In New York City, a Comptroller Candidate Talks Management, Not "Politics as Usual"
In an overwhelmingly "Blue" city, a conservative Republican finance pro commits political heresy by talking about running the city better, with better outcomes, and for less money. Good heavens!
NEW YORK (October 27) - Largely ignored by New York’s media establishment and the two major political parties, a candidate for the city’s top financial job -- city comptroller -- sounds more like a Boston Consulting Group management consultant than a political candidate.
Brad Lander, a term-limited Democrat city councilman looking to remain employed in a new political gig, talks nebulous notions of “social justice” and “equity” in the comptroller’s office.
But Paul Rodriguez - a former Wall Street analyst, banker, and financial advisor running a shoestring campaign with volunteers, family, friends, supporters and the backing of the city’s Conservative Party (“Row C” on the ballot) - is talking about things like Lean/6σ, Performance Based Budgeting, and Zero Base Budgeting. (The choice of the city’s Republican establishment, a perennial candidate from East Harlem who’s run for the city council, the state Assembly, and now comptroller, is talking about…well, something. 1)
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6:1, the political discourse for it’s critical CFO position is traditionally limited to the insipid pablum of the Democrats’ primary (like Landers’, about “ budgeting wisely, investing strategically, governing democratically”, and more of the same, piled higher and deeper).
But Rodriguez is talking about nitty-gritty management tasks, like moving the city’s morass of multiple separate agency books into a comprehensive enterprise software platform, like Oracle or SAP; building a fully transparent budget process; properly accounting for what he estimates could be a $125 billion — or more — shortfall in the city’s public pensions; and putting the city’s checkbook on-line.
Simply put, Rodriguez wants to re-do how the city does the business of governance; to bring to municipal management the same tools and techniques that have re-made, stream-lined, and improved private sector businesses for nearly 50 years.
It has never been done before.
In fact, in the lard-laden city budget, it has likely never even been considered, save for the 1975 fiscal crisis and some occasional anodyne “across-the-board percentage cuts” of a handful of percentage points when the city is up against a revenue shortfall.
Rodriguez, though, sees himself as a budgetary surgeon, wielding a scalpel, not a scythe. “The city wastes a lot of money”, he says. “And we spend a lot on deadwood ‘programs’ that could be consolidated with others or simply eliminated. And don’t even get me started about the cash that goes to ‘nonprofits.’”
New York City spends nearly $100,000,000,000 -- one hundred billion (‘with a ‘B’”) -- per year on city government. With a 2020 population of 8.8 million people, that works out to over 11,000 per person per year; or, nearly $4,000 per month for a family of four-- more than many New Yorkers pay in rent. And more than any other city in the United States, perhaps even the world.
Rodriguez notes that the New York City’s 2020 budget had expanded by some $28,000,000,000 (again with a “B”) -- even after taking account of inflation -- over the last 6 years.
While some of that increase can be traced to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature Universal Pre-K program, that’s budgeted in only the hundreds of millions. The rest was simply additional government, wage increases, and a huge increase in headcount.2
City government, overall, has just exploded. Headcount of full time employees went from about 271,000 in the fiscal year ended 2014, the year de Blasio took office, to 300,000 for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2020; that’s 11% higher.3 And that’s only “official” full-time workers; thousands of other city workers are part-time.
In the ten years from Fiscal 2011 to Fiscal 2020, full-time city employment increased by 32,000 workers, even though the Census for 2010 to 2020 showed a population increase of just 625,000. Put another way, in theory, over 5% of the city’s new population gain - men, women, and children - were NYC public employees! That’s nearly as high as the 6% ratio of New York State public employees, which is among the highest ratio of state employees to population in the nation.
A Change Agent?
Paul Rodriguez, 52, was born in New York City. His father, a former Marine rifleman in Vietnam, separated from his mother while the couple was living here when Rodriguez was just an infant. After the split, she returned to her family in San Juan. Rodriguez grew up speaking Spanish as his primary language and learned English as a second language. (Paul’s maternal grandfather was pioneering Puerto Rican broadcaster Carlos Ruben Ortiz, the longtime anchor and news director of WAPA in Puerto Rico. )
After his mom moved the family to Atlanta for work when Paul was 11, Rodriguez started his college studies in Economics at Northwestern on scholarship as a U.S. Naval ROTC midshipman.
But Washington budget cut-backs to the ROTC program forced him to return to Atlanta, to enroll at the far more affordable University of Georgia. The summer before graduation, he attended an advanced non-degree Economics program at Stanford University that the Georgia faculty had nominated him to attend with the notion of making him an academic. (“Nice thought, but not my deal”, Rodriguez says.)
He has served as an equity and credit analyst for some of Wall Street’s leading firms and a banker both here and in Mexico. He is a trained risk manager. He met his wife, Rocio, a Mexican native who worked for the Mexican Mission to the UN, shortly after returning to New York from his stint in Mexico. (The two live in Brooklyn with two of Rodriguez’s three daughters: one in grammar school and one in high school. His oldest, 26, is engaged to marry.)
Now, as what he jokingly describes as a “recovering financial type”, he works overseeing fundraising for one of the region’s largest non-profit charitable institutions. “I like to do good more than well,” he says.
He’s been interested in politics since college, where he was a member of the College Republicans, and got involved with the New York Young Republican Club when he started working in NYC as a young man. He eventually led the “YRs”, and was active in various other GOP groups. In 2004, he was the Republican nominee for Congress against Nydia Velasquez.
A true “small government” conservative, Rodriguez “believes that the city spends far too much, ...wastes too much, and taxes too much, and has for decades, even well before the onset of the pandemic” according to his website. He believes the “city is facing an existential fiscal crisis as bad, if not worse, than 1975 and that, to remain viable, the next comptroller must reform, upgrade and improve the city’s financial, budget, and managerial infrastructure” using more modern controls and techniques”.
Summing up his candidacy, Rodriguez said, “Look: I have two daughters that are probably going to live here when they’re adults. I want them to have police and fire protection when they start their own families someday. I want them to have clean streets, affordable, efficient, and safe mass transit, and fast access to a hospital nearby if they or their families are sick or injured. I want them and their kids to have really, really, great -- and safe -- public schools with outstanding teachers. They won’t be able to do that if we don’t change the city’s course. I think we have, maybe, ten years, tops, to start to change course and get the mess that the Democrats have created with New York City finances sorted. We need to get the city squared away for the next 50 years that my children and your kids will probably live here.”
Like I said, Rodriguez is a political heretic in New York City politics.
He can be found on the web at Rodriguez4NY.org and on Twitter at @Rodriguez4NY
The Republican’s messaging is mostly an incoherent word salad that can go from allegations of “an $89 million theft” by his Democrat opponent to vaccine “trutherism” to a self-proclaimed unique ability “bring the money ( as he puts it, ‘kaching-kaching’) to NYC”. A sample of the candidate’s embarrassing performance of can be seen in his debate with Democrat Brad Lander here. Lander has repeatedly refused to debate Rodriguez since he was nominated.
Another $850,000,000 went in three separate tranches, over three separate years, to a “Thrive NYC” mental health program, helmed by de Blasio’s wife, which appears to have had no discernible metrics of performance nor any definitions of success.
NYC Comptroller, Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (Annual Report) FYE June 30, 2020, Page 442.