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Comptroller and Public Advocate Races: What You Need to Know

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Public Advocate Jumaane Williams

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This article is adapted from our weekly Civic Newsroom newsletter, which is sent out every Tuesday. You can sign up here to get it or fill out the form at the bottom of this post.

There are just five weeks left until the city’s primaries (June 22, remember?). Do you have your ranked choice voting strategy down? Do you know who is running for City Council in your neighborhood? Do you know if you’re set to cast your ballot? Yes, a lot of questions.

And here’s one more thing to mull before you head to the polls: Do you have a good handle on the not-quite mayors of New York?

We’re talking about the two other officials elected by voters across the city, but who get just a small fraction of the attention: comptroller and public advocate.

We’ve heard from a lot of readers who want even more information about down-ballot races — that is, contests that aren’t about the mayor — ahead of the June 22 primary.

So, let’s look at why you should care about those two offices with some help from people who have been there: Bill Thompson, who served as comptroller from 2002 to 2009 and is now the chair of the City University of New York, and Betsy Gotbaum, current executive director of the Citizens Union and public advocate between 2001 and 2009.

Let’s start with the comptroller: Here’s what they do and why you should care

The comptroller is the chief financial officer for New York City. But Thompson also sees the office as “the chief counterbalance to the mayor” in terms of its size, power and responsibilities.

“The comptroller really is the second-highest citywide elected office,” he said — even though, technically, the public advocate steps in if the mayor can’t serve (more on that later).

The comptroller audits every city agency and oversees how they are spending money, and manages the city’s five pension funds, worth more than $250 billion combined. The office must also approve every legal settlement the city makes — from police misconduct cases to “slip and falls,” Thompson said, describing injury claims — as well as all city contracts. 

To do all of this, the office employs a staff of about 800.

All of those duties add up to giving the comptroller a wide lens on issues facing the city, and control over a lot of information. An effective comptroller can wield that power as a check on City Hall, Thompson said.

“You have a bully pulpit. You have the opportunity to talk about things that impact the lives of New Yorkers,” he said.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The current comptroller, Scott Stringer, is running for mayor. The last former comptroller to serve as mayor was Abe Beame, who was elected to the city’s top job in 1973.

What makes for a good comptroller?

Comptrollers have come from a variety of backgrounds in the past, and the candidates up for election this year are no different. The slate includes the outgoing City Council speaker, a term-limited City Council member, a former financial journalist for CNBC, a state senator and a former investment banker.

Thompson does not plan to make an endorsement in the race, but believes whoever takes the job must “come in with a vision” on how they would use the power of the office, be aggressive — and be prepared for inevitable conflict with City Hall.

“There is natural tension between the offices,” he said. “There has to be. If there’s no tension, you’re not doing your job.”

Who’s running?

Currently there are 10 Democratic candidates, one Republican candidate and one candidate from the Conservative Party. You can see a list of the candidates here and read a little more about this history of the position in a previous guide we’ve written.

Now for the public advocate. Here’s what they do, and why you should care

The public advocate is “the ombudsman for the city,” said Gotbaum, and, crucially, the person who would take over at City Hall if the mayor cannot carry out his or her duties.

In the office’s relatively short history — it was created in 1993 via revisions to the City Charter — the public advocate has never had to step in for the mayor. Day to day, the office serves as a watchdog for citizens, trying to shine a light on problems through news conferences, protests or published reports — and helping New Yorkers deal with all kinds of issues.

To Gotbaum, helping people tackle problems through “constituent services” was her top priority. 

“You concentrate on calls coming in from citizens about what problems they have,” she said. “To me, that was the key job of the public advocate.”

Election Guide

THE CITY Helps You Navigate the 2021 Elections

Our guide is here to make your decisions easier, with details on candidates, the jobs they’re running for, how to use the new ranked-choice voting system and more.

If she got reports of issues with water bills, she’d call up the head of the agency in charge of the billing to see what was going on, she said. Or when the schools chancellor abruptly changed the school bus routes in 2007, angering parents across the city, Gotbaum repeatedly called out the Department of Education.

(We previously wrote about folks in local government you might want to call up to “yell” at about something. The public advocate is one of those.)

The public advocate also has a vote on the board of one of five public employee pension funds — a huge system where investment choices have been used to reflect the politics of the city, such as the recent divestment from the fossil fuel industry — and can introduce or co-sponsor bills in the City Council.

What makes a good public advocate?

The office is what you make of it, Gotbaum said, and will be shaped by the style and personality of whomever is elected. For example, those who held the office after she did went after bad-actor landlords with the Worst Landlords List — a project started by Letitia James and continued by the current public advocate, Jumaane Williams. 

Some public advocates have been “attack dogs,” she said — which is not Gotbaum’s personal style, but can be “very effective.”

Being aggressive, however, can come back to bite you, Gotbaum added — since the office the public advocate is criticizing the most, the mayor, pulls the pursestrings.

“You’re the watchdog, and the person you’re watching has control over your budget,” she said.

Mark Green, the city’s first public advocate, waged an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2001, losing to Mike Bloomberg. Bill de Blasio is the only former public advocate elected mayor. For James, the post became a springboard to state attorney general.

Who’s running?

Currently there are two Democratic candidates — including Williams — one Republican candidate and one independent candidate. You can see a list of the candidates here and read a little more about the position.

The first official mayoral debate was last week, did you watch?

If not, don’t worry. We wrote this recap to catch you up. The top eight Democratic candidates squared off and fielded questions about public safety, policing, small businesses, economic recovery, education and homelessness from NY1’s Errol Louis, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and THE CITY’s own Josefa Velásquez. You can still go back and watch the whole thing here if you want, otherwise you’ll have more opportunities to hear from the candidates soon. 

Upcoming debates sponsored by the city Campaign Finance Board

  • Wednesday, May 26, at 7 p.m. — Republican Mayoral on Spectrum News NY1
  • Wednesday, June 2, at 7 p.m. — Democratic Mayoral on WABC-TV
  • Sunday, June 6, (time TBD) — Republican Mayoral “Leading Contenders” on WABC-TV
  • Thursday, June 10, at 7 p.m. — Democratic Comptroller on Spectrum News NY1
  • Wednesday, June 16, at 7 p.m. — Democratic Mayoral “Leading Contenders” on WNBC-TV
  • Sunday, June 20 at 9:30 a.m. — Democratic Comptroller “Leading Contenders” on WNBC-TV

Other primary-related events

Monday, May 24, at 8 p.m. — Brooklyn Public Library City Council District 48 Candidate Forum

Key dates

  • May 28: Last day to register to vote in New York (sorry, the date to switch your party has long passed.) Not sure if you’re registered? Go here.
  • June 12: Early voting beings
  • June 22: Primary day

A few more resources

  • Need to figure out what City Council district you live in? Look here.
  • Need to figure out who’s running for City Council in your district? Check out this map.
  • Need to know how ranked choice voting works? Here’s our breakdown.
  • Need to request an absentee ballot? Go here.
  • Trying to figure out who is exactly on the ballot? We got you.

What are your election questions?

If you have any questions about the election process or any other information when it comes to voting in New York, let us know by sending a note to civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc.

What we’re reading

You can sign up to get these updates to your email inbox or as a text message every Tuesday here.

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