2005_05_NSiegelB.jpg Former Executive Director of the NYCLU, Norman Siegel is making another run for public advocate (he came in second in a field of seven in 2001). A private advocate for most of his life, Norman believes he's a natural fit for the public advocate job. Can he beat out the other candidates and unseat the well-financed incumbent Betsy Gotbaum? Gothamist caught up with Norman after one his events to find out where he is on the issues and how is campaign is going.

Age: 61
Occupation: Lawyer/charming troublemaker who gets things done.
Background: Born in New York City, grew up in Brooklyn. Proud product of the public school system: PS 131, Pershing Junior High, New Utrecht High School, Brooklyn College and NYU School of Law. Currently lives on the West Side of Manhattan.

For those who are politically uneducated, what is the role of the public advocate?
The public advocate is the people’s advocate, the watchdog over the executive and legislative branches of city government. If anyone in any of the city agencies violates someone’s civil rights or doesn’t provide appropriate services then the public advocate should jump into action to defend, to protect, and to enhance the rights of all New York residents.

I’d love to do that because I’ve been doing that for 40 years and I’m a perfect fit for this job.

If you had to sum up your campaign in one sentence or phrase, what would it be?
To be the people’s lawyer – to protect and enhance the rights of all New York residents.

You’re a self-proclaimed troublemaker. Care to elaborate on this?
I’m a charming troublemaker in the sense that I see things that I don’t agree with or that trouble me and I’m unwilling to accept the status quo. The line that I use a lot is that people like me, who see things and want to see it better, we continue to dare to dream about how things should be rather than how they are. We are unwilling to accept the status quo and are catalysts for change.

Post 9/11, even in New York City, people are too acquiescent in my opinion with the status quo. There is a lot of fear and a lot of apathy, with legitimacy. But a public advocate is someone that should be advocating for the public and encouraging, supporting and creating programs for people to speak up.

There are obviously many issues at hand in this election, which one is closest to your heart?
Public schools. I always talk about how I am a proud graduate of the public school system. If it wasn’t for the school teachers at Pershing Junior High School and New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, who saw some potential in me and my classmates, I would not be the lawyer that I am today. My parents never finished high school let alone college, but education was very important to them. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the school system was a great opportunity for a kid like me.

Today, 50 years later, the school system doesn’t offer the same opportunity for students. Students today come from all over the world, from Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia… 85% of the students now in the school system are students of color. There are enormous racial overtones to the lack of adequate education. Students today are not getting the sound, basic education that I got and that troubles me a lot.

I am the lawyer for the Community Education Councils. I’ve seen how the Department of Education disrespects the parents. They don’t treat the parents as equals or as partners in the education process. That irks me tremendously. I don’t like elitism. I don’t like snobbery. I’m an egalitarian. When I see the people in power disrespecting the powerless…well, that’s what a public advocate is supposed to do, jump in on the side of the powerless to even the playing field so these folks can get an equal shake. I don’t think they’re getting it at this point. There is a major lawsuit that has been going for 12 years that I’ve been involved with that deals with this issue, called Campaign for Fiscal Equity. When I was the head of the Civil Liberties Union, we filed a friend of the court brief and got involved with the issue.

On the topic of education and public schools, didn’t you also teach in the public school system? How did that come about?
When Yousef Hawkins, an African-American in Bensonhurst, was shot and killed in 1989, I marched in opposition. People threw rocks and eggs at us. The African-Americans who were marching with me were called the “N” word. I was called the “N” lover. When I looked on the sidewalk three quarters of the people who were doing this were teenagers. They went to my high school. Half the people who were indicted in that case went to my high school. So I went back to the school, the very teachers who nurtured me and I said I want to come back and teach. I got an African-American lawyer friend of mine, Galen Kirkland, and together, black and white, we developed a curriculum on civil rights and race relations and for 12 years, every Friday morning, we taught. It was a great experience. It undid the stereotypes of the kids in the school and it confirmed for me that you can build bridges across racial lines.

You spoke tonight about fundraising and how that is going to be the focus over the next two months. What is your strategy?
We’re a grassroots campaign and a lot of the people I know can write a check for $50 or $100. My opponents get people who write checks for a lot more money. We’ve gotten like 1,000 contributors, which is great, but we now have the next 55 days where we have to go from the matching funds that we’ve raised so far of $80,000 and get that to be $125,000.

We are going to do a lot of house parties, we’re going to do a lot of phone calling. We are going to send letters to people that know me.

And what happens once you get the money?
Once we get the matching funds we can put out very exciting and very pointed TV commercials about issues. Some of the groups that I’ve represented, including 9/11 family members, have said they want to make TV commercials because they’ve gone to the Public Advocate’s Office on certain issues and didn’t get any help.

Another thing you spoke about is how you’ve been picking up a lot of endorsements, especially among the political groups. But, one endorsement that went to Betsy’s camp was Mayor David Dinkins. Why do you think you weren’t able to capture his support?
First of all, we didn’t even call this time. We’ve worked together. He’s the president of the Amadou Dialla Foundation, I’m the treasurer. I picked up the paper and there he was doing the endorsement.

Last time when I ran we very much wanted Mayor Dinkins’ endorsement. He had talked to me, said that he was going to consider it and then he basically said that Betsy had helped raise funds for him and that he felt that he was obligated to endorse her. And I said to him, “I just ask you one question Mayor Dinkins, who will make the better public advocate?” He would say to me, “She would be a different public advocate.” And I would say, “But just answer my question. If you answer my question, I can be at peace.” And he could never answer it.

You align yourself with some of the street theater activists, like Reverend Billy and Paula Revere. What is your thinking behind that strategy?
I love people like Lenny Bruce. I remember how they prosecuted him for speech. I watched the mini-series that was just on about Elvis Presley and I was stunned again about how America got so uptight because Elvis wiggled his hips. 50 years later it’s like a joke, but it was a reality back then.

I always align myself with people who are the cutting edge. I love artistic expression. It’s what makes America unique, in the sense that you can get up and be critical of the powers that be and they don’t lock you up in jail. The climate now is one that is increasingly repressive because of the USA Patriot Act, and that trickles down to the local scene.

I admire people like Reverend Billy and Paula Revere, because they walk in a room and leave their footprints there. Doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with every single thing they do, but I admire that they have the courage to speak out, the courage to be different, the courage to stand for something.

At a recent event, I suggested that someone ride through the streets as the modern day Paul Revere saying “eminent domain is coming.” Paula Revere got involved and changed it to “the developer is coming,” which is even better. I finally got to meet her and I’m getting to know Billy, they are both characters. I love characters and New York has a Damon Runyon quality – the zaniness of it. And again, post 9/11 some of that has been chilled. As the head of the Civil Liberties Union and as a Civil Rights lawyer, I want to encourage characters to speak up, of course peacefully, constitutionally, legally. And if it’s cutting edge, I want to be there to protect them.

As the former Executive Director of the NYCLU you worked on several important civil rights cases. It’s probably hard to single out one thing, but if you had to, which one are you most proud of?
Giuliani was denying people the right to hold press conferences on the steps of City Hall, and that’s the quintessential public forum. It wasn’t Giuliani’s steps of City Hall, it was the people’s, including Giuliani. So we had to go to court three different occasions to win on three different occasions the right for people to hold press conferences on the steps of City Hall. When I pass City Hall today and I see all the different groups having press conferences, and whether I agree with them or not, I feel good.

I've also liked representing even the most repugnant obnoxious groups when the government would not allow them to march or protest, because I was able to get across the point that it doesn’t matter what your ideology is, that everybody should be entitled to the first amendment right to protest. When I did it consistently, from the right to the left to the middle, the black bigots, the white bigots, it made the point when I was the head of the Civil Liberties Union, that free speech is for everybody, no exceptions.

You mention white bigots, at one point in your career you were actually called on to defend the "king" of all white bigots, the Klu Klux Klan. How did that come about?
A reporter from the Post called one afternoon and she said “Did you get the call yet?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “I just talked to the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan and they are going to call you because Giuliani turned down their permit to hold a rally and they want you to be their lawyer.” And I said, “Oh God no.”

I went back to the office and the call wasn’t there so I thought I was off the hook. The next morning, he called. Did I not want that call. But, it really was a challenge for me.

I had represented Khalid Abdul Mohammed who was a black bigot in my opinion. He wanted to do the Million Youth March, so we filed what was called a friend of the court brief on his behalf. I got a lot of criticism for that but he had a right to hold that rally. So, to be consistent and not be a hypocrite, which I never want to be, you have to intellectually take the case for the client. Why they were asking me? I wish they would have asked someone else, but they asked me. I was head of the Civil Liberties Union, I couldn’t say no. Emotionally I wanted to say no, but if I had said no, then I would not be the person that I think I am. So, I said yes.

I got picketed twice in front of my house. I got death threats for months. I got phone calls in the middle of the night that woke my wife up, as well as me. Sometimes we couldn’t get back to sleep. But I went forward and I argued the case myself. When I look back, I got Rev. Sharpton and the Amsterdam News to support me because they picked up very quickly that if Giuliani could do it to the Klan, he could do it to them. That was the principle that was important. The African-American community was great, I thought that they would turn on me but they didn’t. I remember one night when I went to the community board at 125th St in Harlem and I was nervous because the case was in great visibility at that point. I had always had great receptions in Harlem and when they introduced me, I got a standing ovation. It was seminal moment because they got it. That night I flew home.

You’ve been quite vocal in the fight against eminent domain abuse. Why is this issue so important?
In America the government should not be seizing private property, except when they are seizing it for public use. The railroads, the public highways, all of that came about through the use of eminent domain, but it was for public use.

Here in Brooklyn you've got Forest City Ratner wanting to bring a private basketball team, the Nets, with a private stadium. It's not a public team like the Green Bay Packers with a public stadium arena, but a private and it’s all for private gain. That’s not what eminent domain is about. I have to admit I’m a Knick fan, but I don’t think that’s what drives me on this, even if they were doing it for the Knicks, I would hope that I would be equally opposed.

The people in Brooklyn retained me to represent them so I researched the issue and I found out that this is a national phenomenon; eminent domain has run amok in the last quarter century. Government politicians have cleared the way for private developers to make millions of dollars through the use of eminent domain. And here in Brooklyn where I grew up, they are trying to do the same. No way! When the people from Brooklyn retained me, I said to them, “This is a dream come true. I can help preserve Brooklyn and stop the Nets from doing this through the use of eminent domain.” Similarly now I represent the West Harlem Business Group. Columbia University wants 129th to 133rd, from Broadway to 12th Avenue and they want to use eminent domain as well. No way there either.

We have put together good coalitions in both communities. We are waiting for the US Supreme Court to decide a similar case out of New London, CT. I filed a friend of the court brief for the people in Brooklyn and West Harlem, so we are players in that case. By the end of June we’ll know the result of that. If in both of these cases the government with the developers use eminent domain, I’ll go to court.

If I was the public advocate, I would holding hearings on the use of eminent domain. I’d be building a coalition of New Yorkers opposed to eminent domain, because there is something wrong when the government takes your private property and gives it to another private developer. Then it’s all about money and it can’t be all about money.

Betsy Gotbaum came out saying she was “disappointed” with Columbia University on the eminent domain issue. Do you think she's been effective?
Betsy Gotbaum is concerned, disappointed many times over. As the public advocate, you need to be more than just disappointed or concerned. Recently at a speech that I heard her give, she on four different occasions said she was outraged. I got up afterwards and said, “It’s not sufficient to just be outraged, you have to do something about what you are outraged about and make a difference.”

One of my serious complaints about Betsy Gotbaum as the current occupant is that she under utilizes the office of public advocate and she has not been effective. If she were effective over the last 3 years, 4 months, 16 days, but who’s counting, I would not be running. And I know that, because I didn’t want to run again, but the fact that she hasn’t done the kind of job that New Yorkers need, is driving me to do it.

You’ve also been pretty vocal about the limits being set on the usage of the Great Lawn in Central Park for public assembly. You’ve actually helped organize a public hearing tonight to challenge these limits. What exactly is the issue here?
It is an erosion of basic freedoms. I start off with when the World Economic Forum came here in February 2002. They arrested a lot of people and took them to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They kept them there for 50 hours or more so they couldn’t come back to demonstrate. They got away with it because there was not that much focus and it was shortly after 9/11 when everybody was very scared of not just terrorism, but demonstrators.

I think one of the dark days in the history of New York is February 15, 2003. In cities all across the world people marched peacefully in opposition to the war in Iraq and there was only one city in the world where people were denied the right to peacefully march, New York City. And then when they denied people the right to march it created all the backlog and the confusion on 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue. There were confrontations between demonstrators and cops on horses. And again, I believe lots of people got arrested falsely, and our rights were taken away.

In August 2004 at the Republican Convention, Bloomberg and Kelly would not allow people to have a rally in Central Park and 1,841 were arrested. So far there are about 60 of those cases still open. Of the remaining cases more than 1,750, 90%, have been dismissed or adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.

So I think this is part of a pattern. Central Park is the people’s park, so in the context of this, to me, this is like drawing a line in the sand. This is a fight that we must make. The Central Park Conservancy has taken too much control. They are a private group that gives lots of money to the park to beautify it, but then it changes the dynamic of the park. Bloomberg can’t dictate what goes on in the park, just like Giuliani couldn’t dictate what goes on the steps of City Hall. It’s a public space. This is a very important issue.

You mentioned the RNC, can you talk more about your involvement with that?
I got involved with the RNC because I got a call from a parent, her son went out to demonstrate on that Tuesday night, August 31st. He didn’t come home. She woke me up at midnight. I knew the boy, I knew the mother. So I said to her, “Connie, if he got arrested, the rule is he gets out in 24 hours. Arrest to arraignment, 24 hours is the guideline in New York. So here is the number to call tomorrow, they’ll tell you the status, if you have any problems call me.” She calls me at 1pm the next day and says to me, “This is what they said, ‘Don’t you understand what’s going on? Your son and all the rest of the people arrested will not get out until Bush leaves town on Thursday night.” So I said to her, “Will you swear an affidavit to this?” She said, “Yes.” So along with a bunch of other lawyers, we stayed up, we prepared papers. We went to a judge’s home at 11pm on that Wednesday night. I remember the judge, Emily Jane Goodman saying at her home, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Your honor, I want you to get dressed, open the court house and have a hearing.”

We had a hearing at 1:30am. She signed the papers allowing us to have a hearing the next morning. We came to court. The judge issued an order releasing the people by 1:30pm, by 3:00pm, by 5:00pm… Shortly after 5:00pm we went back the judge and said they still hadn’t been released and we want you to hold the city in contempt. We eventually got people out. We recently got the city to pay $231,000 to 108 protestors and the attorneys. That was another example of holding the government accountable. Where was Betsy Gotbaum? She was nowhere around.

You have been challenging the city/Police Department on a number of issues, from cyclists rights to public assembly. What do you think of the job Ray Kelly is doing?
Ray Kelly is an interesting guy. When he was police commissioner under Dinkins, I had a lot of respect for him. I interacted with him - access was easy. When Bloomberg appointed him as police commissioner I met with him a few months in. I had a long list of things I wanted him to do. He took extensive notes. It was over an hour, one-on-one. I’ve never heard from him since.

February 2003 we talked. I was very critical of what he was doing. One in particular that was bothering me was that the guy that cuts my hair, Robert Stewart, gets a phone call on a Saturday from a guy that says he’s from the Police Department Anti-Terrorist Unit and they have a complaint that Robert in his hair salon made anti-American statements. They want to come down and interrogate him. Robert was sophisticated enough to say, “I don’t think I want to do that right now.” And then he called me. So I wrote a letter to Kelly and to Bloomberg because this shouldn’t be happening in New York. Robert is anti-Bush, he’s against the war, so probably while he was cutting hair he was making those kinds of comments. The cops should be trained enough that if someone calls to complain that they say we can’t do anything about that. If all he was doing was making comments, he’s allowed to, this is America. Then it dawned on me that maybe this is going on throughout the city. So I asked Bloomberg and Kelly is this an isolated incident? What is this unit? When was it created? I never got a response.

I think Kelly has changed. I think that the times have changed – post 9/11 compared to when he was here in the early ‘90s. I still think he should be accessible. At this point I’ve become a critic of Ray Kelly. I still think he is a good man, but I think that some of his practices and policies are things that I’d be critical of.

You’ve probably made some enemies in your time, whether it be Giuliani for defending the Brooklyn Museum for the “Sensation” exhibit, or Columbia University…
Generally speaking, I think you can agree to disagree.

I think people realize, whether it be Giuliani or Koch or Columbia, that I am a serious player. Someone once told me that Giuliani said, “Ah Norman, so much mishegoss about him, but he believes.”

Interview by: Mindy Bond

Photo credit: Fred Askew