The candidates, moderator and hosts (photo via Gotham Gazette)
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James’ victory in the race for state attorney general has kicked off what will be roughly three months of jostling by candidates running to replace her. While James won’t be sworn in until January and the nonpartisan special election for her seat won’t be held till February, several candidates have already declared their interest in the seat and, on Wednesday evening, seven of them shared a stage at New York Law School, staking out their positions on the roles and responsibilities of the office and how they would employ the limited powers of the public advocate.
The 90-minute forum, hosted by AARP-NY and good government group Citizens Union, featured New York City Council Members Rafael Espinal, Eric Ulrich and Jumaane Williams, Assembly Members Michael Blake and Daniel O’Donnell, Dawn Smalls, a former Obama White House appointee, and journalist Nomiki Konst. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max moderated the discussion, which largely focused on how the candidates would execute the role of public advocate, but also touched on a number of issues, from development in the city to the recently-announced deal that would bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens.
The candidates were all in the same neighborhood in defining the role of the public advocate as an independent watchdog in city government that provides a voice for the voiceless and holds the mayor accountable. Each presented their vision of the key responsibilities of the office and how they would creatively use its resources, and discussed areas of government function and city agencies where they would focus their efforts. There was minimal daylight among them, all Democrats save for Ulrich, who admitted he was the “elephant in the room” as the only Republican on stage (he calls himself a Rockefeller Republican and is pro-choice, pro-labor union, and opposed to President Donald Trump).
The candidates mostly agreed that the office is underfunded, at $3.3 million for the current fiscal year, and agreed that the budget should be independent of the whims of the City Council and the mayor, though none of them offered specific projections for adequate funding.
Council Member Espinal pitched his record of bringing resources to his district and fighting for affordable housing, chiefly through the East New York rezoning plan that included $250 million in city investments in the neighborhood. He agreed that the public advocate should use their position to hold the mayor accountable for his decisions. “But I also believe that the public advocate should be responsible for making sure that we have a plan that’s going to benefit the future of New York City,” he said, insisting that the role should be about more than just reacting to crises after the fact. “NYCHA’s crumbling, the MTA’s crumbling, but no one’s talking about what are some sustainable solutions on how the city should move forward to make sure those problems do not end up at our steps at City Hall.”
Espinal said the office should be empowered to audit city agencies, conduct independent environmental studies on land use deals, and should run the city’s most efficient constituent services program. Asked how he would work to make the city more aging friendly, he promised to advocate for investments in infrastructure and accessibility, and to push for increased senior services and funding for health care facilities.
Ulrich repeatedly made some of the most forceful pledges to hold the mayor accountable, arguing he is best suited to do so given his party affiliation. “The office of the public advocate was supposed to be, or was designed to be, I believe, a check on the power of the executive branch in this city, not a rubber stamp,” he said, noting that officials sometimes fail that duty when both the public advocate and mayor are members of the same party while giving credit to several prior public advocates for ways in which they used the office.
Ulrich said the powers of the office could be expanded without increased funding, by allowing the public advocate to sit on the boards of more city commissions and authorities, such as the MTA executive board and the CUNY board of trustees.
To aid seniors, Ulrich said he would push to expand support for naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), advocate for legislation in Albany to give tax credits to caregivers of senior citizens and also promote greater affordable housing set asides for seniors. He stressed that it was necessary to set up a communication pipeline, perhaps within the office, dedicated to seniors’ complaints and issues.
The presumed frontrunner in the race is Council Member Williams, who is fresh off a defeat in the primary for lieutenant governor in which he nonetheless won nearly 47 percent, more than 640,000 votes, against the incumbent, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Williams prides himself on being an “activist elected official” and has vowed to bring that philosophy into the public advocate’s office. “I want to make sure that people feel someone is watching the mayor, the City Council, the agencies to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Williams said. More than just raising issues with government failures, he said the public advocate should also propose solutions to solve them.
Williams pushed for the office to receive subpoena power and an independent budget with enough resources to hire a dedicated investigations staff and to give them the ability to file lawsuits and see them through. To Williams, the biggest issues facing seniors are the lack of affordable housing in the city and “resource inequality” across neighborhoods for which he pointed fingers at Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, promising that he would prioritize those problems if elected.
Smalls, an attorney who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations and formerly as a commissioner at the New York State Joint Commission for Public Ethics, pitched herself as an independent candidate from outside the established political structure. “I am running for public advocate because I believe in government as a force for good, but only if it works,” she said.
Smalls said she would reorganize the office to be “laser focused” on a few key areas, in particular the city’s subway system, affordable housing, homelessness, and voting reforms. “Rather than doing a little bit of everything, when you have such a limited budget, and you have such a limited staff, I think the way to leverage that is to really focus in on a few key issues that affect all New Yorkers and really use that watchdog status to drill down and hold leaders accountable,” she said.
Smalls also said she supported providing more affordable housing for seniors and a caregiver tax credit, and said the city needs to put more money into NYCHA which is home to many seniors and is experiencing a “five-alarm emergency.”
Similarly to Smalls, Konst touted her independence from politics as her strongest qualification. “I’m running for public advocate because it is independent, it should be independent of politics,” she said. Konst previously served on the Democratic National Committee Reform Commission, appointed by Senator Bernie Sanders, and has been a vocal proponent of reform within the party. A democratic socialist, she also holds what are in this race likely the furthest left positions on many issues.
She offered several unique ideas for how she would use the public advocate’s office including setting up a unit of out-of-work reporters to investigate public corruption, creating a conflicts of interest map to portray the connections between elected officials, lobbyists, and special interests, and appointing a representative of the public advocate’s office in each of the 51 City Council districts to monitor community issues. “The public advocate is there to shine light on all the dark places in this city, expose it and take it on,” she said.
Konst said senior issues were “intersectional” and argued that across the board, underfunding of government services was the root of the problem, whether it be in NYCHA or the MTA. She promised to sue landlords that improperly evict elderly tenants and inveighed against overdevelopment that she said was leading to services and resources being concentrated in richer communities.
Assemblymember Blake, who was recently reelected for a third term and is also a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the number one responsibility of the office is “to be the watchdog of the agencies and to fight for the people.” He outlined four critical areas where he would “mobilize” the office’s resources -- the MTA, NYCHA, affordable housing, and the Department of Education. Blake repeatedly chided the deal signed between the city and state with Amazon to help the tech giant establish a satellite office in Long Island City. The deal was struck without input from local elected officials and will cut out the City Council from the land use review process. Blake said it was a chief example of why the city needs a strong public advocate.
Blake called for an expansion of the SCRIE program, which provides rent freezes for seniors, insisted that the city should expand transit options for the elderly and also emphasized the need to provide services to senior veterans and seniors living in public housing. Additionally, he emphasized a focus on preventative health care for the city’s aging population, insisting that “too often we’re addressing the crisis on the back end.”
“I’m running for public advocate because I don’t want to be mayor,” said Assemblymember O’Donnell, insisting that anyone seeking to use the office as a springboard should be “disqualified” from the race. (Only Ulrich would later say that he would consider running for mayor, while the rest either denied or deflected). “You have to have an independent outside voice who’s unafraid of the consequences of telling the truth,” O’Donnell added.
O’Donnell said his first legislative proposal would be to give the public advocate’s office the power to subpoena city agencies, later touting his experience conducting investigations as head of the Assembly’s ethics committee. He repeatedly said the top issue the office should combat is overdevelopment and gentrification he says is running rampant across the city.
O’Donnell also raised the issue of so-called food deserts in low-income communities, which lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables and are generally linked to worse health outcomes. He said he would work to solve that problem. “I believe the public advocate’s office is the perfect place to promote it, to organize it,” he said.
He also touted a bill he authored to remove social security income from SCRIE application numbers, alleviating pressure on seniors who cannot afford their rent, and he said the city should take over control of the bus system from the MTA, to ensure better transit options for seniors.
Not all of the participating candidates are officially declared, Ulrich indicated he hasn’t made up his mind about running yet, and others who were not part of the forum are running or may run. Among others who are running or considering a run are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, David Eisenbach, Ben Yee, and Theo Chino. Candidates will have to officially petition in early January to get on the February ballot. As soon as James vacates the seat, Mayor Bill de Blasio, himself a former public advocate, will have to call the special election.