Four City Council members are passing up the chance to run an easy race for re-election this year — a right they recently gained through term-limit changes — to run for city comptroller, arguably one of the toughest city jobs in this struggling economic climate.
Democrats Melinda Katz, John Liu, David Weprin, all of Queens, and Brooklyn’s David Yassky, will face off in September’s primary, with the winner almost assured victory in November. There is not yet a Republican candidate. Incumbent William Thompson is running for mayor.
Each candidate is completing a second full term in the Council after being elected following the mandated term limit turnover of the body in 2001. Only Katz held prior elected office, serving in the state Assembly from 1994-1998.
With about equal name recognition and similar backgrounds there is no early advantage.
“The race is a toss-up now,” says Democratic political consultant Michael Tobman, who is not involved in the comptroller’s race.
In interviews this week, the four candidates cited their experience and credentials for the job and how they would utilize its powers.
Katz, 43, said she would work to ensure that federal stimulus money was spent wisely.
“Whatever agency, or programs the money is allocated to should first and foremost have to show how they are going to produce jobs and long-term economic stimulus in the city,” says Katz. She added that she would also use the power of the city’s pension fund investments to create jobs.
“We need to put a percentage aside from the pension investments to companies that will dedicate and establish how we are going to create more jobs for New York, and use it as an incentive for more companies to create more jobs in our city. The power of pension can do amazing things.”
She said she also wants a percentage of the money to go toward distressed debt companies so that they would not lose workers.
Katz cited her background in mergers and acquisitions as a private lawyer. “I have a propensity for restructuring companies. The comptroller’s job is utilizing powers to create the most efficient agencies possible.”
Liu, 42, said he’d be a “pit bull” in carrying out the comptroller’s watchdog role.
“There is more than ever critical need of an independently elected watchdog in the comptrollers office. I’ll be that pit bull. I’ll be looking closely at the stimulus funding to make sure there is no waste or fraud.”
He noted that he was a manager at Price Waterhouse Coopers with experience in financial models and cash-flow analysis.
“For me it’s always been about maximizing accountability and optimizing results,” said Liu, the first Chinese American elected to the City Council. “The two go hand in hand.”
Liu chairs the Council’s Transportation Committee. If elected he said he would “work toward a much more vigorous five-borough economic plan and diversify our city economy and work to end our near total dependence on Wall Street.”
Weprin, 55, who chairs the Council’s Finance Committee, was deputy superintendent of banking under Gov. Mario Cuomo from 1983 to 1987. He worked for 18 years in private investment firms prior to holding elected office.
“I’m the only candidate in the race that has both public- and private -sector financial experience,” said Weprin, asserting that his track record of fighting the Bloomberg administration would prepare him for being a fiscal watchdog.
“I’ve taken on the mayor on a number of budget issues and I fought him on the retroactive revocation of the property tax break, on congestion pricing and tolls on the bridges, of which I was a leading opponent.”
Weprin said the office is too centralized in Manhattan. “I’d like to see in each of the five boroughs a liaison, mostly financial and contract-related.”
He added that, because of humanitarian concerns, he would work to divest the city’s pension funds, estimated about $80 billion, from companies doing business with Iran and Sudan.
Yassky, 45, who chairs the Council’s Small Business Committee, was an aide to Charles Schumer, then a member of the House, and served as chief counsel to the subcommittee on crime chaired by Schumer. He also taught at Brooklyn Law School.
Yassky says he’s running because “we need to squeeze every bit of productivity and service out of taxpayer dollars and we have to make sure the private sector sees New York as a good place to do business so we can replace some of the 30,000 jobs we’re losing. I have the background to do that as comptroller.”
Yassky has raised the least funds for his campaign as of the March 16 filing with the Campaign Finance Board, with $1,546,120. Liu leads the pack with $3,136,193, followed by Katz with $2,210,283 and $2,088,131 for Weprin. But Yassky says the fact that he’s spent the least, $322,000 so far, boosts his fiscal credentials.
“With the cap, it’s not a question of who is going to spend more: We’re all going to spend the same. The question is who is going to spend the smartest. We’re saving our resources for the heart of the campaign, when it matters most.”
“Each of the candidates can argue a compelling advantage,” says Tobman, the political consultant.
“Melinda is the only woman in a crowded primary field that favors females; Yassky is the only candidate from vote-rich Brooklyn; Liu has a definite in with communities of color; and Weprin has deep family ties that can yield important endorsements,” Tobman noted. “What’s especially interesting is that DavidYassky’s agenda and accomplishments have been generally consistent with Manhattan prtiorities, but there is no standard bearer from that borough. And who can pull in the Bronx?”
There’s little good news when you look at the state budget these days. But the agreement reached last week by Legislative leaders has less bad news for social services than anticipated.
“In relation to what could have been, it’s a good budget,” said Ron Soloway, managing director of external and government relations for UJA-Federation. “The Legislature recognized how many people were vulnerable.”
Last year officials at the federation were concerned about the possibility of nursing homes shutting down. This year they’re just worried about maintaining them.
“Our hospitals, nursing homes and home care agencies took significant budget reductions that will clearly have an effect on the quality of care,” said Soloway. “I don’t think we’re talking about having to close, but it surely means significant layoffs.”
On the human services side, most of the budget reductions proposed by Gov. David Paterson were restored, except for funding for residential treatment facilities.
Workers in several programs contracted by the state won’t get cost-of-living adjustments, but at least they have their jobs.
The cuts were reversed in large part because of the federal stimulus package aid to New York of $6 billion over two years, which raises concerns about what will happen if the state’s economy isn’t turned around by 2011. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has called it a “buy-time budget” that is “not a long-term solution” to the Empire State’s big-spending ways.
“The hope of course is that the economy gets better,” said Soloway. “If not there may be even more serious problems potentially than we have today.”