On Tuesday, Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams won the special election for NYC Public Advocate, beating out 16 other candidates in a largely overlooked race for the city's second highest-ranking position. It was a decisive ending to an odd, unwieldy contest: Williams captured a third of the vote, beating out his next closest opponent, Republican Councilmember Eric Ulrich, by a 14-point margin.
In an emotional victory speech, the former tenant organizer and longtime Flatbush council member wept, clutching his mother as he discussed his struggles with mental health growing up. "I got something to say to that young man that I think about very often," he said. "My name is Jumaane Williams and I'm the Public Advocate of New York City."
Now, as he gets settled into his new office, Williams will have a certain amount of leeway in deciding how to use the limited powers ascribed to the public advocate. Aside from being second in line to the mayor, the public advocate can introduce and co-sponsor legislation in the City Council, review systemic problems within city agencies, and investigate New Yorkers' complaints about municipal services. Past public advocates have also used the position to file lawsuits — though it's up for debate whether the office has the right to do so — and Williams has vowed to pass a law giving him subpoena power of city agencies' records.
While the watchdog's authority may be nebulous, the public advocate has historically served as a sort of ombudsman for city residents, pressuring lawmakers and shining a light on issues that might not otherwise get attention. On Thursday morning we spoke with Williams about the issues he's most passionate about, and what he realistically hopes to accomplish on behalf of New Yorkers.
This is now your second day in office. As you begin mapping your agenda between now and the general election in November, what are some concrete goals you have that you see as within the scope of your office?
Well, first we have to hire a staff that looks as diverse as the city. Probably immediately after that we'll begin supporting people who are pushing for stronger rent laws in the state, because that's up in June. I'm thankful that, because of the [lieutenant governor] race we ran last year, we're also in connection with people across the state who want to see strengthened laws. We might be able to be the connective tissue in putting that pressure together.
We want to look at what's called mandatory inclusionary housing. It's the underpinning of all the rezonings that people have heard about — unfortunately those rezonings haven't produced the type of affordable, income-targeted housing we want to see. I've called for a moratorium on most rezoning until we fix that. I also want to see a racial impact study before zonings occur and we'll be pushing that as well.
We also want to set up the borough-based deputy public advocates with the satellite offices in the way we discussed in the campaign. We think that's a few good things to work on in the next 10 months or so, and we know that there are going to be other issues that come up as we're setting up.
I wanted to ask about your victory speech, which a lot of people found very moving. Directly addressing young black men, you spoke candidly about crying yourself to sleep as a child and missing your father, and more recently entering therapy. Can you tell us a little bit more about that moment?
It's something I've actually been talking about for a while — I've just never had that many cameras pointed at me at one time. I've been trying to speak about my experience with therapy, and how it has been impactful in my life. There are so many communities where it's just not talked about. It's taboo in black and brown communities, many immigrant communities. I think everyone is going through something and trying to figure it out. We talk openly about going for a checkup to the doctor or the dentist. I want to make it just as easy to talk about mental health.
Our city's current mental health initiative — an $850 million multi-pronged effort overseen by First Lady Chirlane McCray — has come under scrutiny this week for its opaque budget and lack of demonstrated results. Do you think that program is doing enough to provide underserved communities with the mental health support they need?
I don't know all the particulars yet, but it was disappointing to hear what I did. I do know the first lady has championed this issue, and I was very happy to see her do it. It's an important initiative, and it's important that someone with her platform is pushing it. If the money's not being spent the way it should be, we definitely have to put a check on it. I'm going to, in my new role, take a look at it and make sure it's as effective as possible.
As public advocate, one of your duties is to service complaints of city agencies — sometimes overseeing investigations, other times directing those complaints to the Department of Investigations. What are some agencies you plan on bringing further oversight to?
We talk about the transparency and accountability in the NYPD, looking at disciplinary records, how discipline is being meted out. With the Department of Education, we would like some more information on some of the large contracts that are happening — we just had some changes with the Renewal Schools program. Is there a particular system that can help us to not spend that much money in a program before it's not working? When you look at [the Housing and Preservation Department], I was disappointed to see that HPD wasn't following up with some of the bad landlords who said they made repairs, but didn't. When we look at Administration for Child Services, we want to look at people — particularly black and brown women — who are losing their children to the city based on issues of poverty, not necessarily neglect. Those are a few of the agencies we're thinking about in terms of how best to get the information to address issues and concerns that have been brought to us.
You've been a vocal critic of the NYPD, and have long argued that the department isn't transparent enough. Is there anything the public advocate can do, from day one, to actually begin forcing the NYPD to be more transparent?
I was happy to see that as this race has gone on, [Police Commissioner James O'Neill] has agreed to take on the recommendations of a panel that was put together to deal with transparency. These are things that people have been recommending for quite some time, as others have pretended that there was more transparency and accountability than there actually is. So we're going to take some time to look at those recommendations and make sure there's a real plan in place to follow them.
We're proud that [NYC's first public advocate] Mark Green endorsed the campaign. He did a lot of good work in the Giuliani years to make sure the police department was giving up information that they otherwise wouldn't if there wasn't pressure. We're looking forward to having conversations about how best this office can do the same thing.
You said on the FAQ podcast earlier this week that the NYPD should be investigated for leaking your sealed arrest record to the Daily News a day before the election. Is that something you plan to make a priority?
I do want to understand how the records got out because obviously they shouldn't have. It's not the first time that something like this has happened.
I want to separate that from the issue itself. Once the information was out, we understood that people had a right to ask questions about it — particularly of someone who's running for citywide office. So we did our best to be transparent and provide clarity about what happened and what we learned from it. But separate from that, those records are supposed to be sealed. I think some of them are supposed to be destroyed. That didn't happen. That's a problem. We'll try to put in some work to see what exactly happened and hopefully someone can provide some answers.
In 2015, you voted to approve a budget that included 1,300 new NYPD officers. Can you explain why you thought that was the right thing to do, and if crime continues to fall in NYC, should the NYPD keep expanding?
There are a few things there. At that time, [City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito] made that a priority of the council, which I thought was unfortunate. There were a lot of conversations. It was the first time I've ever seen someone start at a number — which I think was 1,000 — and then actually end up getting more.
When I did the math, I think New York City, was sixth in the nation for police officers per person. We are the largest police force in the country, I think it's the 7th largest army in the world [Editor's note: It is not]. Per person, we were about sixth, and probably even lower if you count the tourists that were here on any other day. So I said, the issues with the police department — transparency, accountability, even over-policing and police force — probably are not going to change if you add 1,300 more. It probably won't get better if you take away 1,300. These issues are systemic and deeply-seated. So while it wasn't a priority of mine, and unfortunately the speaker made it one of her first priorities, I did have to figure out and balance if I wanted to vote against this entire budget, or do I want to make my concerns clear. I decided on the latter.
Moving on to transit, plenty of others have pointed out that your driving record is, frankly, terrible. You have a slew of school zone speeding tickets and bus lane violations. You also recently opposed the creation of a bus lane for the B82. How can you assure New Yorkers that you are taking problems of congestion and street safety seriously?
Because I always have. Any time those issues have come up in the council, I always take them seriously. I have voted and supported increased speed cameras, actually asked for some additional ones in my district.
Even before the story came out, I was on Brad Lander's bill that said if you have a certain amount of speeding tickets you should have your license revoked. So I've always been very supportive of those kind of issues. I supported most — I would say 95 percent — of Vision Zero. The issue with bus lanes is that there are small things that can be done with communities, and there are times they just ignore the communities' concerns. I've supported bus lanes in places more than I haven't, but when you come into a community and the community is saying, 'A bus lane is probably better here, but not here,' and you refuse to listen to what the community is saying even when they're trying to help, that's unfortunate.
In terms of the tickets themselves, I immediately just accepted what was presented. It was a bad behavior that needed to be changed. It was actually surprising to me when I saw the amount of tickets. I think they covered maybe a four or five year period. Sometimes you get them and you pay them, but you're not looking at the aggregate number. That aggregate number was very shocking to me and it jolted me to say this is a problem and we have to change it.
So I did a few things. I introduced a bill saying that said we should send some information to drivers periodically telling them how many tickets they've gotten over a certain timespan. Secondly, even though Brad Lander's bill was not law, I decided to take the course myself, which I found very impactful. I decided we're going to have a change in behavior, and we have.
When Governor Cuomo was asked earlier today if he had any hard feelings toward you for challenging Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, he responded: "I don't really know Mr. Williams. But there are no hard feelings at all." To what extent do you have a relationship with the governor and with the state legislature?
Oh, really? [laughs]. I don't know if I have a particular relationship with the governor. I do see the impacts of some of the things he does and how it affects New York City. And I have a pretty good relationship with many of the legislators that are up in Albany.
Lastly, if you're serious about not running for mayor, what do you see as your next step after being public advocate?
Well I'm definitely not running for mayor in 2021. We'll see what happens after that, I guess. But I don't even see it happening in 2025. It's not really something I'm thinking about. My desire is to continue to do work as the public advocate, and we'll see how long we'll be in the political arena, but there's a lot of different things that can be done to be effective in dealing with equity and justice issues in the city. I'm excited about this opportunity the city is giving me now, and kind of just focused on that.