What Does a Comptroller Actually Do?

Could Eliot Spitzer really reinvent the job?

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Reuters

In this adorable little video spoofing Jay Leno's awkward man-on-the-street interviews, a faceless microphone wanders the streets of New York inviting random people to display their ignorance. "Do you know," the man behind the mic wants to know, "what a comptroller does"? (Best tentative answer: "Maybe control the city's computers?")

David Yassky, who ran for the office in New York City four years ago, eventually turns up to fill us all in, for which we are eternally grateful this week (even if he didn't end up getting that job). We've been batting around this same question for the last two days, since former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who left office five years ago amid a prostitution scandal, announced he would resurrect his political career with a bid for this municipal office few people completely understand.

To recap: The comptroller is like the city's accountant. He certifies city budgets, approves city contracts, audits city agencies, and – this is a biggie – invests the municipal pension funds. In New York City, the comptroller's office has sway over some $140 billion in assets in five pension funds. That's an awful lot of leverage that Spitzer apparently thinks he can use to spar with his old opponent as the state's attorney general: Wall Street.

Spitzer actually wrote a piece for Slate two years ago sketching a strategy for how courageous comptrollers could become the front-line warriors in the Occupy battle with Wall Street. It's no surprise that the nakedly ambitious Spitzer is hoping to turn what's widely viewed as a "low-wattage office" into something much more powerful. He told the New York Times he "had re-envisioned the often-overlooked office" during his time in the political wilderness.

In Spitzer's eyes, the job becomes both a platform for influencing the financial sector beyond the city's books, and a guarantor of better government (it's likely that the people who currently think they have these jobs, like the mayor, and city council members, won't appreciate this). According to the Times:

Mr. Spitzer, who built a national reputation as a zealous watchdog of Wall Street while attorney general, imagines transforming the comptroller’s office into a robust agency that would not merely monitor and account for city spending, as it does now, but also conduct regular inquiries into the effectiveness of government policies in areas like high school graduation rates.

A lot of people aren't buying Spitzer's zeal for the job in and of itself (we are also not buying his insistence that he encounters New Yorkers on the street "all the time" who urge him to get back into government). This is quite possibly just the best way for him to re-enter politics, not the best job in New York City he suddenly realized he wanted.

But it's also possible, regardless of his motives, that Spitzer might be good at it (to win the job, he has to get through a field that oddly includes libertarian candidate Kristin Davis, the "Manhattan Madam" who was linked to his prostitution scandal). Josh Barro makes the case at Business Insider that Spitzer would be a healthy departure from the Democratic machine politicians who've historically kept the comptroller seat warm while waiting to run for mayor.

By definition, those people are seldom in position to really tackle the city's financial problems, or anger any of its unions, contractors or other interests. But given the current slate of candidates running for mayor in New York right now, Barrow writes, "a prominent shadow mayor could be very useful."

Top image of Eliot Spitzer campaigning in New York City on July 8th: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.