Comptroller convention

“I don’t know who’s going to win at the convention Thursday night,” March Gallagher said on Saturday, referring to herself and opponent Lisa Cutten, “but I can tell you one thing. Come Jan. 1, the next comptroller of Ulster County will be a strong woman.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident. The question is, which one?

Some 320 Democratic committee members meeting at the convention on June 27 at the town civic center in Rosendale will decide via weighted voting. Adopted by both major parties a few years ago, weighted voting reflects the actual votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. In effect, committee members are rewarded for turning out their party members in their respective voting districts. Weighted voting roughly follows voter population with Kingston, New Paltz, Saugerties, Wawarsing and Woodstock carrying the most weight. Committee members are free to vote for either candidate or nominate others. Unlike most “nominating conventions” which are unofficial, this one will designate the party’s official nominee in November. If Republicans have a candidate in the wings, he or she is the best-kept secret in town.

Gallagher, 50, of Rosendale and Cutten, 60, of Kingston, bring distinctly different backgrounds to the fray, but have at least one thing in common: Both are or have been members of the Michael Hein administration, Gallagher as his former economic development director and Cutten as head of an internal auditing division created by the former executive called ACE (for Accounting, Compliance and Efficiency). Cutten, a CPA, remains in that position in the Patrick Ryan administration. Gallagher, a lawyer, left the Hein administration six years ago for a job as director of the community foundation of Patterns for Progress.

There’s a third wheel in play here: Adele Reiter, Hein’s former chief of staff and his official designee as an acting executive when he resigned in February, was elected acting comptroller until the end of the year by the county legislature last week.

In appearing together before almost every town and city Democratic committee in recent weeks, the candidates cited their respective records and spoke to the strengths and issues with the comptroller’s office. As an experienced public accountant, Cutten says she’s in the position to “spot red flags and act quickly.” As ACE director over the past three years, Cutten has issued only one formal report, on the operation of former comptroller Elliott Auerbach.

Gallagher speaks to her high-level administrative experience where she supervised, among other professionals, CPAs on her staff. Gallagher said she will “naturally” watch out for fraud, waste, and abuse in county government, as does Cutten, but that her focus would be on interacting with the executive and legislative branches on matters of efficiency. “You save far more money with efficiency,” she said. Auerbach issued numerous reports on efficiency, with specific recommendations, over his 10-year tenure.

Both say they would use the office’s charter-given subpoena powers when necessary. The comptroller’s subpoena power is limited to records, not individuals. “If I have grounds to suspect fraud, I would turn it over to the legal authorities,” Cutten said.

As for handicapping the candidates, who knows what lurks in the hearts and minds of Democratic committee members. Beginning with the unexpected resignations of Hein and Auerbach, this has been an insider game played out before the political class.

Cutten brings a long career in government auditing, dating back some 30 years when she was Kingston city treasurer. Cutten’s forensic investigative skills are a compelling asset, but will she investigate her old boss in her new job? The same might be said of Gallagher, and, Reiter. Gallagher, long gone to the private sector, has much less time in government but is an experienced administrator.

In face to face separate interviews, both candidates firmly denied they will accept the Republican endorsement should they lose on Thursday. I doubt that the GOP nod being the only path to an election for the loser, but we’ll see.

I thought Gallagher the favorite in this swift sprint to the prize. She hails from Saugerties, lives in Rosendale and has been endorsed by the New Paltz town committee. But Cutten has surged at the wire. My call, based on what appears to be a better organization, Gallagher in a close finish. For sure, as she predictably predicted, there will be a strong woman in that office on New Year’s Day.