Spitzer's ambitious comptroller vision

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Eliot Spitzer campaigns at the JAMS Jamaica Avenue Eliot Spitzer campaigns at the JAMS Jamaica Avenue Festival in Jamaica, Queens. (Aug. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New

If elected, ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer has said, he will make "greater and more exciting use" of the New York City comptroller's office as he once did with the state attorney general's office.

Exactly what he means becomes a critical question as Spitzer faces off Friday in his first televised debate against Democratic primary rival Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president.

Spitzer famously crafted his "sheriff of Wall Street" persona by conjuring up the 1921 Martin Act that gave the state AG broad power to probe financial fraud.

Even some who say they admire Spitzer as a crusading traitor to his privileged class privately wonder whether he holds the city equivalent of a magical Martin Act up his sleeve.

The job he now seeks is more narrowly prescribed in the city charter than is the attorney general's role in the state constitution.

And at City Hall, mayors retain even more official clout than governors do in Albany. Some city comptroller functions force a partnership with the powerful mayor, such as administration of the city payroll.

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Spitzer has preferred to talk about the power of pension investments. He told Newsday in a statement Thursday that the comptroller must "ensure that those who have paid into the pensions get the benefits they have contracted for and deserve." Part of that, he said, means "realizing that as pensioners the workers of New York City own the companies in which the pension funds invest. And as owners, New York City workers are entitled to responsive governance."

Yet, in contrast to a state comptroller, who serves as sole trustee of the Common Retirement Fund, a city comptroller has a nondictatorial role in five city pension boards alongside unions and other elected officials. There's power, but it's collaborative.

"You can raise issues about how companies are being managed," said Liz Holtzman, also an ex-prosecutor, who was comptroller between 1990 and 1993 -- and supports Stringer this year. "We ran a very activist office," she said. Still, unlike the prosecutor's role, making changes as comptroller "involved persuading people. It's not just you in the courtroom," she said.

Seeking to prod social change through investments has long been part of the office's history. It has included shareholder drives to reform Exxon practices after its famous Valdez oil spill; to end apartheid in South Africa and religious discrimination in Northern Ireland and to push Swiss banks to reach settlements with Holocaust survivors.

Because Spitzer boasted of being a "steamroller" during his tumultuous, aborted governorship, Stringer suggests Spitzer would fail to reach the consensus among players that's necessary to succeed.

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Auditing city government agencies has always been a ripe area for comptrollers to make their presence known. Particular audits are used as resume builders in the current mayoral campaigns of Comptroller John Liu and his predecessor Bill Thompson, both Democrats.

Attorney General Spitzer extravagantly claimed in the 2006 governor's race that "on day one, everything changes."

This time, it may be a good idea for voters to figure out in advance how just one city office would change if Spitzer wins another "day one."

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