Helen Rosenthal Finds Purpose, and Her Next Challenge, In Budget Battles

By Carol Tannenhauser

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal has rallied loudly to bring attention to controversial issues. But at heart she’s a budget wonk who enjoys poring over documents to find places where the city is shortchanging vulnerable people or overspending on services.

Earlier this month, she made headlines when she pointed out a group of people who she thinks have been shortchanged.

“Pay them!” she shouted out, several times, from the balcony of City Hall, during the speech at the parade for the triumphant U.S. women’s soccer team, to the disdain of a man standing beside her—a FIFA employee—who accused her of not being “classy,” according to Politico.

“I’m the Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Women and Gender Equity,” Rosenthal said. “And right in front of me is this U.S. women’s soccer team that’s being paid $38 million compared to the men’s $200 million. And the crowd is chanting, ‘Equal Pay, USA, Equal Pay, USA,’ and I just got swept right into it. There were one or two times when I felt the speaker was saying something that directly contradicted reality, so I shouted out, ‘Pay them!’ because it’s so obvious.”

That passion extends to the finer points of New York City’s $92 billion budget, which she calls a “moral document.” Rosenthal approaches “the budget-approval process with fervor,” she said in an interview with WSR last week. That’s why the two-term council member decided her next challenge would be to run for comptroller, who acts as the city’s chief financial officer. (By the way, that’s pronounced “controller.”) In her first term, Rosenthal served as chairperson of the City Council’s contracts committee. She helped save the city nearly $700 million by shining a light on a $1.1 billion Department of Education contract, which was ultimately rebid and reduced to $472 million. There are already two candidates in the race, which doesn’t happen until 2021 — Rosenthal and Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander.

From the start, she warned us that she is “terrible at press,” not a good thing for a politician. She attributed it to fundamental shyness and the way her brain works.

“Everyone’s brains work in different ways,” she said. “My brain gravitates to critical analysis, charts, details, whereas the press prefers a clean quote. I think my colleagues often wish I would ask fewer questions. I enjoy going right down into the trees. I think if you don’t go into the trees, you’re not going to get the best public policy.”

Rosenthal’s latest budget battle ended on a positive note. Mayor de Blasio agreed to use funds budgeted for labor reserves to achieve pay parity among pre-k teachers. “Janitors and administrative aides, too,” Rosenthal added. She has spent six years working for this result, and was elated.

”A budget is a moral document for any mayor,” she repeated.  “A budget tells the story of who you really are. It shows your priorities, whether or not you’re going to walk the walk. You can’t call yourself the universal pre-k mayor when half of your providers are being paid so little they leave all the time and the kids have different teachers. You can’t say that if half of your community-based schools are failing.”

The fact that 80% of pre-k workers are women and their lives will be elevated adds to Rosenthal’s satisfaction. She is a lifelong feminist. Last year, she was instrumental in passing a package of anti-sexual harassment laws in New York City.

“I was raised in a feminist household,” she recalled. “I grew up in a lower-middle-income suburb of Detroit in the 1960s and 70s. My role model was my mom who very matter of factly assumed that women were equal. I had two older brothers and I was right in there with them.”

One of her brothers was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

She recalled that she and her husband had originally moved to the Upper West Side, after finishing their graduate work at Yale, because her brother was living there. A portion of West 72nd Street is now named “Josh Rosenthal Way.”

“Gale Brewer made that happen,” Rosenthal said, “and I’m very grateful. It meant a lot to my mother.”

Rosenthal’s office at 250 Broadway.

Then, it was back to budgets.

“I think about doing a forensic audit,” she said, “a deep dive into every city agency, every city contract, to see if we are really spending our money on the things we say we’re spending it on, and if it’s being done effectively and efficiently. That’s the power of the comptroller. Then, you can use the platform to explain how perhaps it might be spent in a different way. I salivate at the idea of it.”

NEWS | 16 comments | permalink
    1. B.B. says:

      Am going with this piece is to launch Mrs. Rosenthal’s bid to run for comptroller once term limited out in 2021.

      Scott Stringer is running for mayor. Helen Rosenthal is running for comptroller. Gale Brewer is likely going to run for her old city council seat or something else left vacant by term limits. She joins a long list of term limited out current elected city officials looking around for their next public gig.

      Term limits was supposed to open up NYC government. Thus far it has been mostly a game of political musical chairs.

      • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

        “BB” seems unaware of the vast changes Term Limits made on the CIty Council. The Council was calcified before term limits; there is quite a lot of turnover now, and a lot of younger people, more progressive people.

        I have mixed feelings about term limits — i tend to think for the higher offices it should be three terms, at the very least — but it is simply not true that the law hasn’t made a difference.

    2. A long time UWS Resident says:

      BB is right. She is getting ready for her next move. I had some housing questions, her housing expert was dismissive and would not help. Someone else (a part time NYC resident) won an affordable lottery they spent two afternoons with her. If this is how she treats her constituents I will pass

    3. UWS Craig says:

      Cheers to Helen Rosenthal for standing up for equal pay for women’s soccer. The first step towards realizing that dream is to require ticket prices for women’s soccer games to be the same as for men’s soccer, so there will be the money to pay them. I would also like to see New York Liberty ticket prices raised to be the same as Knicks tickets to prove that women’s basketball is as equally valued as men’s basketball.

      • UWS_lifer says:

        The Men’s World Cup generates approximately $6 Billion worldwide and the Women’s World Cup?? $150 Million.

        As they say, follow the money. It’s not sexism, just economics.

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          @UWSLifer has not completely looked into the issue. the question of the FIFA bonuses (World Cup) and the standard pay scale for US womens vs mens teams are two separate issues. The pay for the two is separate. Outside of the World Cup, the US Soccer Federation pays the US women less than the men, though they generate equal or more $s and have had much more success. There is a dispute as to HOW MUCH less they are being paid; that they are being paid less from this source is not disputable.

          • UWS_lifer says:

            It’s really not that complicated, Bruce. With all due respect, don’t be intellectually dishonest just to try to make a point.

            Equality of opportunity does not, and will not guarantee equality of outcome. In the real world, you get what you earn.

    4. Bill Williams says:

      Anyone who doesn’t understand why FIFA pays men more than women doesn’t have a basic understanding of economics and yet her passion is the budget? It’s no wonder this city and the UWS is in such horrible shape.

    5. JS says:

      Great article. I now understand who she is. Glad she’ll run for comptroller.

    6. UWsider says:

      Helen’s office has been highly responsive when I have reached out to them over the years. I think she does a great job.

    7. Sally says:

      Ms Rosenthal is obviously looking for her next gig. It would be nice if she’d spend a little time on her current one. If you ever email her office all you can expect it an automated response telling you how important you are and that someone will get back to you… but they never do. Ms Rosenthal you are no Gale Brewer who truly cared for her constituents

    8. ST says:

      Habe closely watched HR and her office and have founs her to be wanting. She didn’t do much of anything to help thr UWS and has hurt us with the AMNH expansion. She loves yo breeze into meetings late, blow the equivalent of air kisses, and leave early without contributing anything other than the impression that she thinks she is a rock star.

      • ellen jacobs says:

        So glad she’s running for comptroller. Maybe she’ll be better at that than as councilman. Her responses to letters, are, as noted, automated. And that includes the ones warning of the danger of the cyclists in Riverside Park until it was reported that the four year old little girl was hit in April. Then suddenly she was responsive! She was quoted in the Westside Rag. Suddenly, she was on longer press shy. Any politician who claims to be press shy should not be a politician. Their public needs to hear from them on issues that concern them.

    9. Oona says:

      Aka “Do Nothing Rosenthal” here on the UWS The rudeness and incompetence of her housing person is beyond compare.

    10. JSN says:

      I’ve found over the years that Helen Rosenthal’s office has been responsive and informed of resident issues. Her work to make Riverside Park safer for pedestrians has been exemplary. Further, her efforts to get speed bumps installed in front of PS 199 on 70th Street has improved safety for our students. I’m sure she’ll do a great job wherever she goes.

    11. Gillian Rosenfeld says:

      Great article. Helen R for Comptroller!