With two major citywide races and one Manhattan-wide contest up for grabs on Sept. 15, Democratic primary voters could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. On primary day, a total of 11 candidates will vie for three high-profile positions: city comptroller, public advocate and Manhattan district attorney. This week we conclude a series of profiles featuring candidates from those races. To determine the order, we drew names out of a hat.
Running for Public Advocate
By Shayndi Raice
Mark Green is back.
Although he swore off politics after losing the Democratic primary for attorney general to Andrew M. Cuomo in 2006, Green has decided he is ready for the spotlight once again. This time, he’s going after his old job: Pubic Advocate of the City of New York.
“I was the public advocate. I know the job because I’ve done the job,” Green said at a recent candidates’ forum at Young Israel of the West Side. “And I have ideas to do it better.”
His history as—in his words—an “aggressive progressive” should be proof to New Yorkers that he has what it takes to stand up to City Hall and serve as an ombudsman for New Yorkers.
“Government has to do for an individual what he or she can’t do for themselves,” Green said firmly from the podium at the forum. “That’s not just a slogan. That’s my life.”
Indeed, Green’s first foray into public service began in the 1970s, when he worked for Ralph Nader, running Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, a consumer advocacy lobbying group in Washington, D.C. In 1981, he founded and ran the Democracy Project in New York City, a public policy institute. From 1990 to 1993 he worked for Mayor David Dinkins as the Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. Then, after the 1989 New York City charter revision created the office of the public advocate, Green ran and served as the first City Hall watchdog from 1993 to 2001. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2001, losing a close battle for the post to Michael Bloomberg. For the last few years, he has been president of Air America Radio, the liberal talk radio network that was owned by his real estate mogul brother, Stephen. This January, he released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President, a book he co-edited with Michele Jolin.
Green’s history is important because his campaign has essentially been built around it. He’s been out of public office for eight years, but that doesn’t mean he’s letting anyone forget his contributions from the 1990s.
“I meet candidates who say, ‘I stood up to this one, I fought that one’,” Green said to a group of Upper West Siders at Young Israel. “Listen to those words. What did they get done? All of us can brag about certain accomplishments. But eventually you have to look at someone’s head and heart and say, ‘Is this person going to be on my side because they’ve shown their values over time?’”
Green’s values, and accomplishments, include going after tobacco companies for directing advertising toward kids, suing former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for withholding information on racial profiling and police misconduct and, most importantly for the group he addressed at Young Israel, forming a “kosher coalition” made up of organizations, wholesalers and retailers who pledged to restrain the price of kosher for Passover food products.
“Every candidate is ardently pro-Israel for reasons of morality,” said Green to the Jewish congregation. “But how many candidates can say they saved you money on matzoh?”
He is also focusing on his New York roots. Born in Brooklyn in 1945, Green lived with his family in Bensonhurst before moving to Great Neck, Long Island, where he graduated from Great Neck South High School. He left New York to attend college at Cornell and law school at Harvard. Today, he lives in Manhattan with his wife, Deni Frand. In his stump speech and on his website, he makes a point of noting that New York City welcomed his immigrant grandparents a century ago, just as it welcomes his two children, Jenya and Jonah, today as they begin their careers.
According to an Aug. 26 SurveyUSA poll conducted for WABC-TV, Green is leading his opponents with 38 percent, compared to 19 percent for City Council Member Bill de Blasio, 11 percent for civil rights lawyer Normal Siegel and 10 percent for City Council Member Eric Gioia. Nineteen percent of voters were still undecided. He is significantly behind his opponents, however, in fundraising efforts; Gioia leads in that category with more than $2 million. Green only qualified a few weeks ago for public campaign funds by raising $150,000 in private donations, trailing the other candidates significantly for matching funds.
If elected, Green promises to return to his old ways, going after City Hall and holding officials accountable for their actions. He is especially focused on Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s decision to lower the budget for the office of public advocate by 40 percent. While he acknowledged that across-the-board budget cuts are necessary, given an approaching $5 billion deficit, he said that other city agencies were only cut by approximately 4 percent, a significant and stark contrast.
“Why did he cut only the watchdog by 40 percent? I think I know the reason. I think you know the reason,” he said. “To have such an unjustified, unprovoked, disproportionate reduction is absurd and indefensible.”
But even with the decrease in funds, Green said he’ll make do. He pledged to reach out to seniors, students and out-of-work lawyers to volunteer to make the office effective.
That does not mean he has any plans to let the mayor and speaker get away with the budget cuts, though. Although he almost always supports transparency, he is keeping quiet on how he plans to reinstate the public advocate’s budget.
“I would ask Mike Bloomberg to take the high road,” he said. “If he doesn’t agree, I have alternatives. You will have to stay tuned.”
Running for City Comptroller
By Zara Kessler
“I actually find the comptroller race very exciting,” said Council Member David Weprin as he took the podium at a forum hosted by the General Contractors Association of New York and the New York Building Congress.
Weprin, known for his focus on the esoteric details of the office, was taking the stage at the July 29 forum after two of his opponents—fellow Council members Melinda Katz and John Liu—had joked about the dry nature of an 8:30 a.m. comptroller discussion. (Council Member David Yassky, the fourth comptroller candidate, had yet to give his introduction.)
Weprin’s Manhattan campaign headquarters, a barebones storefront on West 54th Street, also seems to reflect that image: the focus is less on appearance and more on getting work done.
“I don’t think you need flashiness as comptroller. I think you need competence,” he said.
But at least some flashiness may be needed, as an Aug. 26 SurveyUSA poll conducted for WABC-TV noted that while 22 percent of voters are still undecided, Weprin is currently last in the comptroller’s race, with only 11 percent of Democratic voters’ support (Katz leads with 27 percent).
Luckily, campaigning is nothing new for Weprin. His father, Saul, was elected Democratic leader of his Queens Assembly District in 1962, and rose to become Speaker of the State Assembly until his 1994 death. Weprin succeeded his father as Democratic District leader that year, and in 2001, he was elected to the City Council. Older brother Barry did a stint as a town councilman in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and younger brother Mark represents their father’s former district in the Assembly; Mark is currently running for Weprin’s Council seat.
Born and raised in Holliswood, Queens, Weprin graduated from Jamaica High School, SUNY Albany and Hofstra Law School. He and his wife Ronni have five children.
Weprin became an associate in a litigation law firm and later joined Gov. Mario Cuomo’s administration as deputy superintendent of banking. But the section of his resume he stresses the most when it comes to comptroller qualifications is his work as a senior investment banker, which involved underwriting municipal bonds for infrastructure needs. This is the perfect background for the comptroller’s debt issuing responsibilities, he argues, as well as the office’s role in managing the city’s pension funds.
Pension funds have been a major point of contention among the candidates, especially in light of the pay-to-play scandal that led to the indictment of political advisers close to former city and state comptroller Alan Hevesi. Weprin believes that the city, as a huge client with a major portfolio, should only be dealing with principals or senior executives of firms, rather than the middlemen or political consultants who have been linked to the pay-to-play scheme. His opponents have a more tempered view of placement agents, arguing that they should be used in a more transparent fashion, or only for smaller funds that don’t have adequate resources.
Weprin promises to bring the comptroller to the people by opening up five borough-wide offices. Such community-oriented offices would deal with predatory lending, financial literacy issues and mortgage foreclosures, as well as pension and contract issues. Moreover, he promises to do a self-audit of the comptroller’s office to eliminate waste, and to invest in businesses that create jobs within the city.
Support for the campaign, which has raised about $2.3 million, comes from former Mayor David Dinkins, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden. Other prominent endorsements include seven DC37 locals and the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Weprin’s dance moves at a recent Brooklyn event gained him YouTube stardom, as well as the support of the organizers of the Soul Summit music festival.
In the Council, Weprin chaired the Finance Committee, where he sponsored the Autism Initiative, which funded programs for young children on the autism spectrum, and pushed to set aside $2.5 billion of surplus funds to pay for future retirees’ health care benefits.
But much criticism has resulted from the fact that Weprin was babysitting the Council’s finances throughout the recent slush fund controversy, which revealed the Council practice of assigning money to fake nonprofit organizations before it went out to legitimate groups, which were sometimes linked to friends and family. The scandal took down two ex-aides to a Brooklyn Council member, and led to a guilty plea for misusing public funds from Council Member Miguel Martinez, who resigned. Martinez should go to prison, Weprin says, but he notes that the Finance Chair does not police the speaker’s office, which was the source of the dispersed funds.
“Look, I mean, all 51 members of the Council who voted on the budget, who were part of the process, can take some blame. You know all my opponents are also Council members. Could we have done better? Absolutely. Have we done a lot to change the process to make it more transparent, to put in the safeguards to prevent certain things from happening again? Absolutely we have,” Weprin said, highlighting the many good organizations to which discretionary funding goes.
Nice guy that he is, a Mets fan and movie buff who eagerly hands out his cell phone number to a reporter in case of further questions, Weprin has pinpointed perfect jobs for his peers.
“John Liu would make a great MTA chair, Melinda Katz would be a great chair of the City Planning Commission and David Yassky would be a great head of the Environmental Protection Committee,” he said at a recent debate.
That, of course, would leave the comptroller’ seat wide open for Weprin.
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