The first televised debate for the New York City Comptroller candidates will be held Thursday night, offering New Yorkers a chance to consider who is best prepared to tackle the pressing financial issues facing the city post-pandemic. With a heated mayoral race and virtually every other city office up for grabs this election cycle, comptroller candidates have had a hard time grabbing New Yorkers’ attention. Now it’s their moment in the spotlight.
Read more: $100 Million Dollar Budget And The Power of Oversight — What Is A Comptroller & Why Should You Care?
Thursday’s debate—co-hosted by WNYC, Spectrum News NY1, and The City—offers voters the chance to hear how the eight leading candidates plan to help the city’s economy and small businesses recover, protect the city’s public pension funds, keep an eye on how state and federal stimulus money is spent, and update or reform the office itself. The city’s comptroller doesn’t determine how funds are spent but rather ensures money is spent as intended—the office audits city agencies and departments and approves contracts.
HOW TO WATCH
The debate is Thursday, June 10th from 7 to 8:30 p.m. It will be live on Spectrum NY1’s television channel and streamed on their website. WNYC will be streaming the debate live at WNYC.org as well as on 93.9 FM. You can also watch it below:
WHO IS PARTICIPATING?
Eight of the 10 candidates on the Democratic ballot will be participating in the debate. That includes all candidates who raised enough money to secure public matching funds. Among them, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Councilmember Brad Lander, nonprofit founder Zach Iscol, financial reporter Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, State Assemblymember David Weprin, State Senator Kevin Parker, State Senator Brian Benjamin, and financial adviser Reshma Patel. Read more about who’s running here.
Two candidates did not qualify for the debate but will be on the primary ballot; Terry Liftin, who’s worked as an economic analyst and a chief compliance officer at the Port Authority and several private investment firms, and Alex Pan, an 18-year-old student, billing himself as the “youngest person to ever make a citywide ballot.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Perhaps the most pressing issue for the next comptroller will be helping the mayor and the City Council steer the city away from potential financial ruin in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout from which is likely to have ripple effects for years to come. The city is set to receive more than $11 billion in federal relief funds which will help the city in the near term. The comptroller has a part in making sure those funds are well spent, and in planning for the city city’s future financial health. The comptroller is involved in crafting a city budget, providing feedback to the council and the mayor throughout the process. How the candidates talk about the city’s financial recovery and the deficits it faces are of utmost importance.
Are They Actually Running for Mayor?
Two current comptroller candidates, Johnson and Iscol, were previously running for mayor this election cycle, before they jumped into the comptroller’s race. Six of the last seven comptrollers have previously gone on to run for mayor, though just one succeeded; Abraham Beame in the early 1970’s. The current comptroller, Scott Stringer, is running for mayor right now. Several candidates have made outright pledges they won’t run for mayor and challenged other candidates in the race to do the same. We may see candidates question each other’s motives about whether they’re using the office as a political stepping stone to higher office.
Corey Johnson v. Brad Lander
Both current members of the City Council, it’s no secret these two aren’t one another’s biggest fans. In the heated budget battle last year, Lander was one of a handful of council members who opposed the budget Johnson backed because it didn’t fully decrease the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion. Later, The Daily News reported members who voted no on the budget got less discretionary funding in their districts. As Gotham Gazette reported, that power struggle is likely to continue this budget cycle between the two rivals. Since then, Lander has launched a website called WhatstheStoryCorey.com, accusing Johnson of stalling an bills in the council dealing with workers' rights, affordable housing, and criminal justice reform, though several councilmember's questioned the website's accuracy and defended the delays as part of the normal legislative process.
Lander, considered a frontrunner until Johnson’s late entrance to the race in March, has amassed a wide coalition of progressive backers, from U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as clinching the nomination of the New York Times on Tuesday. Johnson has the backing of many of the city’s influential unions and sitting council members and, according to new polling this week continues to lead the pack with 18%of likely voters’ support. The poll suggested Lander had picked up some supporters since April, though he was tied at 9% of likely voters with Caruso-Cabrera, a former Republican who ran an unsuccessful Wall Street-funded bid to oust Ocasio-Cortez last year.
Auditing the NYPD’s Budget
Comptroller Scott Stringer has faced criticism for only auditing the NYPD’s $5.6 billion budget twice during his seven and a half years in office. In comparison, Stringer audited the Parks Department, more than two dozen times, though the NYPD budget is twelve times its size and has the third largest budget of any city agency. In line with demands for criminal justice reform that were renewed by the murder of George Floyd last summer, several candidates in the race are promising more substantial audits of the police budget. State Senator Brian Benjamin, for example, has made a top to bottom audit of the police budget a cornerstone of his campaign. On the other end of the spectrum, State Assemblymember David Weprin has recently received the backing of several police unions including the Police Benevolent Association. Just as policing and police reform have been top of mind for voters in the mayor’s race, this issue is likely to come up between comptroller candidates.
The city’s public pension funds are immense, valued at more than $253 billion. The comptroller serves as the chief fiduciary of those funds, working with the boards of the five funds to select managers and assure they’re healthy. When pension funds don’t hit a targeted growth rate of 7% the city has to pay the difference, most recently paying nearly $10 billion to bolster the funds. City taxpayers could be required to pay even more in the coming years to make up the difference, according to an analysis from the Independent Budget Office. Some candidates may talk about their plans to reduce costs paid by the city towards pensions, how they plan to increase growth of the funds or use targeted investments to jump start economic activity in New York City.