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Field for Public Advocate Special Election Comes Into Focus

Rafael Espinal

Council Member Rafael Espinal (photo: William Alatriste)

Letitia James’ win in the race to become the next New York Attorney General means there will be a special election early in 2019 to name New York City’s next Public Advocate. The candidates for what will be a roughly three-month race were just beginning to become clear when news broke of planned City Council legislation calling for the position of public advocate to be abolished, as reported by Politico.

Though the post of public advocate has had critics since it was created during a massive 1989 New York City Charter revision process, the Council bill faces an uphill path to passage, and the race to replace James as one of just three popularly-elected citywide officials will capture much of the city’s political attention over the coming weeks.

The somewhat undefined and underfunded role of public advocate is largely shaped by the person who fills it. It is broadly expected that the public advocate will do as the name suggests and fight for public interests, serving as a watchdog over the rest of city government. It is also seen as a stepping stone post -- Bill de Blasio launched his successful 2013 campaign for mayor from the perch.

With James expected to win her race for attorney general since she launched her campaign several months ago, a long list of potential public advocate candidates formed. Now that Election Day is in the past, some are making it official, while others are still officially in the considering phase.

Pushing the decision-making is that organizations have begun to host candidate forums, including the first on Monday night, held in Manhattan by several progressive advocacy groups and Democratic clubs. Another will follow on Wednesday night, hosted by government reform group Citizens Union and AARP-NY. Candidates must also consider fundraising and pursuing endorsements from groups, labor unions, and high-profile individuals.

Even before James won her race, a handful of candidates declared their candidacies: City Council Member Jumaane Williams, state Assembly Members Daniel O’Donnell and Michael Blake, activist and journalist Nomiki Konst, and Columbia history professor David Eisenbach, who ran in the 2017 public advocate Democratic primary against James.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is said to be nearing the launch of a campaign, while there have been grumblings that her predecessor in that role, Christine Quinn, may also give the race a look. There has also been some question about whether Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams would consider it, though he has expressed his intention to run for mayor in 2021.

Meanwhile, along with Williams, who just lost a bid to become the Democratic lieutenant governor nominee, current City Council Members either starting or flirting with a run for public advocate include Rafael Espinal, Robert Cornegy, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican in the mix at this point. (Meanwhile, five of their colleagues - Kalman Yeger, Robert Holden, Ruben Diaz Sr., Mark Gjonaj, and Rtichie Torres -- announced on Monday that they are backing a bill to eliminate the position.)

Also in the running for public advocate are Dawn Smalls, a Manhattan attorney with a background in federal government, open government advocate and Democratic Party activist Ben Yee, and systems engineer Theo Chino. Other names could easily emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Once James is officially sworn in as attorney general on January 1, Mayor de Blasio will have just a few days to call a special election, likely to take place in late February. That election will be “non-partisan,” meaning there are no party primaries and each candidate must create their own ballot line through petitioning to accrue signatures from voters.

Once the special election is decided, the winner will only hold the office until the end of 2019. In the fall, there will be a “regular” election, with party primaries (as necessary) and a general election. The winner of that election will serve out the rest of James’ term until the end of 2021. He or she would be eligible to run for reelection that fall and able to serve two full terms on top of the partial term, though there is of course talk that whoever holds the seat at the start of 2020 may very well run for mayor in 2021, when de Blasio is term-limited out of office.

The forum on Wednesday will be held at New York Law School starting at 6:30 p.m., participating candidates including Blake, Williams, Espinal, Ulrich, O'Donnell, Konst, and Smalls.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 12

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week we continue to process the results of the past week's elections, but also turn our attention to the race in the special election for New York City Public Advocate, whereby Letitia James will be succeeded after she ascends to Attorney General. The election will likely take place in February, but several candidates have already declared and others surely will soon, and this week will see the first forums for those in the running.

There's also government happening this week, including a lot of action at the City Council - see our day-by-day rundown below. And, this will be criminal justice week in the new “Agenda 2019” project brought to you by Gotham Gazette and City Limits, wherein the two publications are teaming up to set the stage for 2019 in New York City and State politics and government. Read the initial overview: Agenda 2019: Major Policy Tests Ahead for State and City.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

"On Monday, Mayor de Blasio will deliver remarks at the Flight 587 17th Annual Memorial Service. This event is open press." In the evening, "the Mayor will appear on NY1’s Inside City Hall" during the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

At noon Monday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will deliver keynote remarks at VoteRunLead’s 2018 “Women & Power” National Town Hall, discussing the midterm elections and the future. Other speakers will include Representatives-elect Lauren Underwood and Ilhan Omar. The town hall will take place at the Times Square WeWork.

On Monday evening several Manhattan Democratic clubs and the New York Progressive Action Network will host a candidates' night in the race to replace Tish James as Public Advocate via a special election likely to occur in February. Candidates are set to address the crowd one at a time over the course of several hours at ThoughtWorks in Manhattan.

At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law to “establish a demonstration program to facilitate the creation and alteration of habitable apartments in basements and cellars of certain one- and two-family dwellings.”
--The Committee on For-Hire Vehicles will meet at 11 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws, including laws to “create a task force to study sale prices of taxicab medallions,” creating an “Office of Inclusion” within the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and “financial education for persons considering purchases or leases of for-hire vehicles or taxicab licenses.”
--The Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to information disclosure and trainings on harassment at nightlife establishments and the “disclosure of service fee charges associated with tickets to entertainment events in New York City,” as well as to discuss a resolution “calling on the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Public Safety to update its mandatory security guard training curriculum to include sexual harassment prevention and bystander intervention training for all security guards who work in nightlife establishments.”
--The Committee on Veterans will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to “benefits counseling services for veterans,” “creating veterans resource centers,” and creating a “veterans resource guide.”
--The Committees on Youth Services and Juvenile Justice will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “reentry programs for formerly incarcerated youth.”
--The Committee on Technology will meet at 1:30 p.m. to discuss a proposal to create an “Office of Data Analytics.”

The state commission on legislative and executive branch compensation is set to meet on Tuesday.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Business Council of New York State will host its “2018 Annual Environmental Conference,” discussing “the latest in environment regulation and law.” Speakers will include EPA Region 2 Administrator Peter Lopez; NYSERDA CEO Alicia Barton; Diane Burmon, a member of the Public Service Commission; and State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos. The conference will take place at the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Springs.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction will hold a public meeting at 125 Worth Street.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will deliver remarks at the opening of NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center in Auburn. At 12:30 p.m., Hochul will make an announcement at Bausch + Lomb Vision Care in Rochester. And at 2:15 p.m., Hochul will tour Perry's Ice Cream on its 100th Anniversary, in Akron.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza will be in Cambridge, MA, where he will deliver keynote remarks at the MIT School Access and Quality Summit.

On Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. at City Hall, ""Council Member Rafael Espinal, representatives from Brooklyn venue House of Yes, and other advocates will gather before the Committee on Consumer Affairs hearing to rally in support of a package of legislation sponsored by Council Member Espinal that will combat sexual harassment in nightlife."

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at the New York State Compensation Committee Meeting.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Deputy Mayor J. Philip Thompson, and DCP Population Division Director Joseph Salvo will host a town hall on the 2020 Census at Queens Borough Hall.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will deliver remarks at the Council's Puerto Rican Heritage Celebration, at City Hall.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the New York City Bar Association will host the City’s Human Rights Commissioner, Carmelyn Malalis, for a discussion on the city’s recently effective Human Rights Law, aimed at eliminating bias in the workplace and public accommodations.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James will attend the Brennan Center for Justice Legacy Awards Reception & Dinner.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. at New York Law School, Common Cause New York and Fair Vote will co-host "an in-depth panel discussion that will highlight the current state of election outcomes in New York City and explore the potential impact of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in New York City." It will be moderated by Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY and include panelists New York City Council Member Brad Lander, Karen Brinson Bell, an elections administration consultant, & Betsy Sweet, a former Maine gubernatorial candidate.

The City Council will hold a stated meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Council Speaker Corey Johnson will likely host the usual pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

Also at the City Council on Wednesday: the Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss “authorizing an increase in the amount to be expended annually in 14 BIDs.”

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, City & State will host “NY Women’s Power 100” at the New York Academy of Sciences. Public Advocate and Attorney General-elect Letitia James will deliver keynote remarks.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Aging will meet in Albany for a public hearing “to explore programs and services that help older New Yorkers who want to remain in their homes and communities as they grow older, as well as current challenges facing these older New Yorkers and best practices that can enhance the quality of life for older adults.”

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 120 Broadway.

At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Assembly Standing Committees on Alcoholism + Drug Abuse, Health, and Correction will meet jointly at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing “examining the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment programs in state and local correctional facilities in the state.”

At 11 a.m. Wednesday outside the MTA's downtown offices, "The #FixTheSubway Coalition, composed of diverse, progressive organizations focused on labor, civil rights, racial justice, environmental, transit, and other issues and elected officials will rally in favor of a comprehensive transit funding plan with congestion pricing at its core and against the prospective transit fare hike." The coalition is led by Riders Alliance and other groups.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, this week’s Max & Murphy program will air on WBAI radio and will include interviews with State Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins about Democrats' agenda for taking power in the new year and with Assembly Member Latrice Walker about recent and upcoming criminal justice reform efforts in the state Legislature. The show airs at 99.5FM and wbai.org and is later available as a podcast.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Hunter Foundation will host a town hall meeting at Harlem Hospital on “battling K2 and the opioid crisis in America.” CNN’s Don Lemon will moderate a panel consisting of television host and Hunter Foundation founder Wendy Williams; City Council Member Andy King; Dr. Bunmi Asana, addiction psychiatrist at NYC Health + Hospitals; Dr. Ronnie Swift, Chief of Psychiatry at Metropolitan Hospital; and Dr. Lipi Roy, an addiction medicine expert.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza will be the featured guest speaker at the Queens Parent Advisory Board at Queens Borough Hall.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, TransitCenter will host “Fare Capping: A Formula for Fairer Fares,” discussing the potential benefits of fare capping, a technique whereby single-ride fares are “‘capped’ when they reach the cost of an unlimited-ride pass.” Panelists will include Andy Shaw, Senior Product Manager for Payments at Transport for London; Nick Sifuentes, the Executive Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign; and Jaqi Cohen, campaign coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a board meeting at Saint Claire Catholic Academy in Rosedale, Queens.

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at New York Law School, AARP NY and Citizens Union are hosting a candidate forum in the race to replace Attorney General-elect Tish James as Public Advocate. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max will moderate the forum.

At the City Council on Thursday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Committee on Contracts will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law relating to “reporting of promptness of agency payments to contractors.”
--The Committee on Public Housing and the Subcommittee on the Capital Budget will meet jointly at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing regarding NYCHA’s 2017 Physical Needs Assessment.
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at noon.
--The Committees on Health, Immigration, and General Welfare will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “the impact of the proposed ‘public charge’ rule on NYC.”
--The Committees on Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Hospitals will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding correctional health.
--The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 2 p.m.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, Crain’s will host its 2018 “Health Care Summit” at the Sheraton Hotel in Times Square, discussing “population health” and how location and other socioeconomic factors can weigh on health outcomes. Speakers will include Dave Chokshi, Chief Population Health Officer at NYC Health + Hospitals, as well as several private health care and hospital executives.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, the Association for a Better New York will join Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia for an “exclusive tour” of the Sanitation Department’s Manhattan garages. Garcia “will give a brief presentation at the beginning of the tour.”

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Election Law and the Subcommittee on Election Day Operations and Voter Disenfranchisement will meet jointly at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing on “improving opportunities to vote in New York State,” “including through early voting and no-excuse absentee ballot reforms.”

At 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the Housing Justice for All coalition will march against “corrupt landlords” and call on the new Democratic leadership in state government to enact “universal rent control.” the march will begin at the Museum of the American Indian in the Financial District.

Friday and the weekend
At 8:15 a.m. Friday, the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School will host David Hansell, Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, for a “CityLaw Breakfast.”

At 10 a.m. Friday, the Assembly Standing Committee on the Judiciary will meet at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing on “electronic filing of court papers.”

Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday at 10 a.m.

At 11:30 a.m. Friday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation will meet in Albany for a public hearing on recycling.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max

With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City

bdb at voting machine

(photo: Gotham Gazette)

With all three of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision proposals approved by voters by wide margins on Tuesday, eyes are now on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, empaneled by the City Council and other officials, which will, in some respects, pick up where the 2018 commission left off, possibly considering issues that the mayor’s commission did not act on.

Key among those is ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), an alternative method of voting wherein voters rank their candidate preferences rather than simply voting for one. For whichever races it is applied to, if no candidate wins the required percentage of the vote on initial count, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the second preference of the eliminated candidate’s voters receives those votes. This continues until one candidate secures the required percentage, often set at 50 percent.

As of now, New York City only holds runoffs for citywide positions -- mayor, public advocate, comptroller -- and if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote. Mayor Bill de Blasio narrowly avoided a runoff in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor, but there was one that year for public advocate.

That runoff, in the Democratic primary between eventual winner Letitia James and Daniel Squadron, led to heightened calls for ranked-choice voting, especially given the high cost of the runoff relative to the budget of the public advocate’s office.

Increasing support from elected officials and among the public led to ranked-choice voting being considered and discussed by the 2018 charter commission; in its final report, the commission said that it had received a “considerable volume of public comment about ranked choice voting.” In the end, the commission demurred on ranked-choice, arguing that more research and time were required and recommending that a future commission tackle the issue.

It may not take long; that commission may well end up being the 2019 commission, which has already met six times, twice in Manhattan and once each in the other boroughs, and has a much longer timeline on which to tackle issues. It is expected to continue deliberations, solicit online feedback, and hold hearings and meetings throughout the first half of next year, with its ballot proposals likely due by early September.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who got to name several commissioner including the chair, Gail Benjamin, testified at a recent hearing in favor of ranked-choice voting, urging the commission to look into it. De Blasio, meanwhile, singled out ranked-choice voting when asked by Gotham Gazette at a press availability what he would like the 2019 commission to tackle, though he did not endorse the idea outright.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” the mayor said. “For me, the jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting. I grew up with it in Massachusetts. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses. And I’d sure like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City.”

Despite not taking an affirmative stance on the issue, de Blasio’s answer is a signal of his evolving position on ranked-choice, according to Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group that supports ranked-choice voting.

“I think it’s significant,” Camarda said. “I think what’s telling is we’ve now seen, in the last few months, the mayor last week and the Council speaker at the Manhattan charter revision commission hearing, both called on the commission to consider instant runoff voting, and ‘here are the different arguments for it.’ And I think that’s a signal to the commission that they should seriously look at this.”

“I think there’s a new openness to it on their parts that at least wasn’t public in the past,” he continued. “De Blasio in 2013 went on The Brian Lehrer Show and actually took a position against IRV, and said at the time that the starkness of two candidates in the runoff, he thought was clarifying for voters. So clearly, his position seems to have evolved.”

Aside from good government groups, which almost uniformly support it, ranked choice also has the support of other prominent city elected officials: along with Johnson, support comes from Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate James, who was elected State Attorney General on Tuesday and in May called herself “the face of instant runoff” given her 2013 race. City Council Member Brad Lander has sponsored a bill to implement "instant run-off voting" (James is a co-sponsor) in the Council.

"As the upcoming Public Advocate race shows, Ranked Choice Voting is an idea whose time has come for New York City," Lander said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Stronger majority support, better outreach to diverse communities, less negative campaigning, and it even saves money. What's not to like?"

Advocates, including those in New York, note that ranked-choice both makes third parties more viable (by limiting the need for “strategic voting”) and forces candidates to appeal beyond their base, in the hope of attracting voters as second preference. Ranked-choice would also allow city elections to avoid costly, low-turnout runoff elections when no candidate secures the required threshold of votes.

“We think that enabling voters to rank candidates creates an environment where there's more substantive policy debate, and there’s less negativity in campaigning, because candidates have to appeal to second choice and even third choice votes,” Camarda said.

In 2013, the runoff between James and Squadron was estimated to cost about $13 million, for a position with a $2 million budget, in an election with 6.5% turnout. In a report released the following year, the city’s Campaign Finance Board recommended that New York City adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections.

Advocates also claim that ranked-choice increases turnout, though studies have been conflicting on the matter. Some have charged that it can be confusing to voters, decreasing turnout and the diversity of the electorate. Turnout in San Francisco, the largest American city using ranked-choice, has been generally depressed since the implementation of ranked-choice, while in Minneapolis, the results have been far more promising.

Ranked choice has taken a higher political profile after Maine voters adopted the system by referendum in 2016, after a string of gubernatorial elections going back to 2002 where no candidate received a majority of the vote. The measure survived several legal and legislative challenges and was used in this year’s midterm elections; the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won an outright majority, but the race in the 2nd Congressional District is currently being decided by instant runoff.

Along with San Francisco and Minneapolis, ranked-choice is used in cities such as Oakland and Memphis, where voters approved ranked-choice in 2008 but it has not yet been implemented. On Tuesday, voters in that city rejected a ballot proposal to abandon ranked-choice, and it will be used in 2019. And de Blasio’s hometown of Cambridge has used ranked-choice since the 1940s; Cambridge’s system is a unique hybrid of ranked-choice and proportional representation.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated.

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