Decision 2021

NYC Comptroller Candidates Square Off in Final Democratic Primary Debate

Watch the entire one-hour debate below

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New York City's top Democratic contenders vying to become the city's next fiscal watchdog squared off in a final debate this week.

Eight candidates took the debate stage to make their case for why they should be the next comptroller. The participants were Brian Benjamin, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, Zachary Iscol, Corey Johnson, Brad Lander, Kevin Parker, Reshma Patel, and David Weprin.

WNBC-TV co-hosted the debate with Telemundo 47/WNJU-TV, POLITICO, Citizens Budget Commission, and New York Urban League. 

Who will manage the city's money and be the city's fiscal watchdog? That's the question the eight candidates tried to answer over the course of an hour.

The comptroller investigates fraud and abuse, provides budget oversight, and oversees pubic pension funds. As the city emerges from the pandemic, it faces a budget gap the Citizen's Budget Commission estimates to be $5 billion.

The debate kicked off with a request to each candidate to grade New York City's financial health. Most candidates on stage issued a critical grade, the most favorable grade reached a B-, while other candidates issued an F or incomplete.

Next, the candidates were asked to identify a city agency that has the most bloated budget, in their opinion. Benjamin, Caruso-Cabrera, Patel, and Weprin all pointed to the Department of Education, while Parker said the NYPD, Johnson identified the Department of Homeless Services, Lander selected the Department of Correction and Iscol would not identify a single agency.

Top Democratic candidates in the race for New York City comptroller debate ahead of the June 22 primary.

Few jabs were delivered between the debate candidates during the packed hour, but a couple took a shot and interrupted their competitor. Caruso-Cabrera and Lander each took that opportunity to aim critiques at Johnson.

"It is really easy to stand up here and rail against the budget when you have not had to make difficult decisions," Johnson fired back at Caruso-Cabrera who tried to take a shot at the council speaker's budget experience. The two mostly talked over one another before moderators moved on to the next topic.

Cuts to the New York City Police Department continue to be a contentious topic permeating most races in the June 22 primary. Benjamin, Lander and Parker told the moderators they would support additional cuts to the police department budget.

“Every comptroller in recent memory has run for mayor, and cynics say this is just stepping stone job for ambitious politicians. Looking into the crystal ball and raise your hand if you will rule out running for mayor in the future,” WNBC Anchor David Ushery asked the debate stage.

Johnson, who suspended his campaign for mayor last fall citing mental health challenges, raised his hand, as did five of the other candidates. Only Iscol and Benjamin did not raise a rand, the latter adding "I'm just being honest."

In a lighter round of questioning, candidates answered what they personally spend too much money on. Here were their replies:

  • Brian Benjamin: Music
  • David Weprin: Six grandchildren
  • Brad Lander: Coffee and seltzer
  • Reshma Patel: Niece and nephew
  • Kevin Parker: Traveling
  • Michelle Caruso-Cabrera: Nephew
  • Zachary Iscol: Roblox game
  • Corey Johnson: Takeout food

Panel moderators include WNBC 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. news anchor David Ushery, WNBC political reporter Melissa Russo, WNJU morning news anchor and host of “Enfoque Nueva York” Allan Villafana, and Sally Goldenberg, City Hall Bureau Chief for Politico New York. 

The debate was filmed from WNBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center studios with strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols, including temperature checks, rapid testing and social distancing. 

The broadcast will include a sign-language interpreter and closed captioning access for the hearing impaired. The broadcast will also be translated into Spanish for WNJU audiences. 

Early voting sites close Sunday evening before primary day on June 22.

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