Whither the Comptrollers?
Two ghosts of the recent city past, if they choose, could make trouble for Eric Adams
Does anyone run for New York City comptroller and want to stay there? The answer, simply, is no. The city’s chief financial officer is the kind of post that, in a saner world, would probably not be subject to elections at all. A pencil pusher would efficiently manage the pension funds and audit city agencies in the shadows. But we don’t live in that world—in New York, comptrollers are elected citywide, and they are always hungry for something more.
Consider this list: Mario Procaccino, Abe Beame, Harrison Goldin, Elizabeth Holtzman, Alan Hevesi, Bill Thompson, John Liu, and Scott Stringer. These are the city comptrollers of the last half century and all but one ran for mayor of New York. Holtzman, the outlier, had been a famous congresswoman and district attorney who almost became a U.S. senator, and certainly would have ran for mayor had she not lost a primary to Hevesi in 1993. The current city comptroller, Brad Lander, is probably going to be a mayoral candidate someday.
A reader of this list will come to the conclusion that comptrollers run and lose. Only Beame, who did two stints in the office, ever became mayor, and he famously lost his re-election bid to Ed Koch in what remains the most star-studded municipal primary in modern times. But it’d be silly to make a rule out of this. Comptrollers certainly can win. Had Stringer, in 2021, not been accused of sexual misconduct—the charges were related to incidents that happened decades ago, and Stringer has since sued for defamation—he might have been elected mayor over Eric Adams. If it weren’t for a campaign finance scandal that crippled his bid and sent his treasurer to prison, Liu could have won in 2013. Liu himself was never charged.
In 2018, Liu launched a successful primary campaign against a conservative Democratic state senator who was aligned with a faction of Republicans in Albany. Since then, he’s served without any scandal, chairing an education committee and voting, generally, with progressives in the upper chamber. Stringer does not hold an elected office, though he mulled, briefly, his own State Senate comeback. At the minimum, Stringer is believed to be a future candidate for Jerry Nadler’s Manhattan congressional seat once Nadler retires. Stringer is Nadler’s protégé and has goodwill left among Manhattan Democrats.
But could either man run, once more, for the powerful offices they obviously coveted? A well-calibrated primary campaign could make Eric Adams, at the minimum, deeply uncomfortable, and drive him out of City Hall altogether if white liberals in Manhattan and left-leaning voters of the outer boroughs are organized into the same coalition. Recently, I wrote about the possibilities of Jamaal Bowman, the Westchester congressman and Manhattan native, and Kathryn Garcia, a top tier 2021 candidate, taking Adams on. The odds are still against them running. One-on-one primaries against mayors rarely end well and Adams, with his large war chest and deep ties to Black and Latino neighborhoods, will be a formidable opponent. A cynical and furious purveyor of identity politics, Adams is bound to racialize the campaign, and few Democrats have the stomach for that.
Stringer and Liu, though, could be up for that kind of fight.