don't think it's the right thing for us to be involved in,” Rodriguez said. “If we think gambling is bad, how is investing in cannabis any better, and particularly when we've divested in many instances from tobacco?”
“I don't want to see the state become the major subsidizer of the industry,” DiNapoli said, referring to some of the ways in which the state law legalizing adult use marijuana includes start-up funding for businesses.
There were other key areas of disagreement. While DiNapoli supported prevailing wage requirements for all state economic development deals, Rodriguez did not.
DiNapoli is a strong supporter of the $4.2 billion environmental bond act, which is going to be on the November ballot for voter approval. Rodriguez opposes it. “I think we are not at a time right now where we should be adding more debt to the balance sheet of the state,” Rodriguez said.
Polls and Money
Polls currently show DiNapoli sailing to reelection. A Siena College poll released October 18 had him in the lead with 54% of the vote to Rodriguez’s 30%, remaining steady from a previous poll that had him leading 52-29%. He had an overwhelming lead among Democratic voters (82-6%) and was also ahead with independent voters (44-32%). He was favored by New York City residents as well as by voters upstate and in the suburbs.
Though he still remains largely unknown to voters, 66% of them, he nonetheless fared better than Rodriguez, who was unknown to 86% of voters.
One of the benefits of incumbency is that DiNapoli also has a massive campaign finance advantage. He has raised a total of $3.6 million this election cycle and has spent nearly $2.4 million. He had about $2 million in cash on hand, as of October 7.
Meanwhile, according to the State Board of Elections, Rodriguez has reported only $3,184 in campaign donations, and has spent less than $11. Rodriguez’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment seeking clarity on his fundraising.
Election Day is November 8; absentee balloting has begun and early voting will be October 29-November 6.
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette