There is a lot of talk about which contender in the crowded field of New York City mayoral candidates offers the boldest vision for bringing justice and equity to the nation’s largest municipality.
But the most striking agenda for the future of New York—and cities across the country—is actually coming from a candidate for the lower-profile position of city comptroller: Brad Lander.
An urban planner who made his reputation as an advocate for affordable housing and sustainable development, Lander has been an outspoken progressive leader on the New York City Council and nationally for more than a decade. In addition to being the cofounder of the council’s Progressive Caucus, he has served as chair of Local Progress, a network of more than 800 progressive local elected officials in 45 states. So it makes sense that Lander has reimagined a down-ballot office as a platform for supercharging the role of municipal government in promoting economic, social, and racial justice—and as a vehicle for achieving corporate responsibility so potent that Lander confidently declares, “I’ll hold corporations we invest in accountable for good governance, making sure they: take bold action on climate; protect workers rights, wages and safety; have diverse boardrooms and staff; pay women and people of color fairly.”
The person who occupies the comptroller’s office, historically seen as something of a bureaucratic sinecure, serves as the city’s chief financial officer, with defined duties that include auditing city agencies and overseeing the investment of pension funds. Lander, who got high marks for his work on participatory budgeting as a council member, is certainly up for the number crunching. Just this week, a New York Times endorsement hailed the veteran community organizer and activist as one of “the hardest-working and most effective public servants in the city.”
Another endorser, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is introducing Lander to New Yorkers in television ads where she announces, “Only one candidate for Comptroller, Brad Lander, knows that to deliver bold transformative change, you have to work for and with the people.”
What distinguishes Lander in not just the crowded field of contenders in the June 22 Democratic primary for the comptroller position but also the broader competition for top posts is the depth, energy, and boldness of his vision for the city. He is excited about the watchdog role of the comptroller’s office and relishes the fiduciary responsibility to protect city assets, including more than $250 billion in pension holdings. With this in mind, he argues that the city must invest in its own future.
Lander believes that the city can become a driver of innovation and change by leveraging the financial power and influence of the nation’s largest urban center to make real the progress that is often promised at election time but only rarely delivered.
With more than 20 specific proposals on everything from establishing a public bank to scaling up renewable public power and treating housing as a public good, Lander goes far beyond the talking points that are employed even by other candidates who have reputations as policy innovators. The comptroller candidate’s agenda is as detailed as that of any governor—which makes sense, as New York City has a bigger population than 38 states.
Lander argues that the moment demands an ambitious approach to urban revitalization.
“Even before the Covid crisis, we were already in a time of peril for our democracy. Gaping inequalities has left us fractured, and far from our ideals of equal justice or opportunity. Short-sighted politics have left us unprepared for crises,” explains Lander. “Now, we face the greatest challenges of our generation.”
The crisis revealed an even starker picture of the economic inequality and racial injustice that permeates society. With this in mind, Lander argues that “securing a just and durable recovery” requires a focus on doing more for the people who were hardest hit before the pandemic, who suffered the most during it, and who now must rebuild their lives.
“New York City is facing one of the greatest challenges in our history. We must confront the daunting fiscal reality caused by the Covid-19 crisis, and work towards an economic recovery that restores and renews what makes our city great, invests in a sustainable future for the next generation, and—mindful of the systemic racial inequities so sharply exposed by the crisis—shares those benefits in a far more equal way,” says Lander, who acknowledges, “We can’t imagine away the budget gaps, or rely on wishful thinking. Hard choices will be necessary.”
“But,” he adds, as part of a detailed “Just Recovery” platform,
shrinking services just at the time when New Yorkers need them most is both cruel social policy and bad economic policy. A full recovery will rely on robust federal investment from Washington (including a Green New Deal) and progressive revenue approaches in Albany. But NYC is not helpless. In past generations, our leaders helped to pioneer urban investments in clean water and public health, public transportation, the programs of the New Deal, public housing, and public higher education. Those investments were the platform for our city’s growth and success for over a century. Now, it’s our time to renew this forward-looking leadership.
That includes plans for investment in infrastructure and housing, and innovative social ownership strategies that embrace “new models for worker ownership and building worker power.” And, though there has been much talk about mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal for creating a “People’s Bank” to expand access to affordable financial services, Lander’s bold plan for establishing a public municipal bank in New York City is a good deal more compelling in its detail, scope, and ambition.
The comptroller candidate wants to build “an independently run institution that would take our tax dollars out of Wall Street banks and put them to work for local economic development, affordable housing, climate resilience and more.”
“Unlike Wall Street banks which focus on maximizing short-term profits, a Public Bank would take the long-term view, prioritizing New York City’s people, communities, and environment over profits to make sensible, low-risk loans that large corporate banks simply would not bother to make,” argues the Lander campaign. “A public bank would also have the capacity to partner with community-based credit unions and loan funds to expand access to high-quality financial services to those who often face barriers to banking such as undocumented immigrants, increasing New Yorkers’ access to affordable account, money transfer, and other banking services.”
It is that sort of thinking that this week led Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to endorse Lander as a candidate who “will stand up to special interests and demand the change working people need.” Sanders is not alone in that assessment. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren says, “Brad Lander has led big fights to pass some of the strongest laws in the country to expand rights for workers and people being left behind by our economy,” while New York Working Families Party Director Sochie Nnaemeka says, “For over a decade now, Brad has poured his energy into fighting for a New York for the many. We’re proud to continue to back a long-time leader of the Working Families Party, by elevating his impactful leadership as he keeps up the fight. As the next Comptroller, we know Brad will lead with a clear vision of budget justice and the conviction to move funds to the communities where they are most needed. Brad models what it means to bring the protest to the polls.”
The Nation has made no endorsement in the New York City comptroller’s race.