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In First Mailer of Public Advocate Race, Kim Targets Amazon, and Prominent Opponents

box kim mail1600

(portion of Ron Kim mailer)

Assemblymember Ron Kim, a candidate for New York City Public Advocate, sent out the first mailed advertisement of his campaign this week, touting his early opposition to the deal between Amazon and New York, and contrasting it with other leading candidates in the race.

The advertisement appears to be the first mailer of the race, a sprint to the February 26 special election to fill now-Attorney General Letitia James’ former seat. Notably, it jabs at four perceived frontrunners, highlighting their signatures on an October 2017 letter signed by most elected officials in New York City to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, urging him to bring the second Amazon headquarters to New York. Over a year later, the corporate giant and New York City and State officials announced the controversial deal that is now a flashpoint in the public advocate race. Kim, who did not sign the letter, is running on a platform of “people over corporations” and a promise to reinvent the public advocate’s office.

Ron Kim mailerSpecifically, the signatures of fellow public advocate candidates blown up on the mailer are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, State Assembly Member Michael Blake, and City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams -- all Democrats like Kim, who represents parts of Queens. Since signing the letter, which was a broad overture, Mark-Viverito, Blake, and Williams have rejected the specific deal that was reached for an Amazon campus in Queens, which includes roughly $3 billion in tax incentives and grants from the city and state. Rodriguez's position on the Amazon deal is less clear, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.

The mailer reads: “Assembly Member Ron Kim is running for to put Public Advocate for one simple reason: people over corporations. That means an end to corporate giveaways, reforming student debt and busting the mega-monopolies that govern our lives. He knows that the only way to truly help New Yorkers is to once and for all put people over corporations.”

The letter to Bezos is essentially a sales pitch for New York City and cites many resources, like the high number of startups in New York as well as the large population Amazon would have at its disposal.

“After they saw the backlash, [Mark-Viverito, Blake, Rodriguez, Williams] all of a sudden changed their position against Amazon for political expediency,” Kim said by email.

Other prominent elected officials not to sign the letter were Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Queens City Council Member Donovan Richards, as well as two other current public advocate candidates: Rafael Espinal, a City Council member from Brooklyn, and Danny O'Donnell, an Assembly member from Manhattan.

Kim has spoken out against the Amazon deal since before it was announced. In comments to Queens Chronicle about two weeks before Amazon and New York announced the deal, he rejected a possible agreement to bring the online giant to the city. He co-wrote two op-eds heavily critical of Amazon and the deal, first in the New York Times with 2018 New York Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout, and another two weeks later in the New York Daily News with then-State Senator-elect Jessica Ramos.

Shortly after details of the deal were released, Assemblymember Kim announced legislation to block the incentives offered to Amazon and use the money to buy and cancel student debt. As public advocate, he would introduce similar legislation in the City Council.

Opposition to the Amazon deal fits Kim’s thematic messaging for his campaign, he’ll even be on the self-created “People Over Corporations” ballot line on Feb. 26, which includes that push to cancel student debt and promoting local small businesses. The mailer describes the deal as a corporate giveaway and calls for investment in the MTA, schools, and affordable housing instead of the billions of incentives in the Amazon deal.

The role of public advocate is intentionally flexible in the New York City Charter, but the three duties most often assumed by public advocates are introducing legislation in the City Council, bringing issues to the front of public discourse, and serving as a watchdog of city agencies. It appears there is little the next public advocate can do about the Amazon deal, but the most likely influence would be through applying public pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to cancel or make significant changes to the deal.

“As the ombudsman for the people of New York City, the Public Advocate has a strong bully pulpit which I will use to convince (both publicly and privately) my colleagues in government to reject the Amazon HQ2 deal,” said Kim.

The public advocate election to be held next month will have a large field of candidates. Twenty-three hopefuls submitted the required 3,750 signatures to the New York City Board of Elections by the Monday deadline. Also running are Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich, Assemblymembers Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan and Latrice Walker of Brooklyn, former Obama and Clinton administration attorney Dawn Smalls, and journalist and activist Nomiki Konst, among many others.

With competitors trying to set themselves apart, Kim clearly sees Amazon opposition as a winning part of the strategy. Asked about how many mailers his campaign sent, where they were sent, and how much was spent on them, he only said, “I sent the mailer to a broad universe of likely voters across New York City.”

Two names noticeably did not appear on the mailer: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, the leaders of negotiations with Amazon executives who held a joint celebratory November press conference to announce the deal. De Blasio and Cuomo were immediately and loudly criticized for the deal by a number of elected officials and activists, though they also got some praise and the only public poll on it shows a mixed bag, but with more support than not. The criticism stemmed from the lack of transparency and oversight involved in the process, the incentives involved, Amazon’s business practices, and the potential impact on local housing prices and infrastructure.

“Both were wrong to offer $3 billion in taxpayer handouts to Amazon instead of funding MTA reconstruction, affordable housing development, programs to fight climate change or a whole host of other priorities,” said Kim, when asked about omitting de Blasio and Cuomo from the mailer. “But neither the Governor nor the Mayor are running for Public Advocate.”

by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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23 Candidates Submit Petitions to Get on February 26 Public Advocate Ballot

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(Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The field of candidates running for public advocate in the special election scheduled for February 26 remains massive after 23 candidates submitted ballot petition signatures to the New York City Board of Elections by a Monday deadline to get on the ballot.

Candidates were required to submit a minimum of 3,750 signatures though many of them went far beyond the requirement with some submitting more than 10,000. What remains to be seen is how many challenges are filed against certain candidates’ petitions in an effort to disqualify those hopefuls from the race and the results of those challenges. Four candidates are already facing objections to their petitions -- Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rafael Espinal, Ron Kim, and Danniel Maio -- though the details of those objections are not available. Candidates have till Thursday to file objections. And candidates who have not been challenged may also not make the ballot if their campaigns do not file requisite paperwork or something problematic enough is found in what they have submitted. This happened with Ify Ike, who had submitted signatures but then announced that she will not be on the ballot due to other paperwork not having been filed by her campaign lawyer.

The special election is nonpartisan, with each candidate creating their own party line that cannot resemble an existing political party. Here are the 23 candidates who submitted ballot petition signatures, with their party lines, in order of appearance on the Board of Elections’ ledger:

1) Melissa Mark-Viverito (Fix the MTA), former speaker of the New York City Council
2) Michael Blake (For The People), state Assembly member from the Bronx
3) Dawn Smalls (No More Delays), attorney who formerly served in Clinton and Obama presidential administrations
4) Eric Ulrich (Common Sense), New York City Council member from Queens
5) Daniel O'Donnell (Equality For All), state Assembly member from Manhattan
6) Latrice Walker (People For Walker), state Assembly member from Brooklyn
7) Rafael Espinal (Livable City), New York City Council member from Brooklyn
8) Jumaane Williams (The People's Voice), New York City Council member from Brooklyn
9) Ron Kim (People Over Corporations), state Assembly member from Queens
10) Ydanis Rodriguez (UNITED FOR IMMIGRANTS), New York City Council member from Manhattan
11) Danniel S. Maio (I Like Maio), mapmaker and former congressional candidate
12) Gary Popkin (Liberal), libertarian and retired professor
13) Benjamin Yee (COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT), entrepreneur and activist
14) Ifeoma Ike (People Over Profit), community activist (*note: Ike will not appear on the ballot, per her campaign)
15) Manny Alicandro (Better Leadership), attorney
16) Michael Zumbluskas (FIX MTA & NYCHA NOW), Reform Party leader
17) David Eisenbach (Stop REBNY), history professor at Columbia University and 2017 candidate for public advocate
18) Nomiki Konst (Pay People More), journalist and activist
19) Jared Rich (Jared Rich For NYC), attorney
20) Anthony Herbert (Housing Residents First), community activist
21) Walter Iwachiw (I4panyc), perennial candidate for elected office
22) Theo Chino (Courage To Change), Bitcoin entrepreneur
23) Helal Sheikh (Friends Of Helal), former City Council candidate

[Read: Everything You Need to Know About the Special Election for Public Advocate]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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As Acting Public Advocate, Johnson Eyes Information Commission Revived by James But Killed by De Blasio

Corey Johnson Tish James

Corey Johnson, Laurie Cumbo, Tish James (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

A charter-mandated city commission meant to help New Yorkers access information about their government sputtered to a stop in 2016 owing to a lack of funding, barely three years after being revived by former Public Advocate Letitia James. Now, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is also acting public advocate for the next several weeks, is taking up James’ unfinished business and attempting to raise the commission from its grave.

The Commission on Public Information and Communication (COPIC) was created in the City Charter in 1989 with a mandate of informing the public about data created and maintained by the city and helping New Yorkers access it. Chaired by the public advocate, the commission is meant to regularly examine the city’s information policies as well as monitor agency efforts to comply with them.

The charter requires the commission to hold at least one hearing each year and issue an annual report. COPIC must also annually publish a directory of “computerized information produced or maintained by city agencies which is required by law to be publicly accessible,” though it has not done so since perhaps the 1990s. The commission does not have a website, despite being in existence for 20 years, and records of past meetings and reports are not easily accessible (the public advocate’s website hosted some of this information but was archived once James vacated her seat).

The commission was also tasked with evaluating the implementation of the city’s webcasting law, passed in 2013 and requiring agencies to broadcast meetings online and archive them. In 2015, James’ second year as public advocate, the commission was exploring ways to assist agencies with their webcasting requirements and setting up a central repository of all webcasts.

The body’s membership, all unpaid, is meant to comprise the heads of several city agencies or their delegates including the city Law Department, the Department of Records and Information Services, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications; one City Council member; two other members appointed by the mayor; one member appointed by the public advocate; and one appointed by the borough presidents as a group.

But COPIC hasn’t held a hearing since March 2016 when James was in the midst of her attempt to rescue the commission from bureaucratic apathy only to be denied resources by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. As James’ predecessor in the public advocate’s office, de Blasio himself had only convened one hearing of the commission. The public advocate’s office receives little funding for its own duties, let alone to hire staff for COPIC.

It’s unclear why James did not continue her advocacy for the commission after having revived it with some fanfare early in her tenure (her office even created a new Twitter account just for COPIC). A spokesperson for James did not respond to a request for comment.

When James was sworn in as New York’s attorney general, the public advocate office fell to Speaker Johnson’s stewardship until a new public advocate is chosen by voters in a special election scheduled for February 26. In the limited time available to him, Johnson is eyeing several avenues of his expanded responsibilities. “I absolutely want an active COPIC, and I want to build on the work Tish James did as Public Advocate in this area,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is something she fought for and it’s something I want to keep working on in my time as acting Public Advocate.”

One reason that COPIC has been unable to publish the requisite public data directory is because the Law Department argued in 2014 that the city’s Open Data portal already accomplishes this goal. But Johnson’s office disagrees. A spokesperson said that though the two databases have significant overlap, COPIC’s public data directory could and would go further, identifying new datasets that members of the public can then request under the city’s Freedom of Information law. The Open Data portal, on the other hand, relies on agencies self-identifying datasets that they believe should be subject to the open data law. Earlier this month, Johnson sent a letter to the mayor requesting that information with a February 15 deadline for a response.

“We’ll look into it,” said mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips, in an email, when asked about the speaker’s letter and the lack of funding for COPIC.

Manhattan City Council Member Ben Kallos, who was the Council’s pick to be on the commission, said the fault for COPIC’s inactivity lies solely with the mayor’s office as he praised James for trying to resuscitate the commission. “COPIC is yet another board that is completely controlled by mayoral appointments, which has a responsibility to be a check on the mayor, which is why it has probably never been funded properly in my recent memory,” Kallos said in a phone interview, noting that the mayor chooses seven of the 11 COPIC commissioners. “COPIC is a powerful agency in the charter which has been written out of the charter by a chronic defunding of the agency as a whole.”

Kallos requested funding for the agency in three successive budgets. In 2015, several civic technology groups and good government advocacy organizations also joined that push, including Common Cause New York, Citizens Union, the New York Public Interest Research Group, BetaNYC, Civic Hall, Reinvent Albany, the League of Women Voters of the City of New York, and the Women’s City Club of New York. “Given the promise of COPIC to increase public accessibility of city government meetings, data and information, we request the modest budget of $250,000 for staffing of COPIC to ensure it is able to fulfill the duties outlined in the City Charter,” the groups wrote in a 2015 letter. That funding is estimated to be sufficient to hire a full-time executive director and general counsel, which the charter mandates.

Kallos was disappointed that those calls went unheeded. “The mayor never included it in the budget. I pushed for it. Tish pushed for it. The good government community pushed for it,” he said. The most impactful role that COPIC could play, Kallos said, is providing advisory opinions to members of the public, elected officials, and city agencies about laws requiring public access to meetings, transcripts and records.

“COPIC has the potential to be the equivalent of the Committee on Open Government at the state level,” he said, referring to the state agency that gives the public, press, and state government advice on the state Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law, and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. Kallos said he would advocate for the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to strengthen COPIC’s powers.

“You can only expect people to work for so long without being compensated for their work, and with the federal government shut down, we’re seeing those limits tested,” Kallos said. “In this case we have COPIC being operated and moved forward for three years without any funding and I hope that people will finally fund this important agency that very few have ever heard of but would have the power to really force the executive to really open up.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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