Are NYC comptroller candidates really running for mayor?

Comptroller candidates
Comptroller candidates
State Senate Media Services; MCC For Comptroller; Pat Dunford; John McCarten/New York City Council; State Senate Media Services; Weprin 2021
Brian Benjamin, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, Zach Iscol, Brad Lander, Kevin Parker & David Weprin

Are NYC comptroller candidates really running for mayor?

If you want to set yourself up, you’ve got to win this race first.
February 7, 2021

Let’s be honest – New York City comptroller isn’t everybody’s first choice. After Michelle Caruso-Cabrera’s high-profile yet unsuccessful challenge to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2020 Democratic congressional primary, her recent decision to run for comptroller looks like somebody seeking a consolation prize. Of course, she’s not alone. Zach Iscol was running for mayor for months before he decided to drop out and run for comptroller instead. But he’s just following the example of the current comptroller, Scott Stringer, who was well into a 2013 mayoral run before deciding he would run for comptroller instead. Now eight years later, Stringer is following the well-worn path of city comptrollers running for mayor. Of the past nine city comptrollers, only one of them (Elizabeth Holtzman, the lone woman to hold the office) did not subsequently run for mayor.

Of the past nine city comptrollers, only one of them did not subsequently run for mayor.

But if you want to set yourself up to run for mayor, you’ve got to win this race first. And with less than five months to go until the June Democratic primary, 10 candidates have filed paperwork to run. Six of them seem to be serious contenders at this point: state Sens. Brian Benjamin and Kevin Parker, City Council Member Brad Lander, Assembly Member David Weprin, Caruso-Cabrera, who was previously a financial journalist, and Iscol, a former Marine who founded a media company.

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Comptroller is, of course, a financial job. The office conducts audits of city agencies and is responsible for the city’s five public pension funds, with their nearly $240 billion in assets. But with a staff of about 800 people, it’s also a management job. The comptroller isn’t sitting at a desk with a calculator all day – they have people to do that for them. And of course, it’s a political job, up for election every four years and given the mandate as a fiscal watchdog to officially criticize the sitting mayor and all aspects of their sprawling government – a responsibility that Stringer in particular has cherished. It’s a truly powerful office. And even running for it lends the contenders an air of serious credibility. The online forums for the candidates have so far lacked the occasional fun questions that the mayoral candidates get. Mayor is a serious job, but the winner will also have to hold groundhogs and eat hot dogs. The comptroller? They need to make sure the pension funds don’t crater. And stakeholders are vetting the candidates hard.

Mayor is a serious job, but they also hold groundhogs and eat hot dogs. The comptroller? They need to make sure the pension funds don’t crater. 

But who is the best fit for this fiscal/management/political job? The top six candidates all pitched themselves to the city’s chambers of commerce at a Feb. 2 forum hosted by the Five Borough Chamber Alliance. Benjamin, Lander, Parker and Weprin all hold office, but Weprin insisted he was “the only one that’s directly been involved in dealing with budget deficits,” since he chaired the New York City Council Finance Committee after the 2008 financial crisis. Lander said he understood city contracting, since he ran a nonprofit before being elected to the council. Iscol said he’d work well with the next mayor, since he had been running alongside all the other candidates until recently. Parker said he’s got the right experience, having worked for the state comptroller before entering politics. Benjamin talked about his experience serving on the board of Brown University, which recently divested from fossil fuels. And Caruso-Cabrera argued her experience as a financial journalist imparted her with the right historical context for the job. “I have spent my life covering financial crises,” she said.

Will any of it matter? The candidates are running campaigns, not filling out an auditing exam. Stringer’s top qualification in 2013 may have been that he was not Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor who thought the office would be a good spot to launch a political comeback. That race had only two candidates, but this year’s contest promises to be far more crowded. And why not? It’s a pretty good second choice.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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