I come this evening with a very simple message. It's a
message I've been trying to convey all my 35 years of being
a civil rights lawyer. No one, no one should accept anything
short of full and complete freedom, justice and equality.
Unfortunately in this city we have a culture of intolerance.
We have a city, especially the seven and a half years in
this administration, the Giuliani administration, where
people are in denial about discrimination, they minimize
and they trivialize discrimination based on race, gender,
sexual orientation and economics.
I'm a troublemaker. A proud troublemaker. I think the public
advocate should be a troublemaker. Someone who's prepared
to fight, and to speak up even when it's unpopular. You
don't put your hand up in the air and see the way the wind's
blowing. A leader takes a position even if it is unpopular,
and persuades the majority to wind up there in the future.
If I'm the public advocate, I'd decentralize the office.
I put storefronts all across the city. I get volunteers
on Tuesday and Thursday night to go to senior centers, to
housing projects and to community centers and do intake.
We can get lots of people, train them, and get them out
into the streets to create some hope and opportunity for
people who don't have that today.
What are some of the issues? First, I want to begin a citywide
dialogue on race relations. This is a town that doesn't
talk about race, and when we talk about race, it's not honest.
That's got to end. I think we got to deal with police community
relations, I want to know why the police still engage in
too much brutality towards people of color, to gays and
lesbians, to poor people. And I don't accept the incremental
change that people are alleging because post-Diallo, nothing
has really changed. If I were the public advocate, we wouldn't
be waiting for the justice department to do nothing for
us. I would have gone to federal court, and I would have
sued the NYPD for patterns and practice of discrimination
for a ground system that doesn't adequately discipline its
police officers. If I'm the public advocate I want to know
where the Human Rights Commission is. Why are they invisible,
and why are they dysfunctional? When was the last time you
ever heard that they had a hearing? There's cases that are
backlogged for years. What's going on there?
On education--What we do is we go in and teach a class
about undoing stereotypes. I know the problems in public
education, we have to look at the problem, we have to reduce
the class sizes, and we have to construct better schools.
We have to be more creative. No vouchers, and no Edison.
We're not bringing people in who want to make profit off
our public schools. Time is almost up, so I want to say
to you I still believe that we can have a campaign that's
multi-racial, across the city, and find people that still
dare to dream about how it should be rather than how it
And the last thing--good news--I today got the endorsement--I
want your endorsement, of the Shake-em-Up Party of New York.
And they said to me "one condition, Siegal, we got to agree
to shake it up." And I said to them "everywhere I go." And
starting tonight, I pledge to you that in my campaign, and
if elected, I'm going to shake it up.
Q-What should the public advocate
be, and how will you expand the role?
A-I think the role of the public advocate is to be the
people's lawyer. I, in effect, have been the private advocate
for many years; I now want to be the public advocate. What
that says to me is that you use the office and the resources,
very important the resources that are there, in order to
protect and enhance people's civil rights. There's too much
discrimination in this town, there's too many people who
accept the status quo, we should not accept that. I've never
been an in-the-box-character. I will not be an in-the-box
public advocate. I will be visible, I will be vocal, I got
a big mouth, and I love to use it. What you then use is
it as a bully pulpit, you go around and you talk to people
and you build coalitions. You go to poor working class communities
in Bensonhurst, out in Queens; you connect the poor working
class whites, with African-Americans, Latinos. Yes today
I spent the afternoon in Canarsie with the Russian-Jewish
community, and I heard their complaints similar to Black
and Latino complaints.
Last November in New York they said to me--and I didn't
even know this--they couldn't vote. They went to the polls,
and people said to them "you can't vote." And they said
"why not?" and they said, "you're not a citizen." They said,
"I'm a citizen" they actually said to them ‘Where are your
citizenship papers?" This is New York, what the fuck do
you need citizenship papers if you go down to vote?
Moreover, why didn't they just look at the registration
forms to see what it is? What was also so painful, was that
some of the people who were running the elections system
in Canarsie were African-American. So the very people who
historically were denied the right to vote--what are they
doing? They are denying it to immigrant group because quote
"They didn't speak good English." One guy got really upset,
he told me "What did they do? They called the cops."
They were going to arrest the guy because they were objecting
to the fact that he was registered to vote why--because
he didn't speak good English? Whatever the heck that means.
Thank goodness that that cop had enough common sense to
cool it out. But otherwise this person could have been arrested
for wanting to vote--in New York, not Florida! A public
advocate should be on top of that issue. In view of what
happened in Florida, a public advocate should call for the
abolition of those machines. If you go to an ATM, and you
get $20, $40, $60, why can't we have the names of people
on the ballot. And then you get a receipt, so if you get
a receipt that says Pat Buchanon, you pick up that phone
and say NO WAY! I'm not voting for him!
A public advocate in my opinion is visible, you use the
subpoena power, except one little footnote there--we've
got to change that. Right now, for the subpoena power, the
public advocate has to go beg the city council for approval
for the subpoena. Hell no. If you want an effective advocate.
I tell you in two years I go for a charter amendment so
that the advocate, she or he has the right to issue the
subpoena on their own. What happens if you want to subpoena
the records of the city council? I mean, that's an area
that we should look at. Why do you have to ask for permission?
You can propose legislation, and then the thing I love the
most: if all the above doesn't work, you sue the bastards.
I mean it's as elemental as that. You have the litigation
as a last resort. I know how to litigate. I like to sue
people in government when they are violating people's rights.
On Giuliani, we went to court 27 times on seven and half
years on the issue of first amendment alone. From when they
wouldn't let people hand out condoms in the parks, we went
to court--we won on that--to the Brooklyn Museum, to the
steps of city hall. What better example? This guy would
not allow people to hold press conferences on the City Hall
steps because he was afraid that Bin Laden was sending one
of his folks to a press conference to take him out. He thinks
that an Afghanistan up in the hills in those tents, they
have pictures of Giuliani where people are throwing darts
at him. But the point is, that argument, that security was
the reason why, you had to go to court to fight. If I'm
the public advocate, you do that, you're vigorous, you're
an activist, you're vocal. That's the concept of a public
advocate in my mind.
Q-What aspect of the Giuliani administration
do you find most objectionable, and how would you address
it as public advocate?
A-You'll have to stay all night. Why don't we re-phrase
it--did I find anything OK? There was an arrogance of power.
Very early in the Giuliani administration in 1994, I met
with them over the issue of the steps of city hall. When
the write the history in the 90's in New York City, they're
going to write that many people disappeared. Many people
were invisible. People lost their tongues because they got
government funding, people were afraid they would be retaliated
against, that's how you lose your rights. When people begin
to rationalize fighting back, as public advocate, I'd be
there to protect people and be their back up. So that if
people in city government, and they know better than anyone
what's going on and what's wrong, I'd have a special whistleblower
section so that everyone in city government would know that
if they spoke up and anyone went after them, we'd be there
for them in a second.
Now, in the context of that meeting with Housing Works;
first of all, public advocate for me is the protector of
the characters in New York City. Including the people who
engage in theatre, and in political protests, when people
go and protest and there's 500 cops at city hall, and cops
are on top of the roof, the public advocate in my view would
be the person going to the police commissioner and saying
"chill." You don't need 500 cops there. Why in the fuck
do you have the cops on top of the roof? You don't need
that. These are peaceful protestors; they have a first amendment
right. Also as the public advocate you say to the police
commissioner ‘I'd like, and if you don't I am going to subpoena
your records--to find how much it costs to put that 500
people there. And I'm going to make an issue over the fact
that your overtime is 73 percent over what it is supposed
to be." You know what that usually does?
Now what happened, and where I'm going on this, the issue
became, in my opinion, on the steps of City Hall, because
of the courageous people in Housing Works, people who carried
on the act-out tradition of pressing the envelope, standing
in front of the government train coming down the track,
rolling on, business as usual. Every once in a while, whether
it's Rosa Parks in Montgomery, whether its Housing Works
in 1990's in New York, citizens got to come together and
out their body on the line, and say "no more business as
usual." We got an AIDS crisis, people are dying. We don't
want to hear the reasonable explanations because the services
can't work. We are having people who are dying, there's
no reason for the lack of services, and you sit-in, and
a public advocate should be there to protect them, should
be articulating the issue for them, and the issue on the
steps of city hall was because Housing Works took over city
hall in 94, and the folks in the Giuliani administration
were from thereafter including now frightened that we the
people that they govern were going to take over their castle.
That's what it is in essence. A public advocate would be
there to try to within government get them to understand
the dynamic, ameliorate that kind of paranoia, and if it
didn't work, use litigation to protect people in criminal
defense, or to affirmatively enjoining the government from
violating people's first amendment rights.
Q-Where do you stand on term limits?
A-The issue of whether the City Council can repeal term
limits is an open legal question. I am one of the lawyers
representing a group of people who are opposed to the repeal
of the term limits. Whatever you agree on the merits, pro
or con for term limits, and in answering every question,
I am opposed to the repeal of term limits, on the following
ground: you don't, under due process of law, which is fairness,
allow the government, to change the rules in midstream.
A corollary to that is that the government cannot make
the rules up as they go along. It's unfair. There are people
who are running for city council who made life-changing
decisions. And as a result of that, you do not change it
in mid-stream. If you want to change the rules so that there
are no longer term limits, make it prospective. You don't
make it retroactive because the campaign for these city
council people has begun. It is fundamentally unfair. If
in fact the people in city council vote for it, my suggestion
is that there be billboards all over the city, with the
City Council 26, so that everyone in New York knows who
did this, and we remember in perpetuity who voted, and for
me, I won't vote for any of them for anything ever again
including dog-catcher. That's the way you fight back. This
is a fundamental issue; I'm also concerned that the deal
is in the make, what could be the deal? The deal could be
that Giuliani works it out, and what does he get in return?
All of the sudden there is a bill that says there's no term
limits for the mayor. Now people say "Siegal, you're paranoid."
There was a great civil rights lawyer named Borzell Williams.
In Birmingham when I went south, and went south in 1968,
was there for five years. Borzell gave me a line, and he
said, "even paranoids have enemies." So in the context of
that, you got to be concerned, and you can't take off the
table the possibility that that's what's coming down the
pipe. And if that happens, I would recommend, and I'll be
there too, that folks in this town really speak up and demonstrate
and use your first amendment right because if that's what's
going to happen, then they really are undermining the popular
will. Two times, '93 and '96, there was referendum, and
the people speak. If you allow that precedent to take place,
why have a referendum anymore? It makes absolutely no sense,
and in effect what we saw that happened in Florida, you
can't allow anything that happened in Florida with regard
to the stealing of the democratic process to come to New
York City. Am I dramatizing the issue? Probably. That's
what a public advocate does. The public advocate dramatizes
the issue, makes it larger than life, in order to persuade
a majority of the people in the city of New York about the
merits of the given issue, and always remembering from my
perspective that the public advocate has to have a special
lookout for those who are disenfranchised, the powerless,
and the voiceless. That's the kind of public advocate I
want to be.
Q-Do you support term limits?
A-Yes, and the reason why is that, and I'm finding it out
right now--the whole system is built to protect incumbents
from little things when you go to events and who gets introduced
and who's up front? The elected officials. You go to speak,
and who gets the first preference to speak? The elected
officials. You can be the expert on the issue, and have
been involved in it for your whole life, and city council
they put the elected officials up front, everybody leaves,
and then the real experts sit there at 3:15 p.m. in the
afternoon, and there's two people, no press.
My shake-em-up stuff it ranges from not just the government,
the political process. For example I found out the democratic
club, I have a lot of respect for the Village Independent
Democrats and their history, but I do remember that you
gave us Ed Koch. But in the context of the clubs I found
out the last couple of weeks, the clubs don't even meet
annually. If I'm the public advocate, I call for an annual
weekend conference of all 225 democratic clubs. Now I'm
a newcomer, so give me answer: How can you have a vital,
a live, energetic democratic party if the democratic clubs
never even meet together? How can a Republican, a Rudy Giuliani,
when the registration is five to one, become a mayor of
this town? If the registration is five to one if the Democratic
Party is organized? Borough-wide people don't even meet.
I'm now finding out in the Upper West Side where I live
the clubs don't even talk to each other, there's hostility,
there's ego--I want to be the king and queen of this street
as opposed to working together with other people. It makes