Ama Yawson makes ‘outsider’ bid for Nassau comptroller

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Ama Yawson, a small business owner from Freeport, is running a Democratic primary campaign for Nassau County comptroller. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

Running for one of Nassau County’s top elected offices was not in Ama Yawson’s plans when she moved to Freeport from Brooklyn three years ago, she said.

But the small business owner and Citigroup veteran with three Ivy League degrees now wants to be Nassau’s next comptroller as part of an “independent” Democratic ticket led by George Maragos, the current comptroller and a candidate for county executive.

While she has no municipal accounting experience, Yawson said her private sector background would bring a fresh perspective to county government, allowing her to make the comptroller’s office “a vehicle for social change.”

“We can’t have it both ways,” Yawson, 37, said in a sit-down interview with Blank Slate Media last week. “We can’t say that we want fresh perspectives, and we want people who are motivated, intelligent, regardless of their background, and then also say that someone without government experience is therefore unable to do the job.”

Yawson, a self-described “political outsider,” is the owner of Milestales, a publishing house that also does programs in public schools and colleges. She has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from that university’s Wharton School.

Yawson will face off against Jack Schnirman, the Long Beach city manager and the Nassau County Democratic Committee’s chosen comptroller candidate, in the party’s Sept. 12 primary.

Her slate also includes Maragos, who faces county Legislator Laura Curran for the Democratic county executive nomination; and Carl DeHaney, who is running against Dean Bennett in a primary for county clerk.

Maragos switched parties in September after being elected twice alongside Edward Mangano, the current Republican county executive who faces federal corruption charges. Mangano is not seeking re-election as a Republican.

Though she said she would be an independent comptroller, many of Yawson’s policy goals would build on initiatives Maragos has started as comptroller.

She supports his plans to make Nassau’s property tax system more equitable, a part of their ticket’s platform to address affordability, which Yawson said is Nassau’s most pressing issue.

Yawson also wants to continue Maragos’ efforts to increase the number of county contracts available to small businesses, especially those owned by women and members of ethnic minorities, she said.

“I think that many residents feel as if they’re paying into the system, but they’re not able to get out,” she said. “… I think they don’t feel as if they have a shot at government contracts if they’re small businesses.”

But Yawson declined to answer questions about some of Nassau County’s most significant fiscal issues, saying she wanted time to “engage in a prudent review” of them.

She would not say whether she thinks Nassau’s budget is running a surplus or deficit, a regular point of contention between Maragos and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s state financial control board.

Maragos has said Nassau had a $38 million surplus last year, counting $105.8 million in borrowed money as revenue. NIFA says that money and other unreliable funds cannot count as revenue, meaning the county actually ended 2016 with a $73 million deficit.

Asked which side she takes, Yawson deferred to Maragos, saying he is “better apt” to answer the question and that she does not want to contradict him.

“I am running my own independent campaign and I believe in independence, but at this juncture, prior to the election, I don’t wish to comment on that,” Yawson said.

Yawson also said she has yet to decide whether she thinks Nassau needs an independent inspector general to root out corrupt, wasteful contracts — a measure Maragos and many other Democratic officials support.

Spurring economic development by attracting high-tech industries, including the medical technology industry, is another of Yawson’s goals, for which she said her background in corporate finance is well suited. Maragos has a similar economic development platform.

“Economically empowered” residents and businesses would create a more stable tax base in Nassau, Yawson said, which can lead to greater fiscal stability for the county.

She charged that Schnirman lacks the “vision” to give residents what they need out of the comptroller’s office, saying his proposed reforms amount to little more than updating the office’s website.

Schnirman, who has led Long Beach’s government since 2012, has said he would make more financial information available online; reactivate the county’s Audit Committee to help with the comptroller’s independent audits; push for reforms to Nassau’s contracting process, including the creation of an inspector general’s office; and create a list of audits suggested by the public.

“Jack’s experience and his stellar record of success in turning around the finances, rooting out waste and fraud and saving tax dollars in Long Beach, and Brookhaven before that, speak for itself, as does his four-point plan to professionalize the comptroller’s office and make it more efficient, transparent and accountable to taxpayers,” Kim Devlin, Schirman’s campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The winner of the Democratic comptroller primary will face Republican nominee Steve Labriola in November’s general election.

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