No doubt you have seen today's screaming headlines containing the word "Comptroller." But what the hell is a Comptroller? (Yes, Daily News, it's a Comptroller not "Controller," check the City Charter [PDF]) If he wins, what power will Eliot Spitzer have that he didn't while he was Attorney General or Governor? Does Spitzer's entry hurt Weiner? We asked Hunter College political science professor emeritus Kenneth Sherrill about the Comptroller's role in city government and why you should care about this thing you'll be hearing about incessantly for the next 48 hours.
The cliché is that the Comptroller is New York City's Accountant, but what exactly does the Comptroller do? The Comptroller's office has two main functions. One is to preside over the investments of municipal pension funds, which gives the Comptroller a lot of power. The other is to audit city agencies. The comptroller basically serves as a check and balance on the mayor and the city council and the other branches of government.
Spitzer has already told several interviewers that he's seeking to expand or "re-envision" the role of the Comptroller. What do you think this means? I think it means he's going to be a fucking steamroller. [Laughs] I think he's going to construct the powers of the city charter rather generously. It's not surprising—people become involved in politics because they like power. It's not surprising that any candidate for an office would say that he or she would want to use it more impressively than anybody else that has ever had the office. It's kind of like saying, "I'm not a wimp."
Did the Comptroller wield more power when he had a vote on the City's Board of Estimate? Or does the office have more power now? I believe he had more power then, because he had a vote on all kinds of land use municipal contracts. I remember those days, but not clearly enough to give you definitive answer. I can tell you however, a somewhat illustrative story.
In the old days a friend of a friend who was a political appointee in the Comptrollers' office used to provide small amounts of marijuana to his friends at reasonable rates. A friend of mine on the city planning commission owed this guy some money. So he went to the Comptroller's office to pay him, but he wasn't there.
So my friend saw a desk with nothing on it except a telephone and a rolodex, and he assumed that the desk had to be the desk of the person in question, and left the money in the drawer. He never heard about the money he owed after that, so he assumed he was right! [Laughs] This was in the 1970s.
Our current Comptroller, John Liu, recently saw his mayoral campaign manager arrested on fraud charges. Former Comptroller Alan Hevesi was accused of shady dealings during his time with the City, and later went to prison (thanks to Attorney General Spitzer) for bilking state funds for his wife's chauffeurs while he was State Comptroller. Former Comptroller Jay Goldin reportedly rigged lucrative City contracts for campaign donors, and so on. Does the office of the Comptroller lend itself to corruption more than other positions in city government? Well, it isn't the kind of high crime zone that the City Council is, but the power over the City's pension funds has long concerned people—those kinds of structural problems with city government.
But the fact of the matter is, there has to be some sort of oversight. The question of corruption in this case isn't handled by just finding the right person for the job, but restructuring the city government. That's not an issue in this campaign because at the end of the day someone is going to be elected.
People will say, "Spitzer spent thousands of dollars on hookers, why should he handle the City's finances?" Do you think this criticism will hurt him? You don't ask whether someone had dinner at the Four Seasons...While it's undoubtedly going to come up, I don't think it is a serious question. At least it was his own money.
Does Spitzer's entry hurt Weiner? It hurts Weiner because it multiplies the visibility of the allegations of the sexual misconduct. It becomes something that's discussed in two races. In comparison, Spitzer handled it in a relatively classy way. Weiner had a very hard time coming clean.
New York has a history of wacky mayors who have performed well in crises—Ed Koch, Giuliani. People will be comparing Spitzer and Weiner's behavior, and that spills over in a way, to whether Weiner will have the ability to handle a crisis.
So who does this help in the mayoral race? That race is too fluid. At this point, it probably helps Quinn and Thompson more than anyone else. I still think it's a crap shoot.
Some folks are saying that Comptroller is somewhat small potatoes for Spitzer. Do you think it's the right venue for him to dip his toe back into public service? No, I think it's appropriate—for one thing because it gives him the opportunity, even if it goes no further, to be Sheriff of Wall Street again, with leverage that he didn't have as state attorney general. If he's successful he'll be running for mayor in eight years, maybe sooner, depending on who wins this election.