There is bad news and good news for public advocate candidates Eric Gioia, Bill de Blasio and Norman Siegel. Mark Green is favored to win the post he held from 1994 to 2001, according to a May 13 poll. But nearly a third of the city’s registered Democrats are unsure which candidate they will support in the Sept. 15 primary, and there are still many months of expensive campaigning to go before any one candidate can be declared the front-runner.
Gioia, an ambitious Queens Council member, has been cultivating a grassroots campaign for more than seven years. De Blasio, a Brooklyn Council member who entered the race late, has tapped into his political and union connections to build a formidable campaign. Siegel is a rabble-rousing civil rights lawyer who ran twice for the post in 2001 and 2005. And Green is running on his long history in progressive politics—and name recognition.
Each wants to succeed Betsy Gotbaum, who is leaving the office after two terms, even though the term-limit extension would allow her to run for a third. After all, despite voter confusion about the office (see sidebar), the public advocate is a citywide position, like comptroller, and is therefore considered a stepping-stone to running for mayor. And in the city charter, the public advocate is first in the line of succession.
But without a strong Democratic mayoral contest to draw out primary voters, the Manhattan electorate may play a crucial role in the outcome of the public advocate race. All four public advocate candidates have a claim to the Upper East and West Sides, home of the Democratic primary faithful, whether they live in the neighborhood, have secured endorsements from the local political establishment or received campaign donations from residents. And the outcome of this citywide race may very well depend on who can best leverage that connection, according to Richard Fife, a political consultant from the Upper West Side.
“It’s which candidate can best excite these people and get people motivated has the best advantage,” Fife said.
Official powers of the public advocate include presiding over Council meetings, introducing legislation and being a member of all Council committees. There is also a role in shaping development projects, through the office’s appointment to the City Planning Commission. But the day-to-day job of the public advocate usually involves troubleshooting: directing residents to public services, or pushing a city agency to remedy issues like school overcrowding, construction complaints or public safety problems. When focused on larger issues—or individuals—the public advocate can have a very public and very powerful bully pulpit.
Just ask Mark Green. Green, in his previous two terms, was a constant foil to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and named the mayor in two successful lawsuits over racial profiling and police brutality.
After leaving that office, he was the favorite to become mayor in 2001 but was defeated in a close race by Michael Bloomberg. Trying again for elected office in 2006, he was clobbered by Andrew Cuomo in the attorney general race.
Green swore off electoral politics after that defeat. He became president of liberal radio station Air America and a fixture on NY1 as a political pundit. He also co-authored a book, Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.
But with three decades of involvement in New York’s political arena and seven campaigns under his belt (but only two wins), he is no stranger to city voters.
“I know you and you know me,” Green told members of the Upper West Side’s Ansonia Democratic Club, trying to capitalize their familiarity with him.
At the club, Green hits on the highlights of his public career: proposing 311, running the city’s Consumer Affairs agency and his propensity for being outspoken—“or abrasive, depending on whether you like me or not,” he joked to club members.
“If you think I was a successful commissioner and public advocate, If you think I was a successful progressive Democrat,” Green said, “I promise I’ll be no less effective.”
Green can rely on name recognition, but lags in fundraising. Given the city’s strict campaign finance laws, he has to tap into his old donor base instead of his family’s personal wealth. He has currently raised $268,143 for his campaign. By contrast, fundraising leader Gioia has nearly $2 million and de Blasio has $1 million.
Poor fundraising might hamper his campaign in the last leg of the primary, especially if there is a run-off election. A run-off is triggered if any one candidate fails to get a majority of the vote—a real possibility in a four-way race—and candidates need cash for a get-out-the-vote operation, television and newspaper advertisements, and campaign mailings.
“He’s been asking for money since the ‘80s,” said a campaign veteran familiar with public advocate races. “So Mark’s blessing is high name recognition. His curse, if it is one, is that voters, and especially donors, are tired of him.”
Eric Gioia, however, has cultivated a donor base for years in preparation for this race. Drawing on his experience as a successful insurgent candidate for Council, he leads the pack with $2 million from 5,558 contributions. Nearly a fifth of his total donations came from the East and West sides, according to recent campaign filings.
Without institutional support from elected officials or the Democratic Party’s local organizations, Gioia can use this volunteer base to help him get on the ballot and campaign in neighborhoods outside his native Queens.
“We have the support of real people, thousands of people on East Side and West Side,” he said.
Plus, Gioia has a knack for drawing attention to his candidacy. In 2007, he lived on food stamps for a week. Last year, he pledged to run the first carbon-neutral citywide campaign, partly through the purchase of carbon credits. That plan failed when the city Campaign Finance Board rejected his proposal to buy the costly credits with campaign donations.
Critics call these maneuvers stunts, but Gioia said they highlight a neglected problem. After his one-week food stamps challenge, he lambasted the red tape that blocks families from getting public assistance. That led him to introduce legislation that would put food stamp applications online.
“That’s both advocating with legislation and policy change to attack an issue,” he said. “You have to be creative, tough and willing to stand up, no matter what the odds.”
Gioia has certainly shown he can use the bully pulpit. When Costco announced its new East Harlem location, he took the wholesaler to task for refusing to accept food stamps. Under pressure from Gioia and other politicians, Costco reversed the policy altogether.
“We need someone who is independent, who can stand up for people, no matter who they are fighting against,” he said, “even if they are standing up against government agency or big corporations, like I have.”
The attention-grabbing campaign may be the stuff of headlines, but it has seemingly done little for legislators in Manhattan, who have mostly rallied behind Bill de Blasio. His endorsements include Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Charles Rangel, Borough President Scott Stringer and other East and West side legislators.
De Blasio’s backers say his Council record shows he can make the best use of the office.
“He’s progressive, more substantive,” said State Sen. Tom Duane, who met de Blasio when he worked in City Hall. “The public advocate position can be used to actually make policy changes and help people.”
In a Democratic primary without a strong mayoral contest at the top of the ticket, de Blasio said such endorsements will bolster his name recognition in a low- turn-out race.
“It’s been an incredible boost,” he said. “Some people told me it would be very hard to gain support in Manhattan.”
De Blasio has deep ties to these elected officials, thanks to gigs with the Clinton and Dinkins administrations. He has also worked as Rangel’s 1994 campaign manager and a Senate campaign aide for Hillary Clinton.
Supporters point to de Blasio’s ability to work both with and against the powers that be, depending on the situation. There are the various bills he championed as chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee: legislation that banned discrimination of people with Section 8 housing vouchers, guaranteed housing for domestic violence victims and supported electronic waste recycling. But de Blasio was also one of the earliest and most vehement opponents of extending term limits, taking on both Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Working with a group of fellow Council members, good government groups, certain labor unions and the Working Families Party—which endorsed his candidacy—he organized opposition to the proposal, which failed.
“You can get the process to work effectively for you,” he said, but “sometimes the only way is to shine a light on the issue and be very public and vibrant.”
Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, would also probably call himself “public” and “vibrant.” A civil rights attorney for more than three decades, his clients include opponents of Columbia University’s West Harlem expansion and families of 9/11 attack victims.
Because the public advocate’s two main responsibilities are protecting civil rights and holding city government accountable, Siegel said he has already been doing the job.
“The many years I’ve been an advocate and civil rights lawyers gives me credibility specifically for this office,” Siegel said. “This office is unique and should have a civil rights, social justice mind-set.”
Siegel, an Upper West Sider by way of Brooklyn, ran for public advocate in 2001 against Gotbaum and several other candidates. He was able to force a runoff election with Gotbaum but did not have the cash necessary to cross the finish line. After running for the seat again in 2005, says this will be his last bid.
“By doing it a third time, it shows I really do want this job,” he said.
That means this particular job and nothing else, he stresses, not even mayor. Siegel, who proudly embraces his outsider status, considers that an important distinction from his three opponents, all past or present elected officials.
“If you look at it from the outside, you raise substantive questions,” he said. “Insiders are not prepared to ask the tough questions.”
Siegel has also been the only candidate to criticize Gotbaum’s eight years as public advocate. That has led him to propose sweeping changes to an office he has lambasted as invisible and ineffective. To give the public advocate a larger presence in city government, he wants to create new satellite offices in each borough, train volunteers in the “art of advocacy” and develop a “social justice network.” Such plans are necessary, he said, given that most voters are unfamiliar with the actual responsibilities of the position, much less know who holds the office.
If elected, Siegel said, “No one would raise the question of who’s the public advocate and what the public advocate does. We haven’t gotten close to the potential of what this office could do.”
The Public Who?
By Zara Kessler
All public advocate candidates tend to face one common hurdle when campaigning: no one knows what the office is, or what it’s supposed to do. And that’s exactly why some critics want to get rid of it.
Officially, the public advocate is supposed to be a watchdog for the city’s officials, agencies and municipal service providers, which is why the office has been characterized as a bully pulpit. But stark differences in attitude and approach between the two officials who have held the position show that the role of city’s ombudsman is in the eye of the beholder.
While the office is only 16 years old, some form of public advocate has existed for almost two centuries, whether as the president of the Board of Alderman or, more recently, as the City Council president. When the Council president position was dissolved in the 1989 charter revision, the role of ombudsman survived, thanks to incumbent Andrew Stein, a mayoral aspirant who lobbied hard to keep the position.
“It is not the most well constructed citywide elected office because it was hatched as a result of a political deal,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of the good government group Citizens Union.
Mark Green, the first public advocate from 1994 to 2001, was a vociferous and progressive counterweight to Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Betsy Gotbaum, Green’s successor and the current public advocate, adopted a less public approach. Gotbaum defends her tenure and says she’s been the leading voice on child welfare, education and “helping the most vulnerable New Yorkers who have no place else to turn get what they need.” She says her office has received 60,000 requests for her public benefits immigrants guide. And a call from someone who was illegally denied food stamps led her to push for policy changes regarding food stamp accessibility.
But the office has been weakened due to the mayor’s control over the public advocate’s budget, which both Giuliani and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have cut repeatedly. Gotbaum believes there is a misconception about the taxpayer cost of the office, which has plummeted to $2.8 million and continues to decrease.
“It’s really important that people understand that I think you get, for less than three million dollars, a tremendous bang for your buck,” Gotbaum said.
Critics, however, argue that New York City also has a Congressional delegation, state legislators, borough presidents and City Council members to advocate on their behalf.
“There really is no way to make an argument that a public advocate is needed,” said Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant.
Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who ran Gotbaum’s 2001 campaign, said there is a need for the office “in a city where people oftentimes get lost.” But to be effective, the office needs to be beefed up.
“They need a larger budget and more staff to do the job that they should be doing,” Sheinkopf said. “It’s very hard when you have no people.”
If the office continues to run without the staff or funds needed to make a difference in people’s lives, the argument for nixing the position could gain traction during the next charter revision. For Gotbaum, that means thousands of New Yorkers could be shut out of government in a time of need.
“To the people who say abolish this office, okay, talk to the 12,000 people that we’ve helped in a year,” Gotbaum said. “See what they think.”
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