Last week, Politico deemed New York City comptroller Brad Lander to be mayor Eric Adams’s official “archrival.” Politico noted several anti-administration stances Lander has taken, including pushing for a stop to homeless encampment clean-ups. Notably missing from that list were demands for more budgetary restraint.
Lander, whose 2021 campaign enjoyed support from Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is the most progressive comptroller in New York history. But he is not unusual in abjuring the fiscal-watchdog duties of his office. That has become an inglorious tradition in New York politics.
The most famous comptroller in city history is Abe Beame, who served two non-consecutive terms in the 1960s and early 1970s. In modern New York, it’s a given that every comptroller runs for mayor, but only Beame succeeded. A CPA, Beame campaigned for mayor on the slogan “he knows the buck.” As it turned out, he may have known the buck too well. The 1970s fiscal crisis, which hit during Beame’s one-term mayoralty, was partly his creation. As comptroller, he had sanctioned the use of budget gimmicks that papered over the city’s escalating gap between revenues and expenditures. New York City’s twenty-first-century comptrollers have come into office without much in the way of financial expertise. Beame’s example shows how financial expertise may not be the most valuable quality for the job.
For the recent comptrollers—John Liu, Scott Stringer, and Lander—gimmickry has been less the issue than an inordinate devotion toward causes of dubious benefit to the city’s bond rating. Examples include boosting big labor, raising the minimum wage, reigning in ICE, and holding the line on bail reform. No recent city comptroller has cultivated a green-eyeshade political brand, though other politicians have sought to do so, even in blue America.
Thomas DiNapoli, for example, has served as comptroller of the state of New York since 2007. DiNapoli, it’s fair to say, is more concerned about public-employee, Medicaid, and pension fraud, excessive government debt, and municipal fiscal distress than any other Albany Democrat. He has avoided social distractions more than his counterparts at the city level. He has not faced a competitive challenger since 2010.
Ron Galperin is a liberal who served as Los Angeles city controller for two terms before being turned out by term limits last year. He made quite a name for himself through his trenchant audits of L.A. homelessness programs. These reports, covered extensively in the local press, exerted great influence over public opinion as to why Los Angeles is spending more than ever on homelessness, and seeing scant results.
The cases of Galperin and DiNapoli show that, even in a deep-blue political context, a comptroller focused on fiscal responsibility may distinguish himself as a voice, not an echo. Being a budget scold may not light a path to higher office, but it is far from politically suicidal. The comptroller terms of Liu and Stringer, to the extent they’re remembered, are associated mainly with failed mayoral runs. Thus, viewing the question narrowly in terms of political self-interest, comptrollers risk irrelevance by blending in with the progressive echo chamber.
If Lander keeps putting out anti-administration reports geared mainly toward putting the “troll” in comptroller, he risks turning his office into a more professional version of the public advocate—a constitutionally useless office. If a public advocate fails at his duties . . . well, it’s not even clear what failure would even mean for the “public appendix.” But the comptroller’s failures lead toward fiscal unrestraint and an impoverished public understanding of the condition of the budget.
True, leaving aside the comptroller, the city budget faces unique constraints that came as a legacy of the 1970s fiscal crisis: GAAP-based budgeting and the Financial Control Board. DiNapoli’s office oversees city finances. Perhaps these other oversight pressures have liberated city comptrollers to pursue their mayoral dreams. In other ways, though, New York’s need for a more forthrightly fiscally responsible comptroller has become more acute in the current era, in which every Democratic politician lives in fear of getting primaried from the left. The local media, while far more robust than that of any other U.S. city’s, is a shadow of its former self. A comptroller with formal auditing powers has easier access than any private entity to examine and publicize government waste.
“Politics” is not necessarily the problem here. The New York City Independent Budget Office (a city agency established by the 1989 charter reform) publishes excellent reports. But they’re more neglected than they should be, owing to the IBO’s nonpartisan cast. As James Madison explained in Federalist #51, political ambition can serve as one of democracy’s most valuable regulatory agents when it counteracts more harmful ambitions. The comptroller has a bully pulpit that reaches the entire city and the elected official’s motivation to use it for shameless self-promotion. All of that is—or could be—a good thing.
Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images