Two polar political opposites want to be city comptroller

By Tom Allon

Most New Yorkers don’t know what the city comptroller does, much less be able to spell the archaic title.

But New York City’s chief financial officer is arguably the second-most important elected office in city government, and it will likely become even more important and powerful in 2014.

Elected leaders often derive their power from whatever defined duties they are supposed to have, but occasionally the ambitious and crafty politician figures out how to make the office more powerful.

We’ve seen a number of instances of this in the past decade, most notably Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who used his executive powers to reshape the city’s zoning, parkland, policing, transportation, public health policy and education system in a way that will unlikely be duplicated by his successor.

And the two different men running for comptroller, Eliot Spitzer and Scott Stringer, have a history of re-imagining previously toothless jobs to make them more potent.

Spitzer’s tenure as state attorney general from 2002-06 was a groundbreaking one, where he became the “Sheriff of Wall Street” and uncovered arcane laws like the Martin Act to broaden his powers to crack down on perceived corruption in the financial sector.

Like a crusading U.S. attorney from two decades earlier named Rudolph Giuliani, Spitzer’s ambitious — and some would say, at times, overreaching — stint as the state’s top law enforcement official earned him many enemies on Wall Street, some grudging respect from political insiders and enough name recognition and political capital to vault him to the governor’s mansion.

Although it all came crashing down two years later in a personal scandal that was jaw-dropping in its shock value and tawdriness, no one will ever question Elliot Spitzer’s intellect, drive and ambition to be a game-changing public servant.

It is his hubris, which even he admits to, that gets in his way, and it remains to be seen whether five years in the political wilderness — and two ill-fated television stints — will humble him enough in his audacious comeback bid.

What is fascinating about Spitzer is that he comes from enormous wealth and the hallowed precincts of Princeton and Harvard Law School, yet he is a ruthless class warrior who seems to relish going after men who must be a lot like his extremely driven and successful father, Bernard Spitzer.

Just ask Hank Greenberg, former head of insurance firm AIG, and Ken Langone, former owner of hardware giant Home Depot, and you’ll hear two men who are bent on keeping Spitzer out of the political arena forever.

Stringer is Spitzer’s polar political opposite in many ways. If Stringer were a children’s fable character, he’d be the tortoise in the famous parable. Slow and steady, he has shrewdly climbed the political ladder and has mostly exceeded expectations.

In the state Assembly, while a loyal team player on Shelly Silver’s tight Democratic conference, he took a chance and pushed for reform along with the Brennan Center that shook up Albany’s ossified Legislature a bit.

As Manhattan borough president the last eight years, he’s reinvented that office to be a conciliator and triangulator on land-use issues and food justice policies as well as other progressive causes. If Woody Allen is right that 90 percent of life is just showing up, the ubiquitous and tireless Stringer earns strong reviews for his work.

But Stringer, unlike Spitzer, was born on the other side of the tracks — Washington Heights, to Spitzer’s silver spoon, Fifth Avenue upbringing. Stringer went to rough and tumble JFK High School and John Jay College and has learned the political game from his mentor, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

It will be enlightening — we hope — to hear Stringer and Spitzer debate their visions and qualifications for this important financial watchdog job.

The next mayor will inherit a fraught financial situation: The city’s annual budget has ballooned to $70 billion, property taxes have skyrocketed the past decade, all city union contracts expired years ago and there is the looming prospect of retroactive pay.

Having a strong comptroller who will balance the interests of taxpayers and city workers will be incredibly important as we lurch into a likely budget battle in 2014. The next mayor will need a strong chief financial officer who can maximize our pension returns — anything will be better than current Comptroller John Liu’s lousy 1.8 percent returns in an up market — who can make sure the city’s many outsourced contracts don’t devolve into another Citytime debacle ($800 million of wasted taxpayer money) and who will help make sure the city budget stops spiraling upward and drives up property taxes (the only tax the mayor essentially controls).

So forget about who is more moral or a better husband in the comptroller’s race. Voters should listen to the ideas and budgetary and fiscal visions of the candidates. We are electing a financial watchdog in the comptroller’s race, not seeing who’s a bigger saint.

After all, in politics, as in life, we all have private failings.

Tom Allon, a former public school teacher, is president of City & State media and a former Republican and Liberal Party-backed candidate for mayor. Questions or comments? E-mail tallon@cityandstateny.com.

More from Around New York