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Serving Up the Public Advocate

by Courtney Gross, Aug 31, 2009
 

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What you eat for breakfast can say a lot about you. Just look at the Democrats running for public advocate.

Former public advocate Mark Green at home goes for a bagel and matzoh with cream cheese and a coffee with two Splendas. When out, he's opts for a "wet omelet."

Councilmember Bill de Blasio's morning meal is a bowl of Grape Nut Flakes (with raisins) and 1 percent milk.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel is more of a Raisin Bran man.

For Councilmember Eric Gioia, breakfast is yogurt and granola.

You know what they say: You are what you eat.

So, who are these candidates for public advocate, and what are their visions for an office that City Hall observers say is on the short-list for extinction?

Green, like a bagel, is a New York icon. Having already served two terms in the public advocate seat, he claims he will bring fresh ideas to his old job.

De Blasio is a staple in New York politics. He helped make Hillary Clinton New York's junior senator and has been in City Hall as a councilmember from Park Slope ever since.

Siegel, who is making a run for public advocate for the third time, is predictable (very Raisin Bran). The former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union is known as a Brooklyn-born fighter, unafraid of taking on anyone in City Hall.

And Gioia rounds out the pack as the youngest of the Democratic contenders (hence, the granola affinity). Some say he has been chasing this office even before he ran for his seat in the City Council in 2001. Gioia says he understands the city's middle class and will fight for them.

Whoever wins the public advocate race could be the last person to ever hold the office. With some city officials arguing the public advocate is pointless and a waste of taxpayer dollars, whichever one of these four men wins will ultimately have to try to prove that the office is necessary.

These candidates say the public advocate is often ignored but important -- somewhat like breakfast. They say it provides the needed checks and balances on an all-too-powerful executive branch. Which one of them, though, can make it relevant?

The Independent Office

Three of the four candidates perched on an elevated stage at St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn last month. A half-filled auditorium brought to them courtesy of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce glared back.

Just four days before, Councilmember Simcha Felder of Brooklyn had introduced legislation that would move toward abolishing the position they all wanted. That followed a 40 percent budget cut to the office earlier this year -- a decrease far greater than what most agencies saw.

Under the dim lighting, each of the candidates -- with the exception of Green, who did not attend the debate -- explained why he was the right person to keep the public advocate's office afloat.

"A lot of the calls for the abolishment of the office are coming from folks who think they're doing the mayor a favor by limiting the amount of dissent and debate," said de Blasio. "When the people understand that, they will not in any way accept the abolishment of the office." De Blasio has introduced legislation that would allow the office to be independently budgeted, rather than rely on allocations from the mayor and City Council.

His competitors echoed that call. "I think when New Yorkers see real results in their life they'll understand the value of public advocate," said Gioia.

Siegel took a more aggressive approach. "Betsy Gotbaum is the poster child for the elimination of this office," he said, chiding the current public advocate. "I believe that this office has not reached its potential." Siegel says he'll turn to foundations and grants to fill the financial hole, and create an office of advocacy to increase the position's visibility.

The candidates, who range from 36 years old (Gioia) to 65 years old (Siegel), say the most recent call for the public advocate's extinction would never survive a public referendum.

"It's pretty obvious that the city needs an ombudsman over City Hall to help fix city services," said Green last week while campaigning on the Upper East Side. His first priority would be to restore the advocate's budget.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 45 percent of voters think the office of the public advocate is "very important" and 34 percent said it's "somewhat important."

First created in 1993 as a recasting of the City Council president, the public advocate is charged with being the watchdog over City Hall. Only two people have ever held the post: Gotbaum and Green, who served from 1994 through 2001.

The advocate presides over City Council meetings and can investigate city agencies, issue reports and take constituent complaints. Perhaps most importantly, the advocate also is the successor to the mayor should he or she step down or become incapacitated.

Beyond those limited responsibilities, the advocate has little to no real power or influence.

These candidates want to change that.

The Frontrunner Runs Off

Green canvassing outside the entrance to the No. 6 train

Rush hour straphangers climbed the stairs from the 86th Street station on the Upper East Side and were greeted by a familiar face.

"Mark Green, Democrat for public advocate. Mark Green, Democrat for public advocate," the candidate, dressed in khakis and a blue sport coat, repeated.

"Good to see you back," one passerby responded.

To Green, it's probably good to be back. Though he is behind in fundraising (Gioia has raised more than four times what he has), Green is far ahead in the polls. That same Quinnipiac University poll put Green ahead with 38 percent -- just two percentage points shy of avoiding a runoff post primary. De Blasio followed with 14 percent, and Siegel and Gioia each had 8 percent.

To his competitors, Green is riding out that lead. Having shown up for just two thirds of the debates and forums, Green gets slammed by the lesser-known candidates for his so-called "rose garden strategy." At the debates where Green does show up, like the first televised debate that aired on ABC yesterday, he is the target of attacks -- a testament of his commanding lead, Green argues.

Green says he would rather be on the corner getting to know voters.

"The rock of Gibraltar of my candidacy is voters know I did this job before and know I have a new vision," Green said in between calls to take his hand cards. "It's years of being a constituent and public advocate. It's a deeper rooted candidacy than 'my husband's terrific,'" he added, referring to de Blasio's first round of TV ads featuring his wife.

Though some say he owes his gaping lead to name recognition, Green is trying to convince voters he can bring a new spin to the office. Every chance he gets, he mentions his "Change for New York: 100 Ideas for a Better City" -- a digest of citywide proposals from getting government to go paperless to allowing transgender people to change the sex on their birth certificate.

His biggest priority, he says, will be to take on the city's health care industry, making sure New Yorkers are not taken advantage of.

A Plan for Publicity

Across the island and about 30 blocks north, another public advocate candidate was telling straphangers a different story -- one of trips down to Mississippi during the civil rights movement, marches for equal opportunity and repeatedly bringing the city to court.

Siegel is the only candidate who is not a career politician. And he says he doesn't want to be.

Siegel campaigning in Harlem.

"You take these issues and you connect with the public," said Siegel outside the 125th Street subway station late last month. "Gotbaum's people never connected with the public."

Siegel wants to build a constituency for the public advocate -- a move he says will save it from its demise. He will host "Friday Nights" at City Hall and send volunteers into the streets to put a face on the office. He wants to decentralize and set up public advocate bureaus in every borough.

"You can excite people through this office," said Siegel, who sported white Cuba pants. "Especially in poorer neighborhoods."

Siegel sees the office as a vehicle to help the city's most vulnerable. His first priority would be to set up a public advocate commission on the economy to examine what the city could do to invigorate local businesses and the self employed. Siegel promises to cut the city's homeless population in half. He plans on challenging the administration -- often invoking Clint Eastwood when threatening a lawsuit. "Make my day," he says.

At debates, Siegel has typically received the most applause (when he recently suggested bringing back the Dodgers to Brooklyn's Coney Island the response was rousing). But he also is the only candidate to go down in the polls (from 13 percent earlier in the summer to 8 percent now). He also is trailing far behind in fundraising, with only $293,983 raised privately. He has received $764,992 in matching funds.

"It's not always about money. It's not always about endorsements," said Siegel.

Gioia Means Joy

Maybe money isn't everything, but for Gioia it's one contest he's winning.

He has far outraised his competitors with $2.3 million and more than $1.4 million in matching public funds. He has the Queens Democratic party behind him and a handful of the city's most powerful unions. But he trails in the polls with 8 percent.

"There is only one poll that counts and that's Election Day," said Gioia under the dim lights of the Havana Room in the Upper East Side the same day the latest numbers came out. He was hosting another fundraiser -- one of the events he calls "Tons of $10s."

Gioia at the Havana Room

"Get ready for an upset," said Gioia.

From the get go, many expected Gioia to be the most prepared for a public advocate run. His political ambition has been a running joke at City Hall, spurring his council colleagues to call his vote against the city budget politically motivated. He says he voted against the budget because council members and the public were not given the required 24 hours to review the council's discretionary funds -- the subject of a scandal last year. Despite this criticism, Gioia says he will be able to work amicably with City Hall colleagues as public advocate.

Born and raised in Queens, Gioia trumpets his background as a hard-working middle-class kid, who swept his way through New York University as a janitor. His background will make him a good public advocate, he says -- someone who can identify with middle-class families struggling now.

He touts his success at getting Costco to accept food stamps as well as his ability to cull the city's food stamp application from 24 pages down to two. That experience, Gioia says, will translate to one of his first priorities as public advocate: ensuring that all New Yorkers who are eligible for government funded health insurance get it.

"We started doing things that people thought their local government couldn't do," said Gioia to a crowd of nearly three dozen. "If you don't believe we should change, than I'm not your candidate."

The Runner Up

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo endorsing de Blasio at an August rally

While other candidates attempt to establish themselves as an outsider, de Blasio tries to strike an inclusive tone.

On a recent afternoon at a senior center in East Harlem, de Blasio weaved through tables of seniors, towering at 6 feet 5 inches over their lunch trays of Salisbury steak and rice. He shook their hands, flashed a smile and left them a Bill de Blasio flyer in Spanish.

He was there to convince them that he would be able to challenge the administration when it's led astray -- no better example of that, he says, was his fight against the extension of term limits.

"You need a strong public advocate who will fight for you at City Hall and is not afraid to stand up against the mayor for you," de Blasio told the crowd.

As the candidate with the greatest amount of institutional support, including from the Working Families Party, former Gov. Mario Cuomo and the New York Times, de Blasio is attempting to position himself as the logical alternative to Green. He says he is the one who has fought for social services in his position as chair of the General Welfare Committee, while Green was absent from the public arena.

De Blasio is running as a public school parent ready to organize the populous. His first priority, he says, will be to ensure that parents get a bigger role in the city's Department of Education. A supporter of mayoral control, de Blasio wants to beef up local parent teacher associations, ensure the education department is transparent and foster a public debate on education. Also on his list are overhauling the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board and the city Board of Elections.

"The public advocate has to be deeply involved in making things better and the way to do that is working with a broad range of people, figure out a strategy and relentlessly pursue it," said de Blasio at a recent debate. "Through good times and bad that's the approach I'll be taking."

Two Weeks To Go

Last weekend, for the first time this campaign season, all four candidates stood together on stage beneath the glare of television cameras.

Rarely did they disagree on the issues, except on whether to do away with the council's discretionary funds and whether they supported the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. (Both Gioia and Siegel want to do away with the discretionary funding and did not support Atlantic Yards.) But the candidates certainly differed on their approach.

De Blasio spent much of his time sparring with Green, accusing him of not standing up to the Giuliani administration after the former mayor's attempt to extend his own term following the Sept. 11 attacks. Green fired back, accusing de Blasio of flip-flopping on his position of whether the city should extend term limits legislatively.

"Let Bill attack me," said Green. "He needs it emotionally."

Meanwhile, Siegel argued, while punching his open palm with his fist, that he would be the one to prevent another slush fund and was willing to step on "someone's toes" to get things done.

Gioia, in between touting his record of standing up to corporate giants like Con Edison and Exxon Mobil, said he was the one that understands New Yorkers' everyday problems.

All four said they were the man for the job. Who gets it and what he does while there could determine whether he will be the last one to have it.




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