Eight out of the 10 candidates running to be the next New York City comptroller made their final pitch to Democratic voters in a televised debate Sunday morning. While the candidates have struggled to get attention, WNBC-TV/Telemundo chose to air the pre-taped debate at 9:30 a.m, far from a prime-time slot.
Despite the lack of focus on the race, the comptroller oversees a budget of more than $100 million dollars, runs an office of more than 700 employees, and is tasked with watching over the city’s public pension funds, auditing city agencies, and monitoring contracts. In addition, the city’s next comptroller—and mayor—will be facing a potentially massive budget shortfall given the ongoing lost revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The New York City comptroller is probably the most important job that New Yorkers aren’t really focused on right now,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, one of the candidates at Sunday’s debate. Here are some key takeaways from the debate:
Three Candidates Won’t Rule Out Running for Mayor
The office of New York City comptroller is often seen as a stepping stone to higher office and six of seven past comptrollers have run for mayor. Two current candidates for the role were previously running for mayor before they dropped out— nonprofit founder Zach Iscol and Johnson—while the current comptroller, Scott Stringer, is running for mayor. When asked at the debate to raise their hands if they ruled out running for mayor in the future, all hands went up but three: State Senator Brian Benjamin, State Senator Kevin Parker and Iscol.
“This is an extension of public service. I don't want to be mayor. I don't want to be comptroller. I want to serve,” Iscol said, explaining why he kept his hand down. “There are amazing public servants on this stage. I hope all of them seek higher office.”
Indeed, many of the candidates continued to talk about issues that veered more into the realm of what a mayor can do, rather than what a comptroller’s powers are.
Candidate Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC financial reporter, regularly mentioned the city needing to expand broadband access for all and make CUNY tuition free. When asked what part of what agency he would prioritize for auditing, Parker talked about reducing class sizes, expanding sports programs in schools, and adding more music and art classes.
“Are those audits or policy proposals?” asked Melissa Russo, a WNBC political reporter who was moderating the debate. “They’re audits,” he replied.
Caruso-Cabrera Defends Her Political Values
Caruso-Cabrera, whose first stab at politics was an unsuccessful bid to unseat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year, was asked to explain her political values. She’s a former Republican who openly advocated for stripping government to its basic functions and getting rid of Medicare and Social Security in her 2010 book, “You Know I’m Right: More Prosperity, Less Government.”
“I was raised by a Cuban-American mother and anybody who knows anything about Cuban-Americans. It was how you get raised. And as I got older, I realized, you know, Social issues. What am I doing?” she said. “I'm a Democrat and I'm a proud Democrat.”
Her line of attack for frontrunner Johnson, however, centered around the growth of the city budget under Johnson’s leadership. City spending has increased by $21 billion since 2014.
"Crime is out of control...our schools are failing, there are homeless people everywhere, despite huge increases in spending,” Caruso-Cabrera said. “This is the city that Bill de Blasio and Corey Johnson have created."
Lander v. Johnson Beef Escalates
The two members of City Council have a long-simmering feud that boiled over at the debate. Lander questioned Johnson on an affordable housing project in his district, where several income tiers were approved in 2016.
“Corey, why at Pier 40, did you approve affordable housing at 130% of AMI? $155,000 a year per family,” Lander asked. “That wasn't real or deeply affordable housing.”
“Brad, I worked with the community board and I worked with the borough president,” Johnson shot back, accusing Lander of trying to confuse voters, as the two talked over one another, trying to get in the last word.
“He is distorting the facts,” Johnson quipped.
”Those are the facts,” Lander shot back.
Avi Small, a spokesperson for Johnson, and Naomi Dann, Lander’s spokesperson, then continued the spat back and forth on Twitter.
Last week, Lander took aim at Johnson for not showing up to executive budget hearings and for a delayed release of a council-commissioned report on sexual harassment
Albany Lawmakers Defend Raising Taxes on Wealthy New Yorkers
Three comptroller candidates are currently state lawmakers in Albany. The legislature approved an increase on income taxes for the wealthiest New Yorkers as part of a budget deal that passed in April, meaning New Yorkers who earn more than $1 million a year will have an increased tax rate of from 8.82% to 9.65%, as well as new income brackets for people who make $5 million and $25 million dollars a year.
“There are some times when you have to make really tough decisions,” said Benjamin, explaining why he’d supported the tax increase. “As we've stared down $15 billion budget deficits, year over year in the state, we decided that it was important that the wealthy pay their fair share. And there are a number of wealthy individuals who felt that they should pay their fair share.”
Parker touted approving spending for undocumented immigrants, schools and healthcare funded in the state’s budget this year. “When I look at my record, I’m very very proud of it,” Parker said. State Assemblymember David Weprin said he didn’t support tax increases for middle class New Yorkers and had pushed for a higher threshold, “because we really have to preserve the jobs and keep people in New York State.”
Sunday is the last day of early voting. Primary day is Tuesday. Learn more about the city comptroller and people running for the post here.