Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/578 Tue, 25 Jun 2019 14:19:34 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Council to Examine City’s Role in ‘Taxi Medallion Crisis’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8621-council-to-examine-city-s-role-in-taxi-medallion-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8621-council-to-examine-city-s-role-in-taxi-medallion-crisis bloomberg gillibrand nadler yassky fed

(photo Credit: Edward Reed/City Council)


Amid a new flurry of attention to challenges faced by taxi drivers in New York City, the City Council will hold an oversight hearing Monday on the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission’s “role in the taxi medallion crisis.”

As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May helped bring back into extensive public conversation, taxi medallion prices rose to extreme heights between 2002 and 2014 – as high as $1.3 million – before crashing down amid a boom in the launch of the app-based for-hire vehicle sector. Thousands of medallion owners are in immense debt with their medallions, which allow them to operate a city-sanctioned yellow taxi, worth far less than at point of purchase, when they bought them from the city through loans provided by private banks.

Reporting prior to the Times’ exposé had already documented the mounting debt crisis for medallion owners, connecting it largely to the rise of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft. All of the city’s 13,587 taxi medallions took significant hits in value, both those owned by individual drivers themselves and those constituting larger taxi fleets. The City Council passed and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses and new wage guarantees for drivers amid a series of driver suicides in 2018, tragedies that pushed the medallion crisis into public view.

Now, the Times’ investigation has caused a new flurry of legislation after it showed how the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was instrumental in the extraordinary inflation of medallion prices. Though the TLC was not directly involved in the reckless lending practices that led to the taxi drivers’ debt, it stood to benefit from skyrocketing prices at medallion auctions and chose to ignore signs that the market was highly unstable. The TLC is charged with regulating the taxi industry, and the Mayor oversees it and the city budget, which has included and relied on revenue from medallion sales.

While much of the Times’ reporting focused on other culprits, including predatory lenders and the National Credit Union Association, medallion owners and their representatives have laid a lot of blame on city government.

Sergio Cabrera and Carolyn Protz, two medallion owners, wrote in a scathing Crain’s New York Business op-ed that “the real scandal...is how the Taxi and Limousine Commission, as well as elected officials, played a pivotal role in taxis’ demise.”

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, similarly charged that “the city raked in profit while working-class immigrant drivers of color were swindled and pushed into financial despair.”

Many elected officials agree. In an interview with City & State, City Council Member Mark Levine stated that “the city itself also bears responsibility for this, because we were selling medallions with the goal of bringing in revenue to the city and we were promoting them and pumping them up in ways that I think masks the true risks that drivers were taking on.”

The hearing on Monday, which will be jointly held by the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, will likely feature significant grilling and criticism of the TLC, as well as testimony from non-governmental parties, like medallion owners, pointing the finger at city government. On its website, the Taxi Workers Alliance has already promised to “pack the hearing room.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres, who will be leading the hearing as chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette that “the purpose of the hearing is to examine TLC’s role in creating a speculative bubble in the medallion market, and to identify the regulatory failures, the policy failures, that led to the collapse of the medallion market and the resulting humanitarian crisis.”

“There’s a sense in which TLC was functioning both as a market regulator and a market purchaser, and there is a conflict of interest between those two parts,” Torres said, echoing concerns outlined in the Times articles.

Although his committee began an investigation into the commission in November of 2018, “TLC has [since] been insufficiently cooperative with the City Council,” and the hearing is intended as a continuation of this inquiry. Despite the TLC’s stonewalling, Torres did disclose that the investigation has been productive, saying “there’s more evidence that the City is culpable than even the New York Times exposé suggests.”

In addition to the oversight portion of the hearing, which will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, four new bills aimed at mitigating the crisis will be introduced and discussed.

The first, from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Transportation Committee, would require the TLC to “evaluate the character and integrity” of medallion brokers. Another, from Torres, would create a department within the TLC to evaluate the financial stability of the industry. This could theoretically prevent another bubble from forming based on false assertions of taxi market infallibility.

A third bill, sponsored by Council Member Adrienne Adams, would require the TLC to collect annual financial disclosures from individuals with interest in a taxi license. Finally, Council Member Francisco Moya is introducing a bill to prohibit the sale or transfer of a taxi license unless the funds used have been reviewed by the TLC.

These four bills are far from the only ones being drafted and discussed. On May 21, Rodriguez and fellow Council Member Fernando Cabrera proposed an exemption for taxi drivers from congestion pricing to lower their costs, saying that legislators had a “moral obligation” to do so.

Rodriguez also recently saw the City Council pass his bill to reduce the commercial motor vehicle tax on medallion owners from $1000 to $400. In a statement, he pledged to continue “to find ways to ensure that Taxi Medallion owners receive the justice they deserve.”

Meanwhile, in the state legislature, State Senators Jessica Ramos and Leroy Comrie have proposed a bill that would establish a taxi medallion guaranty program to help medallion owners who are unable to pay off their loans.

For some activists and lawmakers, these proposed changes don’t go far enough. Levine, writing in the Bronx Free Press, proposed “dramatic plans” to buy back medallions and forgive taxi drivers’ debt to augment smaller changes such as waiving fees and establishing task forces; City Comptroller Scott Stringer has expressed support for a similar solution.

The Taxi Workers Alliance, one day after the Times article was published, proposed a slightly less drastic plan. It would create a Council-appointed task force to determine the proper current value of taxi medallions, and any loan amounts exceeding that value would be forgiven (the specifics of how the loans would be forgiven have not been made clear).

Unlike Levine’s proposal, this would still likely leave many drivers hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. And as transportation expert Bruce Schaller pointed out to City & State, many medallion owners have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off their loans, money that a debt forgiveness program would not help them reclaim.

Any debt forgiveness bill may also face a difficult path under the de Blasio administration. Though the mayor has embraced investigations of lenders and higher wages for drivers, he dismissed the possibility of bailouts in an interview with Brian Lehrer, calling the crisis a “private market reality” that the city is not culpable for, mostly side-stepping city government’s role in selling such inflated medallions and TLC’s lack of oversight. De Blasio did acknowledge that the city allowed something of a bubble to develop, but cited his administration’s efforts to stop selling medallions and to cap app-based for-hire vehicles (a 2015 push by de Blasio to cap FHVs failed, only to be achieved three years later).

The June 24 Council hearing comes at a time of upheaval at the TLC. On June 18, de Blasio announced that Department of Veterans’ Services official Jeffrey Roth will become the new TLC commissioner. He replaces Meera Joshi, who departed the agency in March.

Joshi, for her part, was concerned that direct bailouts would benefit banks too much and drivers too little. Her preferred solution instead was to encourage banks to take a loss and downsize the loans. That way, the banks could “at least have a good live loan at the right price, [rather] than have someone who’s out of work and the bank with a loss.” Roth, who will need to be approved by the City Council before he becomes commissioner, does not yet have a stated position on the issue.

Though relief for medallion owners is likely still a long way off regardless of policy direction, Council Member Torres hopes that the upcoming hearing can begin the process of recovery. “My overall message is this: the city has been part of the problem, and it’s time to make the city part of the solution.”

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Council to Examine City’s Role in ‘Taxi Medallion Crisis’ Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets corey jo public

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


[Note: this hearing was indeed held on Wednesday June 12; this article is a preview of the hearing]

On Wednesday, the New York City Council transportation committee will hold a hearing on a bill sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson that would mandate the creation of a five-year “master plan” for city streets with a variety of specifications aimed at making the city more friendly to bikers and pedestrians, and less deferential to cars. If passed and implemented, the legislation would have a major impact on the physical landscape of the city and how New Yorkers, as well as visitors to the city, get around and utilize public space.

The plan, which Johnson first announced during his State of the City speech earlier this year, in which he called for municipal control of subways and buses and for ‘breaking the car culture’ in New York, is widely seen as a response, and complement of sorts, to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero street safety program. It calls for substantial increases in the number of new bike and bus lanes created each year, as well as additional pedestrian plazas, and more.

De Blasio launched Vision Zeroed in his first year as mayor, 2014, with the goal of bringing the number of traffic-related fatalities to zero by 2024. While it has been successful, some, including Johnson, believe de Blasio is not moving quickly enough to make city streets safer and more welcoming to those who get around by bus, bike, and foot.

While the city has seen a significant reduction in traffic-related fatalities since the inception of Vision Zero, there’s been a spike in fatalities so far this year compared to the same period last year. The uptick has prompted intensifying calls for de Blasio to do more for the initiative.

Johnson will preside over Wednesday’s hearing on his bill along with City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee. The committee will also hear a bill from Council Member Carlos Menchaca that would allow bicyclists to obey traffic signs and signals as if they were pedestrians instead of cars.

The speaker’s master plan legislation would require the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue and implement a master plan for the use of streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces every five years.

“The way we plan our streets now makes no sense and New Yorkers pay the price every day, stuck on slow buses or risking their own safety cycling without protected bike lanes,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why I said in my State of the City speech that I want to completely revolutionize how we share our street space, and that’s what this bill does. This is a roadmap to breaking the car culture in a thoughtful, comprehensive way.”

Representatives from the DOT are expected to testify at the hearing, along with others from transit advocacy groups and members of the public.

“This last few months have been really tough and we – it’s painful because we have had five years of steady decreases in traffic fatalities,” de Blasio said during a May 10 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In 2013, the year before de Blasio took office, there were 297 traffic fatalities (among those in cars, on bikes, and on foot) in New York City. That number has fallen virtually each year since to 202 in 2018.

Under de Blasio’s approach to Vision Zero, “projects are too often planned on a one-off basis, leaving the fate of their actual implementation up to the inscrutable push and pull of local politics,” Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen said in a Transportation Alternatives press release about Vision Zero. “In each case, the final outcome is too often determined by who yells the loudest, and not by what will save the most lives.”

Families for Safe Streets is an advocacy group of victims of traffic violence and families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured by aggressive or reckless driving.

“We need to think seriously about how we share space on our streets,” Johnson, who does not own a car himself, said in March. “Cars cannot continue to rule the road.”

Ten cyclists have been killed in crashes so far in 2019, matching the total number for all of 2018. Johnson’s legislation champions cyclist and pedestrian safety, prioritizing their safety over the convenience of cars. It includes provisions to improve public transportation, especially buses, to incentivize its use.

“Giving our streets back to people is good for business, good for the environment, and good for all New Yorkers,” Johnson said in March, referencing his call for more pedestrian plazas, which often shut off some ground previously open to cars.

Over the course of de Blasio’s five-plus years in office, Vision Zero has continued to evolve, including several announcements this year. De Blasio and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a new “Vision Zero action plan” in February to “target the next wave of streets and intersections the City will make safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers,” using crash data to target some of the most dangerous streets and intersections for alterations, including different signal timing to give pedestrians a head start before cars are able to move.

“Over the last four years, DOT’s groundbreaking Borough Pedestrian Safety Plans have enabled us to target our resources where they will save the most lives,” Trottenberg said in the February press release. “In these updated plans, we have used the freshest data to identify new crash-prone corridors and intersections most in need of our full menu of safety interventions.”

More recently, thanks in part to new legislation in Albany, the city announced its plans to add hundreds more speed cameras near schools across the five boroughs. And on Monday, de Blasio and Trottenberg announced the formation of the “Better Buses Advisory Group,” which will help the administration plan and execute the “Better Buses Action Plan” “to increase bus speeds by 25% across the five boroughs by the end of 2020.” The action plan includes 300 more “Transit Signal Priority” intersections, automated camera and NYPD enforcement of bus lanes, improvement of five miles of existing bus lanes per year, installation of 10 to 15 miles of new bus lanes per year, piloting “up to two miles of physically separated bus lanes in 2019,” and working with the MTA on bus network redesigns that are underway.

The Johnson bill would require DOT, which oversees Vision Zero, to achieve specific benchmarks for street redesigns, protected bus lanes, protected bicycle lanes, bicycle parking, pedestrian spaces, commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking. DOT would be held accountable for the status of the implementation of each benchmark on an annual basis.

“Smart street design saves lives. We need to make our streets safer. We need to break the car culture. When we make our streets safer, we make our streets better. We know this, but we’re moving way too slowly,” Johnson said in March.

Breaking “car culture” does not mean completely stopping people from driving, said Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group in support of the bill. However, “the extent to which our streets are saturated with cars and trucks is not something that we need,” Conner said during an appearance last week on the Max & Murphy podcast. “And so the ideal New York City that I imagine is one where everyone in New York can get around without a car if they have to.”

Mayor de Blasio has not yet expressed approval of Johnson’s plan, instead expressing concerns about some of the bill’s “specifics.” He declined to mention what specifics he found concerning.

“Now we have aggressive plans in our budget to keep changing street designs to make them safer. So I think there’s a lot of agreement on the basics, some of the specifics we have to work through,” de Blasio said on May 10’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“We have a plan out already to aggressively continue to build out bikes lanes, and it’s a very costly plan, but it’s the right thing to do,” de Blasio said during a question and answer session following a press conference on crime statistics. “It also takes time to do these things. So, I think the plan we have now is the right plan.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation declined to provide insights into how the DOT will testify at the hearing, saying the tesimony was still in process.

City Council Member Menchaca’s legislation will also be heard at the hearing. His bill would establish that “bicyclists crossing a roadway at an intersection must follow pedestrian control signals when local law, rule or regulation provides that those signals supersede traffic control signals.” The hearing follows a pilot run by DOT that showed significant reductions in fatalities on some of the city’s most historically dangerous streets.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Assessing Vision Zero Amid a Spike in Traffic Fatalities https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8583-assessing-vision-zero-amid-a-spike-in-traffic-fatalities https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8583-assessing-vision-zero-amid-a-spike-in-traffic-fatalities Vision Zero

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Soon after Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped into office in 2014, he championed Vision Zero, a signature street safety program with the goal of reducing traffic-related fatalities from 297 in 2013 to zero by 2024. About halfway through that ten-year timeline, the program has become a significant de Blasio success, even as some advocates and lawmakers have said the administration could and should be moving ahead faster to protect pedestrians and bikers, and limit deference to cars.

Through increasing the number of protected bike lanes, reducing speed limits, redesigning intersections, increasing penalties for dangerous drivers, and other street safety improvements, the number of traffic fatalities fell to an all-time low of 202 last year. But the first half of this year has seen a dramatic spike.

Through June 2, the number of fatalities due to traffic crashes on city streets has risen to 82, a 26.2% increase over the same time period from the previous year, according to city statistics. Advocates and legislators alike are calling on the de Blasio administration to address the increase as an emergency and do much more to continue and accelerate the trend VIsion Zero had been following.

During a press conference last week, de Blasio said he would not stop until he had  “done everything conceivable,” and that is why he “takes a Vision Zero approach.” Yet some view de Blasio as too timid in implementing key elements of Vision Zero. Last year, de Blasio’s administration built 21 miles of new bike lanes, a decrease from 25 in 2017.

“The frustrating thing in light of this epidemic of traffic violence is that under de Blasio, even though many of these tools have been implemented, they simply have not been implemented at the pace that the crisis and the epidemic requires,” Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast.

Transportation Alternatives is an advocacy group whose mission is “to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking, and public transit for all New Yorkers.”

Conner would like to see a city less dependent on cars, he said, though he acknowledges car transportation will remain a key aspect of city transit and street use. It’s the degree that matters. His comments are in line with Speaker of the City Council Corey Johnson’s recently introduced legislation to mandate a “master plan for city streets” to help accomplish his goal to “break the car culture” in New York. Johnson’s plan would have the city create within five years at least 150 miles of protected bus lanes, at least 1,000 intersections with signal priority for buses, at least 250 miles of protected bicycle lanes, many more pedestrian plazas, and citywide upgrades to bus stops.

Others, including Conner and Transportation Alternatives, have called for narrower vehicle lanes and more pedestrian islands to decrease crossing distance and improve pedestrian safety.

“The extent to which our streets are saturated with cars and trucks is not something that we need,” Conner said. “And so the ideal New York City that I imagine is one where everyone in New York can get around without a car if they have to,” he said.

De Blasio has emphasized a lower speed limit and speed cameras and appeared less enthusiastic about increasing the number of bike lanes (and though he recently took more of an interest, he’s been especially slow to show much interest in speeding up the city’s buses). The mayor recently announced that the city will install speed cameras in all 750 of the city’s school zones by June 2020, the result of his and others’ advocacy and a new state law.

“The central problem still is motor vehicles. The central problem is changing behavior, getting people to actually slow down, getting people to actually follow the laws, stop at the stoplight, stop at the stop signs, yield to pedestrians,” de Blasio said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on May 31.

Many of the city's existing bike lanes leave cyclists at high risk to nearby traffic, but some still blame cyclists for creating a traffic hazard. “We also have to overcome the victim-blaming that we see, and that’s something that we actually see in part with the mayor now, who has directed a crackdown against food delivery workers on e-bikes in this city,” Conner said.

Johnson’s proposal to create more protected bike lanes would be a “tremendous step forward,” Conner said.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, sees bike lanes as instrumental in decreasing the number of cars in the city.

“I think that our goal should be to reduce the number of New Yorkers who own vehicles, from 1.4 million car owners that we have today to 1 million by 2030. And by doing that, we have to continue building more protected bike lanes,” Rodriguez said on Max & Murphy. “And I feel that when we look at protected bike lanes and see how we’re building around 20 protected bike lanes last year, we could do better,” he said.

Rodriguez also noted the importance of improving public transportation in “transportation deserts. We need to create jobs besides the Midtown area, Long Island City, and Brooklyn, so that people, they don’t have to travel to go to work,” he said.

However, Rodriguez offered only vague answers to possible costs that would come as a result of the solutions being offered by legislators like Johnson and advocates like Conner. Asked about the reduction of free on-street parking that may come from an increase in bike lanes and other measures to “break the car culture,” Rodriguez said he was focusing on “how drivers are still driving over the speed limit, and how we can redesign our intersections and also how we can redesign our streets.”

Rodriguez’s own legislation, developed with Transportation Alternatives and others, known as the “Vision Zero Street Design Standard bill” just passed through the City Council, and is expected to become law.  It mandates the city Department of Transportation “to develop a standard checklist of safety-enhancing street design elements that the department must consider for major transportation projects,” according to a press release from Rodriguez’s office, including things like ADA accessibility, protected bicycle lanes, dedicated unloading zones, narrow vehicle lanes, pedestrian safety islands, and more.

DOT will also “be required to post the standard checklist on its website for public access” and “to complete a checklist stating which street design elements were applied and justify which elements were not applied.”

During the interview, Rodriguez also offered an ambiguous answer about what to do with the city’s taxi medallion crisis, though he acknowledged that the city had failed those to whom the city marketed medallions and pledged a proposal is in the works.

“I think that we need to put together a team of individuals that brings recommendations on how to reorganize the TLC industry and how to be helpful to all sectors that interact with the Taxi & Limousine Commission,” Rodriguez said. He said that he is working with Speaker Johnson and others on a plan, but did not provide specifics.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Is Vision Zero Stalled?]

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by Noah Berman
@GothamGazette

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Assessing Vision Zero Amid a Spike in Traffic Fatalities Sun, 09 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Is Vision Zero Stalled? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8572-max-murphy-podcast-is-vision-zero-stalled https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8572-max-murphy-podcast-is-vision-zero-stalled mayors vz redesign

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


June 5, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Is Vision Zero Stalled?

yd r marcoThe Vision Zero street safety program is one of Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature programs and its reductions in traffic fatalities one of his major accomplishments. But, pedestrian and cyclist deaths are up this year and, regardess of that spike or not, but especially because of it, advocates and some legislators say the de Blasio administration could and should do much more to improve street safety, make the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, and "break the car culture."

Marco Conner of Transportation Alternatives and City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council's transportation committee, joined the show to discuss the state of Vision Zero, street safety, and the mayor's record.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Is Vision Zero Stalled? Wed, 05 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
How to Choose a Candidate in the Public Advocate Special Election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8310-how-to-choose-a-candidate-in-the-public-advocate-special-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8310-how-to-choose-a-candidate-in-the-public-advocate-special-election voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


For weeks, intensifying ahead of Tuesday, friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues have been asking for advice about who to vote for in the special election for Public Advocate. My response usually starts with a question: What do you most want in a Public Advocate?

Sometimes that’s followed by another: How much time do you have? There are 17 candidates who will be on Tuesday’s ballot, each with certain qualities, qualifications, and visions for the office. The Public Advocate has wide latitude for how he or she approaches the job, making the question of what you most want in the office-holder key, especially given the broad and deep pool of candidates now running.

While the Public Advocate’s office comes with a modest $3.5 million annual budget and is oft-ridiculed, it actually has a lot of responsibility and can have significant impact on public policy, not to mention the fact that the post can be an important proving ground for pursuing higher office (see the last two Public Advocates: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Letitia James). The four individuals who have been elected Public Advocate to date have brought different skills, priorities, and approaches to the role.

The Public Advocate is the citywide official charged with being a watchdog over the rest of city government and with being an ombudsperson for the public. The Public Advocate has the power to introduce legislation to the City Council, a seat on the city’s public pension board, and a healthy bully pulpit and springboard underneath them. The Public Advocate is often expected to be a willing critic of the Mayor, taking the city’s chief executive to task for blurring ethical lines or spending too much or flubbing the rollout of a program or traveling out of town too often -- and so on.

On Tuesday, the many candidates will be listed with a “party” name they made up for this unique, “nonpartisan” election -- the first citywide special election since the current city government system was enacted after the 1989 charter revision -- that do give some indication of how they’ve framed their campaigns. (For more on how the candidates have sought to define themselves, read here.)

The election is open to all registered voters across the city, with polls open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Very low turnout is expected from the city’s roughly 5.2 million registered voters, but perhaps given recent Trump era trends and the fact that there are so many candidates who’ve been campaigning New Yorkers will exceed those forecasts.

Here’s how to vote based on what might be important to you:

Do you want a Public Advocate who…

...will aggressively hold Mayor de Blasio accountable?
Go with Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican elected official in the race.

...has high-level experience in the federal government, and little local political muck on their shoes?
Go with Dawn Smalls, an attorney who worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

...knows both federal and state government?
Go with Michael Blake, a member of the state Assembly who worked on both Obama campaigns and in the administration.

...has the highest level of experience in city government?
Go with Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council Speaker.

...will agitate and legislate, is as likely to lead a protest through the streets as introduce a bill?
Go with Jumaane Williams, the City Council member who aptly calls himself an “activist elected official.”

...will throw rhetorical bombs and rage against the machine from the far left?
Go with Nomiki Konst, an activist and journalist who was a Bernie Sanders delegate and pulls no punches, at times overzealously, while calling for policies like a $30 minimum wage.

...is thinking about urban policy for the future, with an eye on sustainability and a green economy?
Go with Rafael Espinal, a City Council member focused on legislating for a more “livable city.”

...is most focused on engaging New Yorkers to participate in civic life and impact the direction of public policy that’s best for their communities?
Go with Ben Yee, who wants to take his informal but informative civic education program to new heights in elected office.

...is the most conservative, with nice things to say about President Trump?
Go with Manny Alicandro, the other Republican in the race, who is far more aligned with Trump than Ulrich is.

....will focus on immigrant communities and transit issues?
Go with Ydanis Rodriguez, a City Council member and himself an immigrant, who has led the Council’s transportation committee for several years.

...has been an LGBT trailblazer and leading advocate for LGBT rights?
Go with Danny O’Donnell, an Assembly member from the Upper West Side.

...will call out and examine overspending by the city?
Go with Ulrich.

...will focus on the legislative powers of the role?
Go with Mark-Viverito, Espinal, or Williams.

...is best positioned to run policy and program oversight operations of the office?
Lean toward Mark-Viverito, but consider Smalls.

...will continue Tish James’ use of the office as a law firm of sorts?
Go with Smalls.

...will transform the office to focus on alleviating student debt?
Go with Ron Kim, a state Assembly member who has pledged to reinvent the office.

...ardently supported the plan to bring an Amazon campus to Queens?
Go with Ulrich.

...ardently opposed the Amazon plan?
Choose from O’Donnell, Kim, Espinal, and Konst.

...thought the Amazon deal could be reworked to benefit New Yorkers?
Choose from Smalls, Blake, and Williams.

...will take on real estate developers?
Choose from David Eisenbach, a Columbia professor and activist, Konst, O’Donnell, and Williams.

...will continue to lead the push to close the Rikers Island jails?
Go with Mark-Viverito.

...thinks Rikers Island should remain home to most of the city’s jail population?
Go with Ulrich or Alicandro.

...has negotiated neighborhood rezonings with the de Blasio administration and may be able to help as others attempt to do so?
Choose from Mark-Viverito, Espinal, and Rodriguez.

...is supportive of charter schools?
Go with Blake, Ulrich, or Tony Herbert, a consultant and activist.

...would bring greater gender balance to citywide government?
Go with Mark-Viverito, Smalls, or Konst, the three women in the race (Latrice Walker will also be on the ballot, but she dropped out weeks ago).

...would continue an established focus on helping more women run for elected office?
Go with Mark-Viverito.

...has been a criminal justice reformer?
Choose from Mark-Viverito, Williams, and Blake.

...will focus on NYCHA tenants?
Choose from Blake, Herbert, and Mark-Viverito.

...will make affordable housing a top priority?
Go with Williams.

...will make helping homeless families a top priority?
Go with Smalls.

...has been an ally for military veterans?
Go with Ulrich.

...will make small businesses a top priority?
Choose from Eisenbach and Rodriguez.

...will push for change at the MTA?
Choose from Mark-Viverito, Rodriguez, and Blake.

...has an eye toward more forward-thinking transit policy?
Choose from Espinal, Rodriguez, and Mark-Viverito.

...will focus on minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs)?
Go with Blake.

...will be completely independent?
Choose from O'Donnell, Konst, Smalls, Eisenbach, Alicandro, and Herbert.

...has been a close ally of Mayor de Blasio’s but also pushed him on several issues?
Go with Mark-Viverito or Williams.

...has a solid working relationship with Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders?
Go with Blake.

...is most ready to step in as Mayor if there is a crisis that necessitates it?
Lean toward Mark-Viverito, but consider Blake.

...won’t use the position too evidently as a stepping stone to run for Mayor?
Choose from O’Donnell, Smalls, Konst, Yee, or several others not named Ulrich, Blake, or Mark-Viverito.

[WATCH: 15 Minutes with Each of 14 Candidates for Public Advocate]

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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How to Choose a Candidate in the Public Advocate Special Election Mon, 25 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Last-Minute Guide: How the Public Advocate Candidates Have Tried to Define Themselves https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8308-last-minute-guide-how-the-public-advocate-candidates-have-sought-to-define-themselves https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8308-last-minute-guide-how-the-public-advocate-candidates-have-sought-to-define-themselves public advocate new york city

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


New York City’s special election for Public Advocate will take place this Tuesday, February 26, and there will be 17 candidates on the ballot, although one has suspended her campaign. Ten of these candidates qualified for the first official televised debate, then seven of those ten qualified for the second debate. Those candidates and others in the race have also been appearing at many local forums, making the rounds on television and radio, and taking part in other aspects of campaigning as they make their pitches to voters on why they should be the next citywide official tasked with providing oversight of the rest of city government and being an ombudsperson for New Yorkers.

The public advocate also has the power to introduce legislation to the City Council and the post comes with a budget of roughly $3.5 million. The position has proved to be a springboard, with its most recent occupant, Letitia James, now in the Attorney General’s office, and her predecessor, Bill de Blasio, now the Mayor. Most candidates have said that if they win on Tuesday they do not intend to run for mayor in 2021; meanwhile, the winner of the special election would need to then win an election later this year to hold the seat for 2020 and 2021. There will be June party primaries if necessary and there will be a November general election.

As the candidates finish campaigning, below is a look at how each has sought to define themselves and their candidacy. Next to each candidate’s name is his or her self-created party ballot line, a necessity given that special elections are nonpartisan.

Melissa Mark-Viverito (Fix the MTA)
A former Speaker of the New York City Council, Mark-Viverito has continued in her public advocate campaign to focus on her two top issues as Council speaker: immigrants’ rights and criminal justice reform, including the plan to close Rikers Island jails, which she spearheaded and brought Mayor de Blasio along to support. She’s also focused on the MTA, wanting to see the legalization of marijuana use, with tax revenue going toward the subways and buses, along with congestion pricing as another funding source.

Mark-Viverito has stressed the need for diversity in government, including to have female representation among officials with citywide responsibilities -- the current mayor, comptroller, and Council speaker are all white men. She’s criticized de Blasio and Governor Cuomo for failing to work cooperatively on the MTA and other matters, part of continuing attempts to prove that she would be tough in holding de Blasio accountable given that the two have had a close working relationship, including the mayor helping Mark-Viverito to become the speaker.

Michael Blake (For the People)
A member of the state Assembly from the Bronx, Blake is also a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee. He touts his work on the campaigns and in the administration of President Barack Obama, and in Albany on issues from criminal justice reform to economic opportunity.

Blake has led the race in fundraising and has received a wide variety of endorsements from elected officials and political clubs. His campaign slogan is “jobs and justice for the people,” and he’s focused on issues including affordable housing, NYCHA, criminal justice reform, and empowering women- and minority-owned businesses (M/WBEs). Blake was critical of the deal to bring Amazon to Queens that later fell apart, but has indicated he wanted it reworked, not scrapped altogether. That stance is indicative of the fact that Blake often takes somewhat more moderate positions than some of his fellow Democrats, especially those in the public advocate race.

Jumaane Williams (The People’s Voice)
A City Council member from Brooklyn, Williams has been seen as the frontrunner in the race from the start given the momentum from his 2018 primary challenge of incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, when he ran alongside Cynthia Nixon in her campaign for governor. That race gave Williams a leg up in name recognition and relationships that quickly carried over to this campaign, helping him land a long list of endorsements from clubs, groups, and leaders.

He often calls himself an “activist elected official, long before it was popular,” saying “I can be the voice for change while effectively being the person making that change.” Williams has long focused on both affordable housing and criminal justice reform. In this race he has often touted his opposition to the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy passed last term under de Blasio and Mark-Viverito.

During the first debate, both Blake and Melissa Mark-Viverito criticized Williams over his past statements on abortion and marriage equality. Williams has indicated an evolution on both issues and apologized to members of the LGBT community for past statements that he says did not express clear enough support. He has said that he would not want to pursue abortion for a pregnancy he was involved with, but that he has consistently supported women having the choice.

Dawn Smalls (No More Delays)
Smalls is an attorney and former official in the Clinton and Obama presidential administrations. In a first run for office, she often touts her work to implement the Affordable Care Act and says she has the ability to break through government bureaucracy. Smalls also says she is “completely independent of the political structure” in the city, so she can be “a true watchdog over the mayor and the City Council.”

Smalls has focused her campaign on the MTA and housing, saying that a top priority would be the homelessness crisis, especially women and children. She has shown some unfamiliarity with city government and politics, but has said that her experience, knowledge, and approach to government should win over those who are interested in an outside and not worried if their public advocate doesn’t know every piece of legislation that has gone through the City Council in recent years.

She opposed the Amazon deal, but said her criticisms were on the process, specifically the lack of public comment. In the second debate, she said “I’m the only person on this stage who did not attend an anti-Amazon rally” and that “if New Yorkers wanted to welcome Amazon, we should absolutely welcome Amazon.”

Rafael Espinal (Liveable City)
A City Council member from Brooklyn, Espinal has focused his campaign on making the city more “liveable,” meaning easier to afford, get around, and enjoy. He often touts his record championing the city’s nightlife industry, its workers, and others affected by laws governing it -- his legislation repealed the Cabaret Law, which limited where dancing is allowed in the city and he and others called racist and homophobic.

Espinal has a focus on environmental issues and a forward-looking campaign, with a promise to legislate for a city of the future. He was ardently opposed to Amazon bringing a massive campus to the city, instead calling for investments in small businesses and infrastructure.

Ron Kim (People over Corporations)
A member of the state Assembly from Queens, Kim has focused his campaign on both fighting big corporations such as Amazon and using the office to help cancel out New Yorkers’ student debt. Kim was fully opposed to Amazon coming to New York and has railed against any and all “corporate giveaways” by government.

Kim has said in the effort to attack the student debt issue he would move away from the public advocate office’s typical and core functions, such as being a watchdog over city agencies.

Nomiki Konst (Pay People More)
An activist and journalist who has been involved in a variety of short-term projects, Konst has said she’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and has run a far-left campaign. A Bernie Sanders delegate who was named by Sanders to a reform and unity commission of the Democratic National Committee, where she made some waves and developed a larger progressive following (also aided by her appearances on cable television political talk shows), Konst has proposed a $30 minimum wage as the centerpiece of her campaign agenda.

Her campaign is also focused on fighting the power of big real estate (she’s said “real estate developers own this city”) and she has regularly railed against the elected officials in the race, arguing that New Yorkers should elect a true outsider to the role of watchdog, also highlighting her skills as an investigative journalist. She has promised to have public advocate campaign staff spread throughout the five boroughs. Konst recently failed to answer a number of questions about her resume and biography for a Politico New York profile.

Danny O’Donnell (Equality for All)
A member of the state Assembly from Manhattan, O’Donnell was the first openly gay man elected to the state Legislature and a lead sponsor of the Marriage Equality Act in 2011. He touts his independence and says “the public advocate needs to be a loudmouth and that’s what I intend to be on your behalf.”

He says his top priority as public advocate would be to expand the power of the office, such as giving the public advocate subpoena power, and promises a push to “downzone” parts of the city to limit large real estate development and enhance community input on projects. O’Donnell was a steadfast opponent of Amazon coming to Queens.

Eric Ulrich (Common Sense)
A City Council member from Queens and the only Republican elected official in the race, Ulrich says he would be “Bill de Blasio’s worst nightmare” as public advocate.” He promises to hold the mayor and City Council accountable. He often frames his positions, such as support for the Amazon deal and opposition to congestion pricing, as defending the outer boroughs.

He cites his biggest accomplishments as work he has done for the city’s military veterans and for rebuilding in his community, which was especially hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. He’s opposed to closing the Rikers Island jails, but wants to renovate them, and says community jails would make neighborhoods less safe, but could not provide evidence for that theory given that Manhattan and Brooklyn already have downtown jails.

Ulrich calls himself a “Rockefeller” or “Bloomberg” or “moderate” Republican, who is socially progressive and economically conservative. He has been a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights and LGBT marriage equality. He has said de Blasio and the City Council have been spending far too much money in the city budget, and will pursue greater oversight on that issue if elected.

Ydanis Rodriguez (Unite for Immigrants)
A City Council member from Manhattan, Rodriguez has top priorities of fighting for immigrants and transit -- he has been the chair of the City Council’s transportation committee for more than five years now. He wants municipal voting rights for immigrants who don’t currently have them, and a bailout for taxi medallion owners.

Rodriguez helped usher through the Inwood neighborhood rezoning, which he says wasn’t perfect but is a positive for the community given the investments it will bring. He also cites his support of the stalled Small Business Jobs Survival Act in the City Council, which would regulate lease renewals for small business in the city. During the campaign Rodriguez received a full-throated endorsement from City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who made his latest homophobic remarks while pushing Rodriguez’s candidacy on a radio program. Rodriguez explained he disagreed with Diaz Sr.’s remarks, but did not disavow the endorsement.

***CATCH UP ON ALL GOTHAM GAZETTE COVERAGE OF THE PUBLIC ADVOCATE SPECIAL ELECTION HERE***

Manny Alicandro (Better Leadership)
An attorney, Alicandro is a Republican who argues he is the only true conservative in the race, taking on Ulrich for being more of a moderate. Last year, he unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination for state Attorney General. His reason for running is that he is “fed up with the dysfunction of city hall.”

“I’m the only pro-Trump candidate in the race,” he’s said, positioning himself as an outsider. His top priorities are fixing the MTA, investigating NYCHA, and addressing the homelessness crisis.

David Eisenbach (Stop REBNY)
Eisenbach is a history professor at Columbia University who unsuccessfully challenged Letitia James in the 2017 Democratic primary for public advocate. He has been highly critical of Mayor de Blasio, saying he has been involved in “pay-to-play” corruption and too much real estate development. He regularly cites what he calls a “small business crisis” in the city and wants to pass the Small Business Survival Jobs Act.

Tony Herbert (Housing Residents First)
Herbert is a community activist and consultant, and an unsuccessful candidate for public advocate in 2017. He points to his experience as a community advisor and activist and has focused his campaign on repairing NYCHA, moving homeless people into affordable housing, and creating a citywide vocational education program.

Benjamin Yee (Community Empowerment)
Yee is an entrepreneur and civic technologist who has worked in and around Democratic politics for roughly a decade, including as secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party. He has sought to engage more people in local politics through a program to help people run for county committee positions. In recent years he has been teaching civic engagement seminars across the city and he wants to implement a more robust program as public advocate. Most of his platform is centered on engaging and educating members of the public, empowering them to influence city government.

Yee also promises to investigate “bad actors” at the Board of Elections, who he says are responsible for voter purges and election mismanagement. He has criticized the city government for failing to enforce concessions made by developers to communities.

Jared Rich (Jared Rich for NYC)
Rich is a Brooklyn attorney and first-time candidate for office who promises to use the position of public advocate to be “the people’s lawyer.” He has said that he is “a litigator who will fights and a negotiator who will listen.” His priorities as public advocate would be making every school in the city great, attacking the opioid distribution chain, and fixing city housing issues. He has called the current state of public schools “an embarrassment.”

Helal Sheikh (Friends of Helal)
Sheikh is a public school teacher and community activist in Queens. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent City Council Member Eric Ulrich in 2017. His platform covers many of the same issues as his fellow Democrats in the race, but he has put a specific emphasis on addressing the needs of senior citizens.

Latrice Walker (Power Forward)
Walker, a state Assembly member from Brooklyn, dropped out of the race but was not able to remove her name from the ballot.

***CATCH UP ON ALL GOTHAM GAZETTE COVERAGE OF THE PUBLIC ADVOCATE SPECIAL ELECTION HERE***

***WATCH A 15-MINUTE INTERVIEW WITH ONE OR MORE PUBLIC ADVOCATE CANDIDATE(S) HERE***

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Brendan Rose and Ben Max contributed to this article.

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Last-Minute Guide: How the Public Advocate Candidates Have Tried to Define Themselves Sun, 24 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Public Advocate Candidate Ydanis Rodriguez https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8296-max-murphy-podcast-public-advocate-candidate-ydanis-rodriguez https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8296-max-murphy-podcast-public-advocate-candidate-ydanis-rodriguez mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


February 20, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Public Advocate Candidate Ydanis Rodriguez

ydanis rod wbai277City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez joined the show to discuss his candidacy for Public Advocate just days beofre the February 26 vote.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Public Advocate Candidate Ydanis Rodriguez Wed, 20 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8290-7-candidates-qualify-for-second-public-advocate-special-election-debate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8290-7-candidates-qualify-for-second-public-advocate-special-election-debate Public Advocate debate 10 candidates

The first debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))


Seven candidates running in the special election for New York City Public Advocate have qualified for the second and final official televised debate, which will take place Wednesday night, just six days ahead of the February 26 election.

There will be 17 candidates on the ballot, 10 of whom qualified for the first televised debate. Now, for the “leading contenders” debate, seven candidates met the threshold set by city law, which includes raising and spending $170,813, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Candidates made their latest filings to the Campaign Finance Board by midnight Friday.

The seven candidates who will debate Wednesday night on NY1 television are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, activist Nomiki Konst, City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal, and state Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Ron Kim.

Of the ten candidates who made the first debate, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Eric Ulrich and Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell did not meet the threshold for the second debate.

To make it into the “leading contenders” debate, the candidates then had till February 11 to raise and spend $170,813 and needed to be endorsed by an elected official representing New York City at the local, state or federal level, or by a membership organization with at least 250 members in the city (a labor union or political club, for instance).

Ulrich, the only Republican at the first debate, Rodriguez, and O’Donnell did not meet the financial threshold for the second debate.

At the first debate on February 6, the ten candidates made their pitches to city voters and weighed in on everything from funding for the MTA and NYCHA to the then-happening Amazon deal, and their disagreements with Mayor Bill de Blasio. To qualify for that debate, the candidates were required to show $56,938 in campaign fundraising and expenditure by the filing due just before the debate.

[Read: In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other]

The debate at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (February 20) will broadcast by Spectrum News NY1 and will be publicly accessible on NY1’s website and Facebook page. It will also be simulcast by NYC Life, the city’s media channel. The hour-and-a-half debate will again be moderated by Errol Louis of NY1, with questions also coming from Laura Nahmias of Politico New York and Bobby Cuza of NY1.

The public advocate special election was triggered after the former office-holder Letitia James was elected New York State Attorney General. James filled a vacancy created by the resignation of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the wake of allegations of physical abuse by several intimate partners.

The public advocate is a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council. The public advocate is also first in line to the mayor if the mayor is unable to serve out his or her full term. The position helped launch James to become attorney general, and her predeccessor, Bill de Blasio, to become mayor.

The sponsors of the debate include Politico New York, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the Latino Leadership Institute, Borough of Manhattan Community College, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

Beyond the ten candidates who made the first debate, the other candidates on the February 26 ballot will be Benjamin Yee, Manny Alicandro, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, an Assembly member who has dropped out of the race but was unable to have her name removed from the ballot.

The election, open to all registered voters across the city, is expected to be low turnout. The winner will hold the seat at least through the end of this year -- there will be a primary election this June and a general election this November to determine who holds the seat for 2020 and 2021.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate Sat, 16 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8263-in-first-debate-public-advocate-candidates-take-on-de-blasio-amazon-each-other https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8263-in-first-debate-public-advocate-candidates-take-on-de-blasio-amazon-each-other Public Advocate debate Feb 6 2019

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.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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. 

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In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
8 Things to Watch in the First Public Advocate Debate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8258-8-things-to-watch-in-the-first-public-advocate-debate-2019-special https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8258-8-things-to-watch-in-the-first-public-advocate-debate-2019-special public advocate candidates


The biggest moment so far in the short, crowded, and contentious race to become the next New York City Public Advocate will be Wednesday night, as 10 qualifying candidates take the stage for the first of two televised debates.

The citywide special election has attracted a wide and deep field of candidates -- there will be 17 names on the February 26 ballot -- including several sitting elected officials, each hoping to become the city’s watchdog and ombudsperson, one of just three citywide elected officials and next in line to the mayor. The public advocate has a lot of responsibility but limited powers, which do include the ability to introduce legislation to the City Council, and a roughly $3 million annual budget.

With 10 candidates on stage, each trying to introduce and differentiate her or himself to voters, the debate could prove somewhat pivotal as contestants try to make their mark, and spur media attention, volunteers, and donors toward their campaigns. The debate may be the first time many voters are paying attention to the race or meeting some, if not all, of the candidates. Below, you’ll find a guide of eight things to watch for in the debate.

But first: while some say the public advocate position should be eliminated or mock it’s relative lack of power, the debate, and the larger election, are important -- the last two public advocates are now the Mayor (Bill de Blasio) and state Attorney General (Letitia James). Meanwhile, before moving on to bigger or simply other things, the public advocate can have significant impact on city government through the bully pulpit, policy reports, legislation, legal action, and coalition building.

The 10 candidates who will participate in the first debate are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, activist Nomiki Konst, attorney Dawn Smalls; State Assembly Members Michael Blake, Ron Kim, and Daniel O’Donnell; and City Council Members Rafael Espinal Jr., Ydanis Rodriguez, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams.

Airing from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday night on NY1 from the CUNY-TV studio in Manhattan, it will be the first of two televised debates in the special election (the second one is February 20). It will be moderated by NY1 political anchor Errol Louis, with questions also coming from panelists including Laura Nahmias of Politico New York. Candidates qualified by hitting the New York City Campaign Finance Board financial raise-and-spend threshold of $56,938, as dictated by city law. The debate will also air on NY1’s website and Facebook page (and on the city’s “NYC Life” channel available on all cable providers, as mandated by a new city law).

Here’s what to watch for in the debate:

1. How will each candidate try to define themselves?
Candidates have a choice to make in terms of how they balance talking about their personal story, their accomplishments, their plans for how they’d run the public advocate’s office, how they would approach Mayor Bill de Blasio, and what sets them apart from their competition. The questions will influence these choices, but candidates can spend their allotted time, including but not limited to any opening and closing statements, returning to their chosen talking points.

There’s a good chance you’ll hear a lot of sentences that start with: “I’m the only candidate in this race...” or “I’m the only one on this stage who…”

Mark-Viverito is likely to stress both her experience leading the City Council, especially on criminal justice reform, and the need for diversity in top city positions, where the current mayor, comptroller and City Council speaker are all white men. Williams will talk about his work as “an activist elected official” who has staked out progressive positions on police reform and affordable housing.

Blake will tout accomplishments by the Democratic majority of the state Assembly like raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, his work for President Barack Obama, and his “jobs and justice” platform in this race. He’ll bill himself as an organizer, a coalition builder. O’Donnell will talk about his independence, exemplified, he’ll say, by his refusal to sign a letter enticing Amazon to consider New York City for a headquarters; and his successful push to pass marriage equality in New York.

Kim will also talk about his opposition to Amazon, while also touting his platform to recreate the public advocate’s office as one focused on helping to eliminate student debt. Espinal will highlight legislative accomplishments, like repeal of an antiquated law limiting which clubs are allowed to host dancing and creation of the Office of Nightlife, and what he’s working on now: legalization of e-bikes and e-scooters as well as other climate-friendly policies. He’ll explain he’s focused on making it easier for everyday New Yorkers to live in this city.

Smalls will discuss her carefully-outlined platform and how she’ll focus the public advocate’s office on four key areas: homelessness, housing, transit, and civic participation; and she’ll highlight her work as an attorney and in the Obama administration. Konst -- who along with Smalls are the only two who have not held elected office -- will fill the “outsider” lane, talking about the need for someone with her independence from the political muck and investigative skills as a journalist to come in and shake things up, call it like it is, and provide real oversight. She’ll stake out far left policy positions like calling for a $30-an-hour minimum wage and vilifying the real estate industry, as well as politicians beholden to it, who she’ll say have caused an affordability crisis in the city.

Rodriguez will talk about his immigrant story and fighting for immigrants during his career as an activist and as an elected official, and explain that’s what he’ll do as public advocate if elected to the post. He’ll also talk a lot about transit and refer to his work as the City Council’s transportation committee chair over the last several years. And Ulrich, the lone registered Republican on the stage, will argue he’s the only one who can truly hold Mayor de Blasio accountable given their widespread disagreements, though he’ll also explain that he’s a “moderate” and “Rockefeller” Republican who is progressive on social issues, perhaps saying that he sees himself in the mold of (now-Democrat) Michael Bloomberg. He may highlight his support for Amazon coming to Queens as the Democrats on the stage mostly criticize the deal.

Everyone will rail against the MTA.

Most of the candidates will express support for congestion pricing, some may also call for a millionaire’s tax to fund subway upgrades or for the city to take control of the subways and buses.

Everyone will say what has gone on at NYCHA is a disgrace. Solutions there, however, may not roll off the tongue.

2. The Elephant in the Room
As the only Republican on the stage, Ulrich has a clear mission in the debate and the broader race: to attract as many moderates and conservatives, independents and Republicans, as possible to pull off a victory in a crowded race where someone could win with 30% of the vote, maybe even less.

While the rest of the candidates will argue over their progressive bona fides, pitching themselves to many of the same voters, Ulrich will likely focus his fire on de Blasio (others will do some of that, too, of course), and position himself as the alternative to a bunch of Democrats trying to out-socialism each other. Ulrich may also have to be clear that he’s not a supporter of Donald Trump -- he backed John Kasich in the 2016 GOP presidential primary and has criticized the president repeatedly, drawing ire from some of his fellow Republicans, though much of the city’s GOP establishment has gotten behind his candidacy. In the City Council, Ulrich very often votes with the Democratic majority while his two fellow Republicans vote “no,” sometimes along with several more conservative Democrats.

3. How negative will it get?
It’s a sprint of a race and a crowded field. The candidates have been traversing the city meeting with clubs and organizations and appearing at candidate forums and debates, which have apparently only had a few tense moments between the candidates, though there have been many comments about some of the perceived frontrunners (Williams, Mark-Viverito, and Blake), along with a few criticisms for others, like Espinal, who has been tweaked for his support of a neighborhood rezoning in his district that some say will (or already is) spur gentrification and displacement.

Candidates will likely mostly stick with more vague comments that include phrases like “unlike some of my opponents,” but we may see some more pointed criticisms. How hot things get will depends on a few things: whether one or two candidates decide to go negative and open the floodgates; how much urgency certain candidates are feeling with less than three weeks until the election; and whether there is a “cross-examination” round where candidates get to ask one of their opponents a direct question.
Look for Williams, Mark-Viverito, and Blake to be the most frequent targets of any negative comments, outright attacks, or those pointed candidate-to-candidate questions.

What might come up exactly?

For Mark-Viverito, it could be questions about her support of a rezoning in her City Council district, her closeness with de Blasio or with Oscar López Rivera, how she’s handled some of her campaign financing, or whether she provided strong enough oversight of issues at NYCHA while she was City Council speaker. As the candidate who has held the most power in government, she has both the most to point to in terms of accomplishments but also a series of vulnerabilities.

For Blake, possibly the outside income he has earned as a consultant or his support for charter schools. For Williams, perhaps that he just ran for lieutenant governor and is now pursuing another higher office or some of his campaign financing, but most likely the ongoing questions around his support for a woman’s right to choose and for marriage equality. There was also a recent report about a campaign staffer who was a teacher and had been fined for sending inappropriate messages to a student.

Espinal could face some questions, or at least barbs, about the East New York rezoning that he negotiated with the de Blasio administration. Ulrich could face questions about Trump, as virtually every Republican running for office over the last few years has, even those who have not supported the president who is deeply unpopular in New York City.

If Konst is particularly critical of her opponents and one or more decide(s) to fire back, she could face questions or comments about what exactly she has accomplished, especially for New York City voters, or what qualifies her for a citywide office.

Amazon is likely to come up several times, particularly with regard to the 2017 letter that some of the public advocate candidates did sign, encouraging the company to consider New York. Those signees, including Mark-Viverito, Williams, and Blake, have criticized the deal and said that while they may have signed a letter of interest, they were not signing off on any deal and expected a better process. That hasn't been a good enough answer for O'Donnell, Kim, Konst, Espinal, and others.

And there could very well be new questions or critiques thrown by one candidate at another. There’s clearly opposition research happening by some campaigns, with a lot at stake in the election.

Even though there will be 10 candidates and there’s potential for a lot of cross-talk, the debate is very likely to stay orderly. The candidates involved are all respectful of rules and Louis always runs a tight ship.

4. The Wild Cards
Konst is certainly known to speak forcefully and critically, and if she’s throwing verbal punches, she may take some control of the conversation by virtue of putting some of her opponents back on their heels. If other candidates have to appeal to the moderator to “have a chance to respond to that,” she may get the kind of debate attention she may need.

O’Donnell can also be particularly biting, though it’s unclear how harsh he wants to get with his competition -- he’s also quite affable.

Rodriguez has had a penchant for saying somewhat controversial things in his time in the Council, including when he was arguing that the City Council was not going far enough as it was voting itself a large salary raise. How bold does he get?

Blake and Mark-Viverito are both exceptionally competitive and may decide that what it takes to win is to try to dominate the debate, including by being particularly sharp with their competitors.

And while Smalls is consistently calm and collected, she may present something of a wild card in that she may impress a lot of people watching, giving herself even more of a chance (she’s raised a good bit of money and is strong at local forums) in what is very clearly a long-shot bid.

5. The Former Public Advocates
There’s a good chance that the candidates will have a lot of harsh words for one former public advocate, Bill de Blasio, and a lot of kind words for another, Tish James.

There have only been four public advocates since the position was created through charter revision commission late last century. The other two are Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum. Green has endorsed Williams this year, while Gotbaum is the executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group and co-sponsor of the debates.

The candidates may be asked to discuss which of the former public advocates they most admire or would borrow strategies from, or candidates may offer some of those examples themselves.

Essential to the whole night is that the candidates must individually and collectively make the case that the position of public advocate is important, worth keeping, and worth caring about enough for people to vote. Perhaps more important than their stances on any issues is whether the candidates can outline strong strategies for how they’ll engage everyday New Yorkers and respond to the issues that they raise and be an aggressive and effective watchdog over city government.

When the candidates talk about the position, how much fire is in their bellies -- and is the fire about using the office to help people or about using it to move on to the next thing? Maybe both?

6. The Mayoral Pledge
As it has throughout the race, the question of mayoral aspirations is likely to come up. After all, Green and de Blasio both ran for mayor while they were public advocate and James likely would have if the attorney general position hadn’t opened up with Eric Schneiderman’s dishonorable resignation.

Some candidates, like O’Donnell, have pledged to never run for mayor, while Williams and Blake have pledged not to run in 2021 if successful in this special election and then in the fall election that will follow. Mark-Viverito has said she's not ruling anything out.

Ulrich has said he will run for mayor if he’s elected public advocate.

7. Policy Talk
The debate could be quite substantive. The candidates on the stage are all serious people who want to work in government and to accomplish things to help people and the city overall. They’ve been touring the forum circuit where they’ve been asked about all sorts of broad and specific issues, from affordable housing to congestion pricing to policing and more.

The public advocate is able to carve out policy areas to focus on based on the interests of the officeholder, though major issues facing the city also command attention. The candidates have all put forth ideas and policy proposals, discussed legislation they may look to introduce if elected, and changes they believe are needed to major institutions, from schools to the MTA.

Hot button issues like the Amazon deal, NYCHA’s future, congestion pricing and how to fix the subways, and more could all come up. Like in all candidate debates, pay special attention to which candidates actually offer solutions to key problems facing the city and which only talk about what’s gone wrong and how much of a shame it is.

It will be particularly interesting to get candidates on the record about as many key issues as possible, like infill development on NYCHA land or neighborhood rezonings, the mayor’s affordable housing plan, police accountability, school turnaround, the BQX, parking placard abuse, bus lane enforcement, and more. What do the candidates think should be done about climate change? Homeless shelter siting? And so on.

Much of the policy that is discussed will depend on the questions from the moderator and panelists, and they are sure to cover a lot, but candidates can also find ways to work in key points they want to make about where they think the city needs to go.

8. The Non-Debaters
Watch for them on social media during the debate and at local forums between Wednesday and the election on February 26. The public advocate candidates not in the debate include Ben Yee, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Manny Alicandro, and Helal Sheikh (Latrice Walker will be on the ballot but she has dropped from the race).

Final Notes
The co-sponsors of the debate at 7 p.m. Wednesday are Spectrum News NY1 and Spectrum News Noticias NY1, Politico New York, Citizens Union, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Latino Leadership Institute, The League of Women Voters of the City of New York, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

The second debate, likely with a smaller field of candidates, will take place on Wednesday, February 20, again on NY1 and NYC Life.

The citywide election is open to all registered voters on February 26.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Blake has said he won't run for mayor in 2021 if he is elected public advocate.

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8 Things to Watch in the First Public Advocate Debate Tue, 05 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000