This is an updated version.
NEW YORK — The public advocate’s office was almost designed to grate on a mayor’s nerves.
Created as a check on the mayor’s powers, the advocate operates as a spokesperson for New Yorkers to hold the powers-that-be accountable. In practice, that has often meant being a perch for what may be the most prominent gadfly in city government.
It is estimated that less than 4 percent of the city’s voting population will decide who will be the next public advocate in tomorrow's runoff election between two Democratic candidates. With no substantial rival in the general election on Nov. 5, either City Councilwoman Letitia James or state Sen. Daniel Squadron will become the de facto officeholder.
The public advocate is still next in the line of succession if something were to happen to the mayor, and is one of only three citywide elected offices. But the office’s small budget and limited power, as well as a historically tense relationship with the mayor, continue to define how the public advocate decides to operate.
“Whether the mayor tries to obstruct or cooperate will determine the public advocate’s M.O.,” said Mark Green, the city's first public advocate.
It doesn’t hurt either James or Squadron, however, that one of the two leading mayoral candidates — Democrat Bill de Blasio — is not only an ally to both but also the outgoing public advocate.
Much of the public advocate’s powers were granted by the 1989 city charter revision. Besides succeeding the mayor, the office has some appointment powers. He or she can also introduce legislation into the Council. Different advocates have used the soapbox for specific agendas.
De Blasio, the outgoing advocate and Democratic nominee for mayor, for example, created a database on the city’s worst landlords and has used the last few months to push hospital reform in Brooklyn.
The agenda pursued by the public advocate has often been limited by a budget that tends to fluctuate according to the office’s relationship with the mayor.
As the city’s first public advocate, Democrat Green was highly critical of Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The mayor cut Green’s budget by 22 percent. Green's successor, Betsy Gotbaum, saw her budget slashed to $1.7 million from $2.8 million after she opposed the extension of term limits favored by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
De Blasio, who has had a frosty relationship with Bloomberg, has a current budget of $2.3 million, which is $400,000 less than even the first advocate’s back in 1994 — 0.00285 percent of the city’s overall $70 billion budget.
If today’s budget for the office of public advocate were to be adjusted for inflation, it would look more like $5 million.
Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, argued that even without a large budget, the office of public advocate does provide a bully pulpit so long as the person in office knows how to use it.
"It's a what-you-make-of-it type of office," Muzzio said. "If the public advocate wants to make their bones, in some sense it has to be made at the expense of the mayor."
James, who has been on the Council for a decade, is convinced she can bring more money to the office. In a March forum in Harlem, James said a number of her Council colleagues had already committed to giving the office more money if she were to win the race.
“I am currently a member of the City Council and right now have about 15 to 20 members of the City Council who have indicated to me that, ‘Tish, if you're the next public advocate we'll work with you to make sure your budget is increased to a level you can provide services and that office can become relevant again,’” she said.
Squadron, a three-term state senator serving the 26th district, hasn’t made any explicit vows to increase funding. He has proposed an ambitious re-imagining of the office that would operate within the current budget. In his policy book, Squadron admits the office “cannot take on every issue, not if it hopes to be thoughtful and constructive.”
Instead, he wants to prioritize the office into four areas: an “Advocate for the Most Vulnerable,” a “Children’s Advocate,” an “Accountability Advocate” and a “Housing Advocate.”
James is often praised for being a loud voice in some of the hardest hits on the Bloomberg administration. She voted against term-limit extensions that passed the Council in 2009 despite public referenda opposing the move.
As chairwoman of the Council’s contracts committee, James also led the body’s charge against the CityTime payroll system that cost the city $500 million and led to the indictment of 11 individuals, two of whom fled the country for India.
RUNNING AGAINST A MAYOR
James has explicitly defined her campaign as the panacea for the Bloomberg era. To that end, she has tried to link Squadron as much as she can to the Bloomberg years to varying degrees of success.
In a recent mailer, James called Squadron a strong supporter of Bloomberg's education agenda, including Albany's approval for mayoral control of schools. She also hit Squadron for staying silent in the term limit debate and the 2009 mayoral race.
Responding with the hashtag #tishgoesnegative on Twitter, Squadron's camp disavowed those links to the mayor and argued he defied City Hall during its slow response to Superstorm Sandy and certain school co-locations in his district. Instead, Squadron linked James to Bloomberg, indicating that her Council votes fell in line with Bloomberg 159 times.
“The truth is I did speak out against term limits,” Squadron told James at the last debate before the runoff. “The truth is Council member James has stood with Mayor Bloomberg 98 percent of the time. And that’s not right.”
As senator, Squadron has pushed bills on ethics and campaign finance reform, as well as extending protections to transgender New Yorkers. His push for an assault weapons ban earned him a key TV spot with his former boss, Sen. Chuck Schumer. Squadron, often credited for his work on gun control in Albany, did offer praise for Bloomberg’s initiative against illegal guns.
James — who has also publicly disagreed with Bloomberg on a range of issues including Atlantic Yards development, emergency management during the 2009 snowstorm, the controversial stop-and-frisk police tactic, the ban on large sugary drinks and more — dismissed the accusation with a smile.
“To charge me with Mayor Bloomberg's agenda is actually laughable,” she said.
LOOKING AT 2014
Running against the mayor’s agenda is nothing new. De Blasio did it in the mayoral primary, but also spent most of his time as public advocate trying to advance the relevance of the office.
When the Charter Revision Commission met in 2010 — following the City Council’s vote to overturn term limits — Public Advocate de Blasio weighed in. He suggested creating a budget for the office independent of the yearly process between the mayor and the Council. He also suggested expanding the office's constituent services and organizing work, as well as granting the public advocate subpoena power.
The de Blasio campaign declined to comment on whether a Mayor de Blasio would commit to expanding resources for the office, but indicated he stood by the ideas he laid out as public advocate.
The campaign of rival Republican candidate and former transit chief Joe Lhota did not respond to repeated requests for comment on how he might work with the public advocate's office.
Green said he’s had little interaction with the former Giuliani deputy, but said, "It's hard to imagine he'd bring the same level of disdain that goes with being a former prosecutor and an autocratic good Samaritan.”
Beyond how either de Blasio or Lhota might interact with the public advocate, the outcome of the race for public advocate may ultimately play into the upcoming fight over the next City Council speaker given the likely racial makeup of the city’s next executive branch given that the top contenders are white.
In the mayor’s race, Adolfo Carrion, a Latino candidate on the Independence Party line, is running far behind Lhota and de Blasio. Scott Stringer, the Democratic candidate for comptroller, is expected to win against a person of color in the general election, Republican John Burnett, who is black.
If James, who is black, were to become public advocate she would be the first woman of color elected to a citywide office. A James win might also decrease pressure on city lawmakers to pick a candidate of color to be the next City Council speaker.
The city has only had three minorities elected to the executive branch: Mayor David Dinkins; Comptroller Bill Thompson, who ran and lost in the Democratic primary for mayor; and John Liu, the current comptroller.
Whoever should win tomorrow, James and Squadron have advocated the idea that the public advocate should be an independent watchdog for New Yorkers, even though both have endorsed de Blasio — with James already calling him the mayor-elect.
“I'm not afraid to go up against powerful interests including the mayor of the city of New York, a Mayor Bill de Blasio, and would challenge particularly if he does not keep his promises to New Yorkers to change the direction of the city after 12 years of a Bloomberg era,” James said during last week’s NY1 debate.
Squadron has been more tempered in his statements about his vision for the office.
“The job of the public advocate isn't to be a thorn in the side of the mayor just to be a thorn,” Squadron added. “The job of the public advocate is to take on issues for the people who desperately need it and don't have anybody else.”
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