NYC Comptroller Candidates Vie For The Spotlight In First Official Debate

It was supposed to be their moment in the spotlight. New York City Comptroller candidates—who have had a hard time grabbing New Yorkers attention—were overshadowed again Thursday night, when another fiery face-off between frontrunner mayoral candidates was taking place at the same time as their official debate.

No matter. The eight candidates who qualified for the first official comptroller debate—co-hosted by Gothamist/WNYC, The City and Spectrum NY1—argued over the city’s financial future, how best to save taxpayer money, and how to assure the health of the city’s pension funds for years to come.

Eight of the 10 candidates on the Democratic ballot participated in the virtual event: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Councilmember Brad Lander, nonprofit founder Zach Iscol, financial reporter Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, State Assemblymember David Weprin, State Senator Kevin Parker, State Senator Brian Benjamin and financial adviser Reshma Patel.

Here are some key takeaways from the debate.

Everybody Versus Corey Johnson

In limited polling that’s taken place in the race, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has consistently ranked a frontrunner, most recently earning 18% of likely voters’ support, though 44% of voters were still undecided. His opponents have taken notice, sharpening their attacks against Johnson, criticizing his role in presiding over a growing city budget and critiquing legislation he did or did not have a hand in passing.

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a financial reporter and recent Republican whose first foray into politics was an unsuccessful effort to oust Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year, was first to the draw.

“The budget under Bill de Blasio and my opponent, Corey Johnson has gone up by $20 billion,” she said. (According to the Independent Budget Office city spending has actually gone up $21 billion since de Blasio took office in 2014.) “Everyone listening here tonight, does this city feel $20 billion a year better to you? Do you feel safer? Is it more affordable? Is your health care better?”

Johnson touted city spending on programs like Universal Pre-K and 3K expansion adding, “We’ve invested in some great things,” quickly punching back pointing to Caruso-Cabrera’s political history. Caruso-Cabrera didn’t just believe in limited government, she wrote a book about it where she floated ideas like getting rid of social security and medicare altogether, though she said her thinking has since evolved.

“It is rich for her to lecture us progressives who have been progressives our entire lives by someone who was a lifelong Republican,” Johnson said.

Councilmember Lander, who mentioned the New York Times endorsement he recently received at least twice during the debate, also took aim at Johson over the course of the night, criticizing him for the delayed report on sexual harassment in the city council and for not showing up to executive budget hearings.

The city wants a comptroller who, “actually issues audits not who buries them,” Lander said.

“Brad is trying to use something to score political points,” Johnson retorted.

NYPD Budget

The NYPD’s budget is the third largest city agency and yet the current comptroller Scott Stringer has only audited the department twice in his tenure, looking at small programs within the department rather than an overarching look at spending. With police reform and a surge in increase in gun violence taking center stage in the mayor’s race, comptroller candidates were asked to weigh in on how they would approach financial oversight of the department.

“We haven’t had a full-scale audit of the NYPD. It hasn’t happened in modern memory,” Caruso-Cabrera said. “It’s been limited…We gotta do a full-scale audit.”

Assemblymember Weprin, who’s received the backing of several police unions, said he wasn’t “a fan of the defund the police movement,” adding, “it’s actually leading to a public safety crisis.”

State Senator Brian Benjamin, who’s made a top-down look at NYPD spending the heart of his comptroller campaign, pressed Weprin on how he could be trusted to audit the police department with the backing of police unions. “I will audit every city agency every year,” Weprin said, adding NYPD retirees account for 20% of the city’s pension funds. “They felt I was the most qualified person.”

Iscol, who’s advocated for auditing how the city addresses specific issues like homelessness or gun violence, rather than looking at certain agencies, said he’d be working with the mayor and City Council to, “identify programs and ways that we can get guns off the streets.”

Who’s Been A Manager Before

The city comptroller oversees a budget of more than $100 million and has a staff of more than 700 workers and managing a large workplace effectively is a big part of the job. Candidates were asked how many workers they had overseen, revealing Zach Iscol, who oversaw a team of around 1,200 while running the Javits Medical Center last year during the height of COVID-19 and State Senator Brian Benjamin, who ran an affordable housing development company for seven years before holding public office, had managed the largest number of employees.

Early voting runs from June 12th to June 20th and Primary Day is on June 22nd. Read more of our election coverage here.