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The Scramble To Become The Next NYC Public Advocate Begins

Mayor Bill de Blasio walks towards City Hall in 2014
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Mayor Bill de Blasio walks towards City Hall in 2014 Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor

The first forum among the many candidates running for New York City public advocate was a showcase for how far left ambitious Democrats want to swing in this city—and how ill-defined the little-known, highly-coveted office remains.

Staged last night at a co-working space in Manhattan, the forum was held for the leftist organizations and activists who are increasingly setting the tempo for Democratic Party politics in New York. Every candidate who came before the dozens of members of various groups—including the Working Families Party, New York Progressive Action Network, True Blue New York, and New York Communities for Change—took turns bolstering their progressive bona fides and straining to contrast themselves from the pack. (Though advertised publicly, event organizers later told reporters in attendance the forum was closed press.)

Looming over the contest, likely to be held in February to replace Letitia James, who was just elected state attorney general, is what it actually represents: a possible stepping stone to something else. Every public advocate but one has run for higher office. One is about to become one of the most prominent attorneys general in America; another is the current mayor of New York City.

A current contender, longtime Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell of Manhattan, acknowledged that reality quickly. “Why do I want to be public advocate? Because I don’t want to be mayor.”

The office, which was formed in a 1989 charter revision, is elected citywide and has few delineated responsibilities and powers. Intended to serve as a watchdog over city agencies and the mayor, the public advocate can introduce legislation and sit in on City Council meetings. When New York mayors were Republican, Democratic public advocates could serve as voices of the liberal resistance. Michael Bloomberg often called for the office to be abolished altogether.

Now, it’s a few Democratic City Council members who are renewing calls to eliminate the office. Such a move would require a change in the City Charter and a referendum put in front of the voters. It’s a long-shot.

But it was a testament to the amorphousness of the office that all the candidates who stumped and took a select number of questions on police reform, housing, and protecting organized labor were able to speak so expansively about what it might do: halt gentrification, hold the NYPD accountable, solve the transit crisis and, somehow, reduce income inequality.

Melissa Mark-Viverito has not made up her mind on whether to run for public advocate. But she spoke at the forum like a candidate, touting her “track record of success” as speaker of the City Council.

Known for leading the charge to close Rikers Island, pass paid sick days legislation, and, at times, joining with Mayor Bill de Blasio to tamp down attempts to rein in the NYPD, Mark-Viverito said she would seek to use the “subpoena power” the public advocate possesses to launch investigations—even though the office, much less powerful than the old one she held, does not have such power.

“There [are] investigative powers, right, and that is one of the things I would like to see in the office of the public advocate, is to have an investigation division that is going to be aggressive,” Mark-Viverito said. “I’d also look at having a legal aid division where you can leverage the power of the office and work with lawyers, right, and bring in resources to represent communities that have not been served.”

Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn City Councilman, has run for City Council Speaker (twice) and undertook a high profile bid this year for lieutenant governor against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s running mate, Kathy Hochul. On the verge of securing the WFP’s endorsement, he was the most popular speaker at the forum and might be something of a front-runner in the free-for-all contest, which could include nearly a dozen candidates. (One candidate, Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, didn’t attend but spoke on the telephone over a loudspeaker.)

“I’m back!” Williams cried out to cheers from the room. “I’m running because I really became a City Council member to provide transformational change.”

Williams, who had compared the largely symbolic lieutenant governor’s role to a statewide public advocate, said his new campaign for this post was a natural transition. He proclaimed he wouldn’t run for mayor in 2021 if he won next year. He criticized de Blasio for not meeting quickly enough with some of the families of people who have been killed by police and called for “far deeper” affordable housing than currently mandated under rezoning law.

Just about every candidate spoke critically of the real estate industry’s role in shaping politics in New York. Two outsider candidates, Columbia professor David Eisenbach and Democratic activist and journalist Nomiki Konst, promised to reject real estate developer donations and break the lobby’s hold on the city. Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal, who helped usher in a wide-ranging rezoning of his East New York district, took a slightly more conciliatory approach, though he said he was backing a City Council bill to require more affordable housing be set aside for the homeless.

Amazon was another punching bag, with almost all candidates breaking with de Blasio and Cuomo, who have celebrated the idea of the tech giant landing in Long Island City with potentially massive taxpayer subsidies. “We have sectors of our city that have incredible need … and we have these corporate giveaways, expecting nothing in return,” Mark-Viverito said.

While the candidates, speaking one at a time, never directly acknowledged each other, one fault line did emerge. Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, who also serves as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, took a veiled shot at Williams, a fiery progressive who once held socially conservative views, refusing in the past to affirm support for same-sex marriage and abortion.

“I’ve been consistent in standing up in saying, ‘I’m a pro-choice candidate,’” Blake said. “I’ve been consistent saying, ‘We’ve got to stand up when it comes to gay marriage,’ been consistent in standing up for our respective communities. We can’t just say we’re going to be doing these things—what have we been doing?”

When the public advocate’s office is officially vacated in the new year, de Blasio is required, by law, to call a special election within three days. The election, which is nonpartisan, will be held at least 45 days later.

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