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Who Wants To Be NYC's Next Public Advocate?

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and Councilman Jumaane Williams in 2014. Both are in the running to succeed Letitia James as the next Public Advocate
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Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and Councilman Jumaane Williams in 2014. Both are in the running to succeed Letitia James as the next Public Advocate Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste

Why should you care about the race for New York City Public Advocate? Most New Yorkers don’t know what the office, with little in the way of formal power, really does. After a year of seemingly nonstop election coverage, it will be tempting to tune this contest out altogether.

But the public advocate matters because it’s a proven launching pad to offices of far greater import and influence. Our incoming State Attorney General, Letitia James, is the outgoing public advocate. You may have heard of her predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio. The city’s first public advocate, and perhaps the most dynamic occupant of the office, was Mark Green—who nearly became mayor himself.

Since James is vacating the post, a citywide special election will likely be held in February to replace her. The election is technically nonpartisan—all municipal special elections are—though almost everyone vying for the position will be a registered Democrat. This will be the very first ever special election for a citywide position. Turnout for a single race in the dead of winter is expected to be quite low. (The election date will be set after James is sworn in as Attorney General on January 1st.)

The public advocate can be best understood as a watchdog over city agencies and City Hall. The office can introduce legislation, bring lawsuits, and handle constituent complaints, though the occupant can’t vote on legislation. Some think the office should be strengthened. Others think it should be abolished altogether.

Either way, a lot of politicians and would-be politicians are running for the post. Who are they?

THE POLITICIANS

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Councilman Jumaane Williams is arrested while protesting the detention of immigration activist Ravi Ragbir in January of 2018 (Photo by John McCarten / City Council)

Councilman Jumaane Williams

The Brooklyn Democrat is the closest thing to a front-runner this wide open race has. Already endorsed by the Working Families Party and the New York Progress Action Network, a coalition of activist groups that sprung up in the wake of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Williams, 42, has the advantage of having just run for lieutenant governor, a statewide office. Williams has built a high profile on the City Council as a fierce advocate for police reform and affordable housing, and has been marked as a rising star for some time.

Williams netted 47 percent of the vote against the incumbent lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul. Of the 641,631 votes he earned, a significant chunk came from the five boroughs and he won both Brooklyn and Manhattan. In citywide elections, black voters in central Brooklyn, where Williams hails from, can be decisive. Williams scored the backing of Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America during his lieutenant governor campaign, which helped him build a bridge between younger, leftist voters and the traditional Democrats who have made up winning coalitions in past municipal races.

There’s an argument to be made Williams, with all of his strengths as a campaigner and his ties to New York City, should have performed even better against Hochul, who is not well known statewide. Williams was a poor fundraiser, managing to bring in a little over $300,000, a paltry sum for a statewide campaign—and $50,000 of that money illegally skirted campaign contribution limits. Now that he is no longer an underdog running against the Cuomo machine, there might be renewed scrutiny over his past opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Williams also abstained from a 2014 vote to allow transgender New Yorkers to change their sex on birth certificates. One top rival, Assemblyman Michael Blake of the Bronx, has already obliquely criticized Williams for his recent evolution on social issues.

The front-runner status may not be all it’s cracked up to be—there’s been a drumbeat of negative press stories about Williams in recent weeks, including a startling revelation that his car has been ticketed 27 times for speeding in school zones. Like many other elected officials who now oppose Amazon’s plan for a Long Island City headquarters, he signed a letter last year urging Amazon to come to New York City.

Assemblyman Michael Blake

First elected in 2014, Blake defeated a Bronx machine-backed candidate and immediately established himself, like Williams, as a pol with greater ambitions. Blake was a political director on Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign for president and later worked in the White House. In addition to serving in the Assembly, he is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, lending him a national platform. He has been a strong proponent of criminal justice reform and overhauling the New York City Housing Authority.

Blake is campaigning on a progressive message that stresses putting fewer people of color behind bars and will compete aggressively for key African-American and Afro-Caribbean votes in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Obama credited Blake for helping to inspire My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help young men of color. Thanks to his national ties, Blake is expected to be one of the stronger fundraisers in the race. He is a particularly forceful and charismatic public speaker.

Serving in the State Assembly has meant time in Albany, away from the city spotlight. Williams has built stronger name recognition and will have the endorsements of more elected officials. Blake’s restlessness has gotten the best of him—shortly after taking office, he attempting to join a powerful political consulting firm, drawing scathing condemnations from good government groups for the myriad conflicts-of-interest such a move would present. Blake eventually declined the job. In the Assembly, he does not have a notable legislative record: a page dedicated to the housing subcommittee he chairs shows he has held one committee meeting since taking office.


Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell

The Upper West Side and Morningside Heights lawmaker has been in office since 2003, compiling an impressive legislative record. O’Donnell is probably best known for being a prime sponsor on the 2011 bill that legalized same-sex marriage in New York. One of the only openly gay members of the state legislature, O’Donnnell, 58, has been on the front lines of LGBTQ activism for decades. In a crowded field, his neighborhoods could make the difference—he represents an affluent, extremely high turnout area. He also happens to be the older brother of comedian and actress Rosie O’Donnell. Unlike his rivals, he has affirmatively declared he will never run for mayor.

But O’Donnell is not well known beyond Upper Manhattan and the Assembly can be a difficult springboard to citywide office. Since he hasn’t drawn the same amount of headlines as those holding city offices, he will have to work quickly to build up name recognition beyond his corner of Manhattan.

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Councilman Rafael Espinal (William Alatriste / City Council)

Councilman Rafael Espinal

Espinal, 34, has come a long way from his days as a machine-backed candidate for State Assembly. Now a member of the City Council, Espinal is viewed as a member of the hip, progressive vanguard. He announced his candidacy in a gauzy Sunday New York Times feature. He was the first city councilman to endorse Bernie Sanders, understanding the appeal the democratic socialist would have in his Bushwick, Brooklyn district. As a city councilman, he is best known for leading the push to repeal the retrograde Cabaret Law and partnering with City Hall to rezone significant portions of East New York. Espinal’s busy Council record could help set him apart from a slew of contenders.

One of several council members seeking the gig, Espinal will have to battle to distinguish himself with voters who pay less attention to city affairs. He is also a rumored candidate for Brooklyn borough president in 2021—some insiders have wondered whether this campaign is just a way to set himself up for the next one. And the East New York rezoning was quite controversial with leftist activists and housing groups, who felt de Blasio and Espinal were triggering gentrification in a largely poor, black neighborhood.

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Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez speaks at a 2015 press conference to push for more funding to make city streets safer (William Alatriste / City Council)

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez

Rodriguez, who has represented upper Manhattan since 2009, has not formally declared for the office but is expected to run. As the longtime chair of the City Council’s transportation committee, the 53-year-old has been an ally of public transit and safe street advocates. Like Williams, he once vied to become speaker of the City Council and has been known to have citywide ambitions. A Dominican-American immigrant and fluent Spanish speaker, Rodriguez stresses his immigrant background and ability to connect with New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds. Early in his tenure, he scored plenty of progressive cred for getting arrested at Occupy Wall Street.

Rodriguez has been the center of a number of controversies. An advocate of de Blasio’s successful push to rezone Inwood, the councilman faced down angry advocates and protesters who accused him of colluding with developers to chase the working class and poor from the neighborhood. He was one of the few council members to openly agitate for a pay raise, going as far to say he needed to be paid $175,000 a year to support his family. Several years earlier, he drew headlines for once firing, rehiring, and firing a staffer again.

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Councilman Eric Ulrich (John McCarten / City Council)

Councilman Eric Ulrich

The Republican from southern Queens has not formally declared yet, but attended a public advocate forum last week. Though he’s one of the longest tenured council members, he’s only 33—a relatively moderate Republican who has long been called a rising star in his party. After supporting Melissa Mark-Viverito for speaker in 2014, he was the only Republican to chair a committee in the City Council, heading up efforts to establish a department of veteran services in city government. He was a rumored mayoral candidate in 2017, but passed on a run. (He passed on a reality show too.) His hope is that enough progressives in the field could split votes to hand him a surprise victory.

The candidate Ulrich did back for mayor, Bo Dietl, was objectively horrific. Ulrich is still a Republican in a Democratic city. Even if he ferried John Kasich around New York, and not Donald Trump, it’s a very bad time to be campaigning around the five boroughs as a member of the Republican Party.

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Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito with U2's Bono, The Edge, and Yoko Ono to unveil Ellis Island Tapestry in honor of John Lennon in July of 2015 (William Alatriste / City Council)

Melissa Mark-Viverito

Mark-Viverito, 49, was the Council speaker from 2014 through 2017, the first Latina ever elected to citywide office. The East Harlem Democrat’s tenure was scandal-free and boasted serious accomplishments: a paid sick days law, decriminalization of various low-level infractions, and a successful drive to convince a once reluctant de Blasio to begin the process of closing Rikers Island. She was one of the earlier mainstream Democrats to call for the legalization of marijuana.

After leaving the Council, she joined the Latino Victory Fund, a PAC committed to electing more Latinos to local and federal office. As a candidate, she would bring a degree of citywide name recognition, long ties to influential labor unions, and a major pot of cash—in anticipation of a future run, she’s already sitting on nearly $400,000, a strong head start over the field. As one of the only leading women in the race, she can argue to voters the city must keep a female in the public advocate’s office; Mark-Viverito has been attending forums but hasn’t formally declared her candidacy yet.

Though she is known for a particularly expressive Twitter account, Mark-Viverito can be an intensely private person and could be, at times, uncomfortable with the city’s aggressive press corps. Like other council members in the race, she has not campaigned beyond her district, and her electoral victories there were surprisingly weak for a long-serving incumbent. Early in her tenure, she was accused of being too close to de Blasio, who lobbied council members to elect her speaker. Some progressive activists still resent her for bottling up and later weakening long sought after criminal justice reforms, partnering with de Blasio’s bulldog police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to hire 1,100 new police officers, and supporting a controversial rezoning of her own district. Her unflinching support for Oscar Lopez Rivera drew both admirers and detractors, especially among moderates and conservatives.

THE OUTSIDERS

Nomiki Konst

Konst is a progressive activist who was a member of the Democratic National Committee’s reform commission. A former journalist for The Young Turks, Konst has a large online following and boasts ties to Our Revolution, the campaign arm formed by Bernie Sanders staffers and supporters, and DSA. However, it’s unclear either group will support her in the race. As a first-time candidate, she has little name recognition among city voters.

Dawn Smalls

Small is an attorney and veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations. She also served as a commissioner on the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. Like Konst, she pitches herself as an independent outsider not beholden to any establishment forces. She is also not well known to voters.

David Eisenbach

A Columbia University history professor, Eisenbach ran a primary against James in 2017, garnering 23 percent of the vote. Eisenbach is hoping to build significantly on his past performance, touting his staunch opposition to the real estate industry and his work to try to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

Benjamin Yee

Yee is well-regarded within progressive Democratic circles, especially in Manhattan, where he serves as a state committeeman. A longtime Manhattan activist, Yee worked for Obama’s 2008 campaign. How well he’ll be able to compete with sitting elected officials is not yet clear.

Theo Chino

A French entrepreneur and business owner once involved in trading Bitcoin, Chino has been a socialist and Green Party activist. His website hasn’t yet fleshed out many policy proposals.

Ifeoma Ike

Ike, who goes by "Ify," is a Nigerian-American activist, artist and attorney. A former deputy executive director of the de Blasio administration's Young Men’s Initiative, Ike's main platforms include addressing New York City's homelessness and affordability crisis, enacting restorative justice policies, and "Disrupting School Segregation, School to Prison Pipeline, Social Immobility & Income Inequality."

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