While the job of comptroller rests on managing the dry dollars and cents of New York City’s $90 billion budget, a lively and sometimes loud debate Thursday night gave eight Democratic contenders an opportunity to stand out to voters.

One running theme for participants in the Zoom debate, which THE CITY co-hosted with NY1 and WNYC/Gothamist: elbow the front-runner, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who’s currently leading in polls.

NY1’s Errol Louis moderated, joined by panelists Brigid Bergin of WNYC and Rachel Holliday Smith of THE CITY.

During a cross-examination portion, in which candidates were able to ask a rival a question, half of the eight questions were directed at Johnson.

Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) asked why Johnson had not attended a single City Council budget hearing this year and commissioned a $200,000 audit of sexual harassment polices that, after more than two years, has not seen the light of day.

In perhaps the most heated, extended exchange of the night, Johnson and Lander talked over one another, with the speaker accusing his Council colleague of trying to “confuse voters” with attacks on his budget record. Johnson also said the audit he commissioned had been delayed because of the pandemic, but is on the way.

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC financial journalist, questioned Johnson’s progressive bonafides and criticized him for overseeing a budgeting process that grew the city’s spending by $20 billion during the speaker’s time on the Council. 

She asked Johnson how voters could trust him as comptroller when his work in the Council resulted in what she called “poor outcomes.”

Johnson fired back questions about Caruso-Cabrera’s previous voter registration as a Republican, “which tells you everything you need to know” about her track record, he said. She shot back, insisting she’s evolved, is pro-choice and a “proud Democrat” who supports LGBTQ rights. (Johnson reminded her that he’s gay.)

State Sens. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan) and Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn), Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens), entrepreneur and military vet Zach Iscol and Reshma Patel, president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club of Manhattan, also participated. 

Each touted their respective financial savvy and management experience as qualifying them to oversee the city’s spending and steward $250 billion in public pension funds.

Policing the Police

As at this year’s mayoral debates, candidates carefully positioned themselves on thorny public safety questions amid rising crime.

Nearly a year ago, the Council passed a budget that promised to shift $1 billion away from the New York Police Department — with results that several candidates said fell short of expectations.

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Lander, Benjamin, Johnson, and Parker all indicated they’d focus audits on the NYPD in an effort to examine spending and policies, with an eye to evaluating how programs and initiatives the city is pouring money into are working. Caruso-Cabrera committed to auditing the department every quarter.

Patel said her audit would spotlight how the NYPD’s budget has increased over the past five years and suggest where to make cuts. Weprin disagreed that the NYPD’s budget needed cuts, noting that attrition and staffing changes had already reduced the force. 

Iscol pointed out the difficulty of auditing the NYPD because of the many bank accounts holding its money. He said he’d work with the new mayor to find ways to address the “plague of gun violence” in the city by investing in youth programs — an answer that got a nod of approval from Johnson and echoed answers by Lander and Patel.

They Can All Agree

No candidate suggested any drastic change in the direction of the comptroller’s office, which has been headed for the last eight years by mayoral candidate Scott Stringer.

Little daylight shone between each of their plans, which emphasized working with the mayor when needed while still holding his office accountable.

Most candidates pushed for more frequent audits of departments, which are now required once every four years.

All but Weprin stressed that they would manage pension funds toward social and moral goals, such as divestment in fossil fuel holdings, without jeopardizing financial returns. 

Only Weprin stressed that fiscal responsibility would be his prime concern. Seven of the eight candidates — save for Weprin — agreed when asked whether to audit the city’s “parking placard program,” although there is no single governing program for the city-issued and often abused permits.

And every candidate wanted the comptroller’s office to continue grading public agencies’ diversity and inclusion progress, raise the prevailing wage and keep the outdoor restaurants program that allows sheds in parking spaces.

Two candidates, Terri Liftin and Alex Pan, did not meet fundraising thresholds needed to participate in the debate, which was sponsored by the city Campaign Finance Board.

The “leading contenders,” with the strongest fundraising and polling numbers, will debate again on WNBC-TV on Saturday, June 20, just two days before primary day and more than a week after early voting starts on June 12.