photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool)
(l-r) Danny O'Donnell, Jumaane Williams Michael Blake, Rafael Espinal, Erich Ulrich, Ron Kim, Ydanis Rodriguez, Dawn Smalls, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Nomiki Konst
With 10 candidates on stage and less than three weeks until election day, there were some sharp elbows at the first of two televised debates Wednesday night in the race to be the city’s next Public Advocate. The citywide special election is February 26.
The candidates, including eight current or former elected officials, debated for two hours on NY1, discussing where they disagree with Mayor Bill de Blasio, what should be done about the crises enveloping public housing and public transit, whether they support the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens, and much more. There was a lot of finger-pointing on NYCHA and the MTA, among the city and state elected officials on the stage, and from them at the mayor and the governor.
Most of the candidates agreed on a lot, while at times there were slight degrees of disagreement among the nine Democrats, while the lone Republican, City Council Member Eric Ulrich, was often more of an outlier. On some issues, like what to do about admissions to the city’s specialized high schools and whether the city should have control of the subways and buses, there was more diversity of opinion. The candidates mostly agreed that the Amazon deal was done in a bad process and took an unacceptable form, with too much secrecy and subsidy; that there should be a congestion pricing program implemented in the city; and that the city needs to kick in more funding for the MTA.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council speaker, was the candidate most frequently attacked by opponents, perhaps indicating her status as a perceived frontrunner, while City Council Member Jumaane Williams, also thought to be at the head of the pack, was also targeted on multiple occasions, including by Mark-Viverito and state Assembly Member Michael Blake over where Williams has stood on abortion and marriage equality.
The debate provided a venue for voters to get to know 10 of the 17 candidates who will be on the ballot, how they come across in such a setting, and their positions on a wide range of issues. The job the candidates are applying for is supposed to be a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson to whom regular New Yorkers can go with complaints and looking for assistance. The public advocate has the power to introduce legislation to the City Council.
Along with Mark-Viverito, Williams, Ulrich, and Blake, the other candidates in the debate were journalist Nomiki Konst, attorney Dawn Smalls, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Rafael Espinal, and Assembly Members Danny O’Donnell and Ron Kim.
For those who want a public advocate inclined to use the bully pulpit the position provides, a debate may provide special insight. While all of the candidates spoke with energy and passion, Mark-Viverito and Konst were especially assertive, including arguing with each other at times, even as they sat inches away from one another. Konst argued that her skills as an investigative journalist and her lack of ties to the political system uniquely qualify her to be the public advocate, and said that the position needs a non-politician.
“The public advocate needs to be a loudmouth on your behalf,” O’Donnell said in his opening statement, though the long-time representative of the Upper West Side and former public defender was one of the more passive participants in the debate, staying out of the fray and repeatedly stating his agreements with Smalls, who was also mostly on the sidelines when there were pockets of open discussion or back-and-forths among candidates.
O’Donnell did point to reasons New Yorkers should trust his independence, like his refusal to sign a letter asking Amazon to come to New York and his efforts leading ethics investigations in the Assembly. Smalls highlighted her work in the Obama administration and her plan to focus on helping homeless families if elected public advocate.
“I’m concerned about the direction of our city,” Espinal said early on. “As a born and raised New Yorker, I feel that the city that never sleeps is getting tired. Tired of the broken MTA, tired of the cost of living, tired of seeing community gardens and green spaces being bulldozed.”
Along with the MTA, NYCHA, and Amazon, affordability was a consistent theme throughout the night. Mark-Viverito, Williams, Blake, and others talked about increasing affordable housing in the city, while Smalls said the city must prioritize homeless families with young children when housing those coming out of shelters. O’Donnell called for down-zoning across the city so that development would only happen with more community input, Konst repeatedly said the power of big real estate interests was suffocating the city, and Kim railed against corporate giveaways.
For those who might want their public advocate to be a strong legislator, the debate offered some help, especially with so many current or former lawmakers on stage. Candidates were able to highlight legislative accomplishments or offer plans for a bill they would introduce if elected, but not all of them spoke in detail about their legislative records.
Ulrich cited his bill to create the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs (making it an agency, not just an office within the Mayor’s Office) and said he would push for the public advocate’s office to have more teeth -- something O’Donnell and Konst agreed with, while Blake said the public advocate should get a seat on the MTA Board. Rodriguez said he would push a bill to allow immigrants with green cards and work permits to be able to vote in local elections. Konst said she would champion a $30 minimum wage for city workers and employees at companies with more than 75 employees.
Williams highlighted his vote against a city program to mandate affordable housing units in upzoned properties or neighborhoods, and criticized Mark-Viverito for ushering it through the Council when she was speaker, a move she said she was proud of, given that Mandatory Inclusionary Housing was a historic progressive change in the city’s land use rules. Williams believes it didn’t go far enough.
If holding the mayor, especially the current mayor, accountable is important to you as a voter, the candidates had plenty of opportunity to explain their approach to that part of the job. Asked for one major policy disagreement with Mayor de Blasio, the candidates gave a variety of answers.
Mark-Viverito, largely a de Blasio ally for most of his first term, said that she had many disagreements with him. After having said in her opening statement that she had pushed the mayor on closing the Rikers Island jails and “decriminalizing” low-level, non-violent offenses, she later said a “major flaw” of the de Blasio administration “is the lack of serious community engagement in major decisions that are being made.”
Konst and Kim cited the Amazon deal, while she also mentioned neighborhood rezonings as a major area of disagreement with the mayor. O’Donnell said similarly, citing overdevelopment.
Williams said no one who knows him doubts his willingness to call out the mayor, but said he’s also worked with de Blasio on a lot, before focusing in on policing. “We’re better than where we were,” he said. “It’s a low bar but we’re better.” Still, Williams said, on NYPD transparency and accountability, de Blasio had failed.
Blake took issue with the theme of de Blasio’s tenure, saying the mayor’s approach to “equity” was off in a variety of ways. “We should be building schools, not jails,” he said. He also mentioned lead paint in NYCHA, a topic on which he pointed to Mark-Viverito, who defended her record on the issue by citing increased funding, creating a Council committee to focus on public housing, and more. It was one of several tense exchanges where Mark-Viverito forcefully defended herself. In other instances, Espinal challenged her about constituent support in her district and Konst took her on over her support for the East Harlem rezoning.
Rodriguez said the mayor’s lack of support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would institute new rules about commercial tenant leasing, was a source of frustration, and he also used the moment to say that Mark-Viverito had not been willing to allow a hearing on the bill as speaker, whereas her successor, Corey Johnson, did.
Ulrich, as expected, separated himself most clearly from his opponents on issues, especially in his opposition to closing the Rikers Island jail complex, his support for Amazon to come to Queens, and his opposition to congestion pricing (all the other candidates said yes to congestion pricing). He also claimed that he would be Mayor de Blasio’s “worst nightmare” as public advocate.
“Right now we have an absentee mayor who seems more interested in raising his national profile and running for president even than he is actually tending to the day to day affairs of the city and addressing city problems,” Ulrich said early on.
Ulrich did have to defend himself at times -- after he referred to those on Rikers as “criminals,” several of his opponents jumped in to remind him that most of the people held in the city’s jails are pre-trial, not convicted of any crime, and often incarcerated because they cannot pay bail. And, Ulrich was asked by Smalls during the cross-examination round to explain whether he supports President Donald Trump, to which he answered that he did not support Trump in the 2016 Republican primary (he backed John Kasich) and disagrees with him on many issues, including a woman’s right to choose, while also listing areas he agrees with him on, like pursuing economic growth and supporting law enforcement.
Both Blake and Mark-Viverito put Williams on the defensive about his support, or lack thereof, for a woman’s right to choose and for marriage equality. Williams has said in the past that he grew up with more conservative, religiously-founded views on those issues but that he has evolved, also at times saying that while he may have a personal view on one or the other issue, that his voting record showed he was consistently supportive of abortion and LGBT rights.
All three of Blake, Williams, and Mark-Viverito were attacked by others for having signed the 2017 letter wooing Amazon, though all three have taken exception to the deal that was reached. Espinal said no one who signed the letter should be elected public advocate, noting that issues with Amazon that have come up during the recent public debate were well-known to those who did their “homework.”
Mark-Viverito said the process getting to the deal was “anti-democratic,” while Williams said signing the letter did not mean taking Amazon under any circumstances, and Blake said there are a variety of “dramatic changes” needed to improve the deal to make it acceptable, such as guarantees around local hiring and unionization.
The debate was moderated by NY1's Errol Louis, who was accompanied in asking questions by NY1's Grace Rauh and Laura Nahmias of Politico New York.
The second debate in the special election will be Wednesday, February 20. It is unclear how many candidates will qualify.
Note - This article has been updated to clarify that Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said he would introduce a bill allowing only immigrants with green cards and work permits to vote in local elections, not all immigrants.