When Comptroller Candidates Attack

Early on the morning of June 16, Melinda Katz, John Liu, David Weprin and David Yassky, the four Democratic candidates hoping to succeed Bill Thompson as city comptroller, gathered in the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown and attempted to add zest to talk about municipal finance.

The forum was the candidates’ first and last chance to debate each other directly, and they wasted no time in setting themselves apart from their fellow candidates and scuffling directly with one another.

Before the debate began, Liu set what proved to be the sometimes edgy tone of the morning by thanking the moderators, Edward-Isaac Dovere of City Hall and Michael Scotto of NY1, for allowing the four candidates to appear onstage together. He added, deadpan, “We’ve become really good friends these past few months,” earning snickers from his rivals and raised eyebrows (literally) from aides frantically emailing on their BlackBerrys. 

The candidates were first asked what they would do differently from Thompson. Katz answered diplomatically, praising Thompson’s diversification of pension funds and adding that she would “truly use the power of the investment in order to get more than a balance sheet back.” Liu voiced the need to take a “very, very close look at how the Department of Education operates with its finances and some of the procedures it follows,” and added that “there are not enough checks and balances with regard to the Department of Education.” Weprin called for comptroller offices in all five boroughs, and bemoaned the difficulty of gaining access to Thompson’s current offices at 1 Centre Street, even as a councilman. Yassky shared his plan to get rid of wasteful spending and focused on cutting back energy consumption, adding that he would put 5 percent of the city’s portfolio into green technology.

Following this round of abridged stump speechifying, the talons came out—relatively speaking; this was a comptroller debate, after all—when the discussion turned to such issues as last spring’s Council slush-fund scandal and the candidates’ support of Tier 5 and placement managers.

Katz, Liu and Weprin were all firm in their rejection of Tier 5, but Yassky dissented, stating: “I don’t think we should take anything off the table. I’m not a George W. Bush that says, ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’’” Weprin glowered as Yassky railed against those responsible for the slush-fund scandal, encouraging New Yorkers to be “outraged and disgusted about what apparently happened to the state pension funds” under former comptroller Alan Hevesi. 

While Katz made it clear that she supported the ban of placement agents due to the “clear crisis in confidence among the people of the city of New York” following the scandal, the men were not so quick to make such a definitive statement. Liu conceded that “bad news came out about placement managers” but argued that this “doesn’t necessarily mean we should get rid of them.” Yassky admitted that placement agents have a “real possibility for mischief” but can have value for small funds, not “the Carlyles of the world.”

  The candidates had lots to say each others’ long-term political ambitions.

“As far as ambition and stepping stones,” Liu confronted Yassky with a smirk, “you’ve got to admit, this is like the fifth office you’ve run for.” Yassky did not return the smile. He counted off the offices on his fingers and held up three, repeating tersely, “It’s three. But five is close to three.”

Weprin interrupted him to say, to much laughter and applause, that Liu had previously run for public advocate. (Liu originally planned to run for public advocate before declaring for comptroller.) From her temporary peanut gallery, Katz piped in: “As the only woman here, and since most teachers are women, can I ask for a detention for these men?”

Liu argued, defensively, that he “lived and breathed” finance before becoming a councilman and said that seeking a third-term, Bloomberg-style, would be “an abysmal assault on democracy.” Yassky expressed enthusiasm for the comptroller job by saying it allows “someone who is deeply into policy” to have “as big an impact as pretty much any job in the city, save,” of course, “the mayor.”

The candidates continued to tussle when they were permitted to ask each other questions directly. Yassky in particular produced his queries in the form of mini-speeches, elaborating on his policy plans and asking, as Dovere rushed him along, whether or not the candidate he was grilling would support his proposals on, among other initiatives, energy efficiency.

Liu called Katz’s proposal of a total ban on placement managers a “knee-jerk reaction.” He seemed to be asking for just the kind of address Dovere prohibited when he called into question Yassky’s “actual financial” experience, to which Yassky replied with a two-minute run-down of all his work with the city budget. Liu asked Yassky to name two Fortune 100 companies he represented as a lawyer. Yassky named four.

At the end of the debate, Weprin, responding to his fellow candidates’ reminders to the audience of his role as Finance Committee chairman during the slush-fund scandal, committed one last act of aggression. He called into question Yassky’s consistency on the Atlantic Yards Project. Yassky was quick to clarify that his support was for an arena in downtown Brooklyn, but not for the 60-story buildings accompanying that arena. Yassky also claimed that “none of the facts” that Weprin slung at him were correct.

“Well, correct me,” Weprin said, testily. “Well, I will,” Yassky said, grinning.

As Dovere concluded the forum and the candidates shook hands stiffly, he joked with the crowd: “Who says municipal finance can’t be exciting?”