The race for New York City comptroller is well underway but there’s one question – other than what a comptroller does – that voters might still have trouble figuring out the answer to: what makes a candidate for comptroller qualified?
The role of the comptroller is unusual – unlike candidates for mayor or City Council, it’s hard to lay out a platform with easy-to-understand policy proposals. This might be why so many candidates running for comptroller seem to focus on arguing that they are the most qualified for the job, such as state Sen. Brian Benjamin touting his previous experience as an investment banker.
“What qualifies someone to become comptroller is getting more votes than the second place finisher,” Bob Liff, the senior vice president of political consulting firm George Arzt Communications, jokingly told City & State.
Technically, that’s true. To be eligible for the job, comptroller candidates, along with any other candidates running for city office, need only live in the city on the day that they are elected, Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer and former special counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when he was state attorney general, told City & State.
But experts say a comptroller must have some knowledge of government accounting, good leadership skills and a vision for the city’s financial future.
The City Charter only describes what the responsibilities of the city comptroller are but doesn’t lay out any specifics regarding what is required of candidates vying for the post. The comptroller’s major responsibilities include overseeing the city’s pension funds, auditing all of the city’s agencies and reviewing city contracts. The comptroller additionally determines the city’s prevailing wage, reviews the city budget and issues bonds for city projects.
Considering the nature of that work, it’s important that a comptroller have a basic understanding of finance, pension funds and investments. “Certainly, the comptroller does not need to be a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) but the comptroller needs to have a knowledge of accounting – but even more specifically, government accounting, which is different than private sector accounting,” Thad Calabrese, an associate professor of public and nonprofit financial management at New York University’s Wagner school, told City & State.
Only a few comptroller candidates have previously worked in the finance industry. Benjamin worked as an investment banker and an affordable housing developer before getting involved in local politics. State Sen. Kevin Parker worked in the financial industry, at the investment banking firm UBS PaineWebber, before working as the special assistant to former state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and getting involved in state politics himself. Assembly Member David Weprin worked in the financial services industry and was on the state’s Banking Board in the 1980s, before running for City Council and then the Assembly. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, though he has not worked in the finance industry, has played a big part in crafting the city’s annual budget as speaker. Council Member Brad Lander worked as a community planner and housing advocate before joining the council, where he has helped bring participatory budgeting, where communities are given a say in how the city’s budget is formed, back to the city.
John Mollenkopf, a political science professor and director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, who has co-authored a book with City Council Member Brad Lander, who is currently running for city comptroller, told City & State that it is pivotal for the comptroller to pay particular attention to the city’s pension funds. Acting as a fiduciary for the city’s five big pension funds, which include the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, the Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York, the New York City Police Pension Fund, the New York City Fire Pension Fund and the New York City Board of Education Retirement System, the comptroller is expected to not only manage but grow the funds, according to Mollenkopf. “We're talking about the biggest pension funds in the United States, so the comptroller needs to safeguard those funds and not invest them in something that's going to tank and compromise the retirement of the people that are (relying on) the pension fund,” he said.
The office, in recent years, has been treated as something of a launching pad for other political positions. Former city comptrollers Bill Thompson and state Sen. John Liu both ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor. “Some of them (comptroller candidates) think that they're going to be the comptroller and that's their stepping stone to being the mayor, but that never happens,” Calabrese said. “The only person who's ever served as comptroller who became the mayor was Abe Beame. But it's not a stepping stone to being the mayor.”
Beame was the last comptroller to become mayor, and that was back in 1974.
While all comptrollers are political, considering the position is an elected one, past comptrollers, including Liu and Thompson, often had financial experience. Prior to entering into politics, Liu worked in the private sector as an actuary and as a manager at the famed accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Thompson worked as an investment banker and served as the president of the city’s Board of Education before becoming comptroller. Current Comptroller Scott Stringer only had political experience, having been Manhattan borough president and a state senator.
However, the comptroller’s office is staffed with hundreds of accountants, auditors, economists, budget analysts and lawyers, which means that they don’t always need to be a financial whizz, although that would certainly help. “What a smart comptroller does is hire an expert staff to run the financial operations, the technical responsibilities of the job, in as nonpartisan and professional of a way as possible,” Liff said. “The first deputy comptroller, to some degree, is more important than the comptroller.”
Calabrese pointed out that for some of the candidates currently in the running, it’s unclear what their motivations are beyond winning another election. Caruso-Cabrera first ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez last year, longshot candidate Zach Iscol only entered the race after dropping out of the mayoral primary, and Johnson joined the race late after exiting the mayoral race. “Corey Johnson, I'm not sure exactly what his goal in being the comptroller is other than it's the next job,” he said. “His big policy position is that he's going to have a deputy comptroller for diversity and inclusion. I'm not sure what that has to do with being the overseer of government finances is. It certainly can be a role, but you know, is that the central role of the comptroller?” The Johnson campaign did not provide a comment before publication.
Thompson, who served as comptroller between 2002 and 2009, told City & State that each comptroller in recent history has had a different way of running the office and that having good managerial skills is, in many ways, more important than having a background in finance. “It's a question of leadership skills,” Thompson said. “I think that those who bring a vision to the table for the office, and can run an office of that size – because when you look at it, it’s an office that has over 700 people (working in it), it's an office that does multiple things. No one person walking through the door is going to be able to fit all the qualifications for the office, to be able to say that they are an expert, or even that they understand all of the areas in the office. They can't. But I think that more than anything it becomes a question of leadership, leadership skills and having a vision and then executing on that vision.”
Editor’s note: This story initially neglected to mention state Sen. Kevin Parker among the leading candidates.
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