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.”
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.”