While the rest of the Democrats in New York’s political world were at the Sheraton near Times Square waiting for a speech from New York City Mayor Eric Adams at the state Democratic convention, the city comptroller, Brad Lander, was ordering a latte. Grande.
The workers at the Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan were working to unionize, and he was there to show his support for their effort. It was the kind of thing that Lander has done for years – first working in community development, and then serving for 12 years as a City Council member. But now something was different: He’s a citywide progressive leader – and he has money behind him.
The barista called out the name he gave for his order: “Union Yes!” and Lander gave a “Woo!” grabbing the cup. “Thank you guys for organizing,” he said to the four workers behind the counter. “I’m New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, and what the comptroller does is manages the pension funds for New York City employees. And that means we have about $180 million of Starbucks securities in our pension funds.”
“That’s a lot of money,” a barista said.
“That’s a lot of money,” Lander agreed.
Adams has visited and spotlighted service workers too as he’s encouraged white-collar New Yorkers to get back to the office now that the danger of COVID-19 has receded. Because if they’re not working, then the ecosystem of workers serving them – the “low-skilled workers, my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoe-shine people, those who work in Dunkin’ Donuts” – aren’t working either. (Adams later corrected himself to “low-wage workers,” saying he once worked as a dishwasher.)
Lander is standing behind the workers in his own way, backing the unionization effort. And he’s been a lot less gung-ho than Adams when it comes to getting bodies back in offices. So Lander senses some contradictions in the rhetoric of his politically moderate counterpart, who is eager to raise the alarm on crime in the city. “To go as he did from one day saying, ‘Swagger yourself back onto the subways and get to work,’ and then the next day, being like, ‘The subways are in crisis! We should be afraid of them!’ That isn’t the posture that helps,” Lander said at the Starbucks. The comptroller is quick with the caveats to give himself political cover. A 7.5% increase in crime is serious, he said, and he doesn’t want to trivialize that – but he doesn’t want to overdramatize it either. Lander doesn’t fault anyone for feeling afraid: “But we don’t make good public policy out of our fears and anxieties,” he said. “And it is the job of leaders to help people pause and see the big picture.”
Lander is trying to be that kind of leader, a steady hand that New Yorkers can trust to rein in the intractable mayor. That’s partly the job description of the comptroller, and partly who Lander is, and always has been: an earnest, policy-minded Park Slope liberal with an aw shucks attitude. Lander is now one of the most prominent progressives in a city led by a mayor who’s taken to calling himself the Biden of Brooklyn for his middle of the road appeal. But the comptroller always plays second fiddle, especially at the beginning of his term. Lander’s relationship with Adams will likely define his tenure as comptroller, and Lander will need to find the right balance of cooperation and criticism to remain credible – especially if he wants to be the next mayor.
After visiting Starbucks, Lander stooped into his plug-in hybrid minivan and headed back to the office. While Adams took the stage before hundreds of Democrats at the convention. “You do not stand for me, I stand for you,” he said to the standing ovation that welcomed him. He wasn’t on the ballot and he wasn’t endorsing anyone, but the message was clear: We want to hear what this guy has to say.
Lander was happy to be miles away. His pick for governor, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, knew he wasn’t going to get enough votes on the floor of the convention to make the Democratic primary ballot. So Lander didn’t go, and half-joked how relieved he was that he wouldn’t have to stand up in front of the whole convention hall and nominate Williams in front of a hostile crowd. Instead, he’d be hitting the streets with Williams in the coming weeks, gathering signatures to get his friend on the ballot through the petitioning process.
“The people who should decide who makes the ballot are voters,” Chloe Chik, a spokesperson for Lander, elaborated later. “Not Albany insiders in a hotel ballroom.”
Lander is swagless. Boring. Endearingly awkward. A dad, not just in the biological sense, but in the spiritual sense. Which makes for quite the contrast with Adams, the self-appointed Mayor of Swag City, known for his sharp dressing and brash confidence. And if you don’t like it? He’s the mayor. If you don’t like Lander? He’ll apologize.
As a leading advocate for banning single-use plastic bags, Lander dressed up as a plastic bag monster one Halloween. And for the holiday last year, the soon-to-be comptroller dressed the part – as a Nintendo 64 controller.
When Eric Adams showed up at the Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge on a past New Year’s Day, he turned heads with his muscular physique. This year, Lander came to Coney Island and scraped his nose diving into the shallow water. His shirt stayed on the whole time.
Does Lander have swagger? He laughed when asked. “I do kickbox a couple times a week in the morning. And I love the city. And I like finding new restaurants to go out to,” he said, his voice getting increasingly tortured, as it became clear these things do not add up to swag. “The energy of the city, we all do want to feed on. And I feel it and I’m energized by it. But I’m not a late night club guy. I won’t compete with the mayor on wardrobe. Luckily there’s room in this city for people to love it in a lot of different ways.”
The contrast hasn’t gone unnoticed. “For some folks, they’re calling him Dad and Eric is what, the cool uncle? He’ll bring you to get your ear pierced,” joked André Richardson, a political consultant and founder of Paragon Strategies. But that’s good politics for somebody in Lander’s position. “I don’t want the person that’s watching the city’s finances to have swagger. I’m not looking for that in a comptroller. And I don’t know that we’ve ever had it in recent history.”
That message worked – along with years of planning and key endorsements from The New York Times and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Lander won the Democratic primary with 31% of the first round vote, beating a crowded field including the apparent front-runner, then-New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who had support from just about every major labor union in the city. Lander easily won the general election in November with 70% of the vote, and took over on Jan. 1, succeeding Scott Stringer, who was term-limited out of the job after eight years.
Stringer, and former Comptroller John Liu before him, in some ways paved the way for Lander in the position. They weren’t just a little bit geeky – they were progressives who could challenge their respective mayors from the left.
But Lander may be more of a true believer. “Scott held his finger up in the air, felt the wind and was very good at predicting where it was going,” one former elected official, who requested anonymity to discuss former colleagues, joked. “Brad was probably the wind that Scott Stringer was detecting.”
Lander’s politics have always leaned to the left. Lander, now 52, grew up in a Jewish family in Creve Coeur, Missouri, and joined the Democratic Socialists of America in 1987 while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago (he doesn’t attend meetings and hasn’t been endorsed by NYC-DSA – but he still pays his dues). He got a masters in anthropology from University College London, and in 1992, the Midwesterner followed his then-girlfriend (and now wife) Meg Barnette to New York, where she was studying law at NYU. He got a job at the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development corporation and nonprofit housing developer. There, he had to think about the interplay between Wall Street and nonprofit service providers – something he’s still dealing with decades later. In 1995, Chase and Chemical Banks were merging and giving grants to community groups like his to ease the process – looking good to regulators and tamping down grassroots activism. Lander, as executive director, seemed happy to take the money, brushing aside arguments that it was “blackmail” or “extortion,” to The New York Times. “Since the merger will affect the city in negative ways – job losses and branch closings – it seems appropriate that at this moment they are especially accountable.”
A look through press clips shows Lander then sounding much as he does now, as the city’s self-declared “chief accountability officer.” In 1997, criticizing the low pay, part-time jobs at Atlantic Mall; in 2003 asking Fourth Avenue landowners to pay their fair share. In 2009, he ran for City Council and won, with major backing from the Working Families Party and boosted by the Times, who endorsed him to succeed Bill de Blasio in the district centered on Park Slope. Within three months he launched the Progressive Caucus with Melissa Mark-Viverito. Later, he created its political arm, the Progressive Caucus Alliance, and helped Mark-Viverito secure victory in the 2013 speaker race. Lander remained one of the more influential members in the council, maturing into somewhat of a middle-aged statesman of the city’s progressive left and paving the way for his victory in the comptroller race.
Former City Council chief of staff Ramon Martinez met Lander in 2006, when he was advocating for reform to the affordable housing tax abatement program known as 421-a. More than 15 years later, Lander is still advocating for reforms, calling it “an obscene tax giveaway for market rate housing.”“Groundhog Day again,” Martinez joked. “He’s a person that you can have a dialogue with. A persistent organizer who sweats the policy details. We were not always on the same page. But (Lander was) definitely one I respected.”
But even as Lander nurtured his reputation as a policy hound, he also annoyed the hell out of some people, eliciting groans on both sides of City Hall. He was holier-than-thou, expecting everyone else to live up to standards he himself didn’t live up to. After taking thousands of dollars in campaign donations from real estate developers over multiple election cycles, he pledged not to take money from certain lobbyists and developers for his comptroller campaign. But then he claimed to be the only candidate doing so, even though Johnson had taken a more comprehensive pledge and let fewer offending donations through than Lander did. He sponsored the Reckless Driver Accountability Act, but he himself was caught racking up more than 100 vehicle and traffic violations in his Toyota Prius over eight years. The man who had been performatively arrested to advocate for more school zone speed cameras was caught speeding by those same cameras seven times in less than 18 months.
Lander also faced criticisms from colleagues on the council for what some considered a paternalistic attitude, particularly toward members of color. He earned a reputation for bringing legislation that he wanted to see passed to other members of color, hoping they would be the lead sponsor. “I did not appreciate white supremacy,” said one member of color who served with Lander who asked for anonymity to discuss a powerful colleague. “He would come to me with a lot of bill ideas and try to get me to sponsor (legislation) that he would have got credit for and I refused him. … I’m talented enough to pass my own legislation.” His relationship with Mark-Viverito grew tense after the Times called him a “kingmaker” and reported that some were calling him “the shadow speaker” – a narrative which Lander pushed back against in 1281-word Facebook post, guessing that it wouldn’t have been said if Mark-Viverito were a white man.
Allies insist that, like so many well-meaning white liberals, he had some blind spots on race, but is learning. And multiple sources credited Lander for going out on a limb, in many cases, to endorse progressive candidates of color in difficult races – for example, his support of Williams’ campaign for governor.
But racial politics are unavoidable as Lander plays chief critic to Eric Adams. He can easily appear to be positioning himself as the upstanding white man, looking down his nose at the Black mayor who came up from the working class and doesn’t care for The New York Times, or its readers. It’s hard to imagine now, but Rudy Giuliani ran for mayor against David Dinkins partly on his reputation as an ethically unparalleled federal prosecutor.
“There’s always a racial aspect to New York City,” Williams said about the tensions that may arise. But he emphasized that he as public advocate and Lander as comptroller have charter mandated roles to play. “I think every New Yorker really wants the same thing. And our job is to break down the barriers that are preventing that from happening. And they have been happening for a very long time.”
City & State talked to Lander in his new office in the Manhattan Municipal Building overlooking City Hall. It’s a huge upgrade to the cramped offices and small staff of a City Council member. From the sprawling quarters, he oversees a staff of about 800 who conduct audits, manage the city’s pension funds, review city contracts and more. But everyone has to deal with the inefficiencies of government. Six weeks into the job, maps, paintings and framed newspaper clippings still line the floor, leaning against the wall, as they wait to be hung.
The conversation shifts very quickly to Adams, and their differences in political perspective. “I find him very compelling in the way that other New Yorkers do,” Lander said, in awe of the mayor’s recent speech at an interfaith breakfast at the New York Public Library. “He was as good as I’ve ever seen him. … But then it’s so funny to do that, ‘The lion doesn’t care about the opinion of the sheep.’” (Adams’ exact quote was: “lions don’t lose sleep over the opinion of the sheep” – a paraphrase of a quote popularized by the TV show “Game of Thrones.”) Lander continued: “And all the people are clapping and I’m like – aren’t the sheep who you’re supposed to be concerned about, you ministers and priests and rabbis? The sheep, those are your parishioners, and the lions are out to get them! You could have good lions and bad lions I guess, but …”
That’s what seems to irk Lander about Adams – the way he speaks off the cuff, shooting from the hip with quips that seem to place him above and beyond the will of the voters. Lander would never say something like that – every utterance is couched beneath layers of “well’s” and “to be sure’s,” caveats and carveouts.
As far as major endorsers, and voters go, there aren’t many who supported both Lander and Adams in the 2021 primaries. Map their results, and you get mirror images. Lander’s support lies in Manhattan, western Queens and northern Brooklyn. Adams’ support lies everywhere else. So those that backed Lander, from AOC to the WFP, are counting on him to hold the mayor to account from a progressive perspective – especially as Williams, who already occupies a weaker position in the public advocate’s office, is focused on running for governor. But that doesn’t mean Lander should be fighting Adams every day for four – or eight – years. “I feel really good knowing that he and Jumaane are in the watchdog roles, if we have a mayor like Adams,” said Whitney Hu, a former Lander council staffer who’s now director of civic engagement and research at Churches United For Fair Housing. “Brad is also no stranger to working with Eric Adams in Brooklyn. … I hope he understands when it’s time to push and time to sound the alarm and when it’s time to play the insider game.”
As Lander talks about his role, it’s clear that balance is on his mind. Representatives for Adams did not respond to a request for comment on his relationship with Lander, but Lander said it’s important to look for “areas of alignment,” like granting voting rights in city elections to many noncitizens, which they both agreed on. And Adams invited Lander to a press conference touting a pay raise for Uber and Lyft drivers – something born out of a law Lander sponsored as a City Council member. Adams praised Lander at that February press conference, emphasizing that they two agreed on more than they disagreed. “On the idea that working people in New York City deserve a city government that is on their side?” Lander said at the presser – “that is a place where there is no daylight.”
Lander is wary of falling into the “so badly broken down” relationship of their predecessors, Stringer and former Mayor Bill de Blasio. Stringer saw de Blasio as a political rival, and even considered challenging his mayor’s reelection in 2017.
So in his first two months in office, Lander has been surgical in public rebukes of the mayor, but all seem to have taken the form of reining him in, urging cautions on moves that Lander saw as rash. He urged the state Legislature to reject Adams’ request to increase the city’s debt limit by $19 billion, saying it’s too much, too soon, when the city can borrow enough for infrastructure projects already. He and Williams sent a joint letter to Adams urging the mayor’s office to put specific benchmarks in place for reinstating COVID-era policies such as vaccine mandates. He said that Adams’ preliminary budget didn’t put enough money into the reserves. And while Lander withheld any criticism of earlier Adams administration appointments that raised eyebrows, such as appointing his own brother Bernard to lead his security team, the mayor’s pattern of giving jobs to socially conservative Christian pastors who held anti-LGBTQ views earned him a minor rebuke from Lander, who was “deeply concerned.”
This balance of cooperation and criticism is simply the comptroller’s job, Lander explained. There are collaborative tasks laid out by the city charter, like contract registering and auditing agencies, “and if you want to solve problems where there’s joint work on task, you better be able to work together,” he said. “It is also a charter requirement to be independent, to call things as you see it, to tell the truth.”
The relationship with Adams could be the biggest challenge facing Lander as comptroller, but it isn’t the only one. The progressive also needs to maintain the trust of voters and pensioners as he oversees $275 billion in assets.
“The nature of the comptroller’s office is that its strength is always in its credibility. So it can be a challenge for someone who comes in from a very ideological position to temper that ideology to reinforce the pragmatism of that office,” political consultant Doug Forand of Red Horse Strategies told City & State. “That’s the challenge that Brad is going to face. In the council, he was able to like – you can talk about ideology, full bond, you can take positions. Comptroller, the nuts and bolts of government, and you don’t get to do that.”
Is it odd for Lander – who has publicly railed against “business elites” – to now be in a position where he’s rooting for corporate profits? Lander took a long pause before answering. “I like the opportunity to root for corporate profits in companies that are rising to the systemic challenges of climate change and inequality,” he said. “We need people to have good jobs. … Sure it’s more fun for everyone, and me too, to root for a small businessperson, an entrepreneur of color who starts something up than a big corporate conglomerate, but obviously large companies are a really important part of the economy. And they absolutely can operate fairly.”
That means antitrust laws, and worker representatives on corporate boards, Lander said, noting that he endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Does Lander call himself a capitalist? “I don’t know how helpful the labels are,” he said. He believes in a strong public role in health care through “Medicare for All,” and an increase in forms of social housing like community land trusts, “but the majority of the economy’s going to be in private sector hands. I guess that’s being in favor of a mixed market social economy. Or a mixed economy social democracy.”
If that rhetoric sounds familiar? De Blasio, Lander’s Park Slope predecessor, rode it all the way to Gracie Mansion. Will Lander try to do the same and run for mayor? “That’s an unwritten responsibility of city comptroller,” joked Liu, who served as comptroller from 2010 to 2013 and unsuccessfully ran for mayor. The biggest obstacle there isn’t Adams, but his close ally, Williams. If all citywide officials are reelected in their current roles, they’ll be term-limited out in 2029. Williams clearly has his eyes on higher office, as he’s currently in the midst of running for governor. And that also gives the friends an out when asked whether they’d ever run against each other. “My plan is to be governor at that moment in time,” Williams said. Williams’ run is a long shot, and it’s more than likely he’ll stay in his current role for years. But a whole lot could change by the time the city is looking for Adams’ successor. “In politics, tomorrow is a century,” Williams said.
And Lander? He’s certainly keeping the door open for a mayoral run. He’s going to focus on being a good comptroller for now. “I’ll be excited about whatever makes sense to build from that,” he said. So he turned again to his policy chops, his nerdy focus. The swagless dadness of being comptroller. “If you love the wonky undersides of government, you love getting under the hood and trying to make it work better, it’s very satisfying,” he said of the job. “You probably won’t get the kind of viral videos or headlines about speeding up nonprofit procurement that you might about other issues, but it just makes a really big difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
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