The Race for Public Advocate

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The Nod of the Bosses... Scramble for the City Council... Basic Training for Council Recruits... How They Stack up on Term Limit... Dynasties... The Speech that Saved Term Limits...


What is Searchlight on Campaign 2001?
Searchlight on Campaign 2001 is a guide to the political races in what many are calling New York City's most significant campaign season in modern history.

What is so significant about it?
For the first time in memory, most political offices in the city will be wide open to people who have neither money nor connections.

Why will the races be so open?
There are two reasons. This year, a new law goes into effect that limits the terms of New York City elected officials, forcing the mass retirement of most incumbents in the city - including the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate, four of the five borough presidents, and 36 of the 51 members of the City Council. At the same time, a new campaign finance law kicks in, which allows any candidate who agrees to certain restrictions to collect four dollars of matching funds for every dollar they raise.

What does this have to do with this site?
As a public service, Searchlight on Campaign 2001 has a separate page for each race, including all the races for City Council, that not only sorts out the candidates -- many of them new and unfamiliar -- but also offers an opportunity to learn about the issues, and the districts themselves.

Who is behind Searchlight on Campaign 2001?
Searchlight on Campaign 2001 is a project of Gotham Gazette, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-ideological (but non-boring) web site about New York City news, policy and politics published by Citizens Union Foundation, part of the oldest and largest good-government group in the city (founded in 1897).

What's wrong with the way the regular press covers the races?
That is for you to decide. And one of our regular features, Campaign Trail, helps you to decide. Campaign Trail provides succinct summaries and links to campaign articles in the commercial press.

Who are we?


Steven DiBrienza

My name is Steve DiBrienza, and I am a City Councilmember. I think most of you know that. I've been a councilmember now for 16 years. I am running for the office of public advocate, and I am here to try and convince you that if you think about the issues you care about, and the issues that are not only important to you, but the city as a whole, while looking at what I have done all these years you will find it easy to support me for the office of public advocate.

I'm an independent community based candidate. I got into public service by running against the organization in Brooklyn, because they were not listening to the people they governed. A very important principle I try to never forget. I ran against the then speaker. They didn't call it speaker at the time. Some of the folks from this club came out to Brooklyn to be involved in the race. It was twenty years ago. We had a recount it was so close. It was not as bad as Florida. I didn't win that time, but in the rematch I started, he quit, I won.

I never forgot that lesson. If you are in government, in public service you should listen to the people you govern. I did my work on waterfront development issues. Something you care about very much here, about access, and opening up the waterfront, and reclaiming it in an adaptive, reusable way sensitive to the environment. I did work on landmarks. I oversaw the creation of the last three historic districts in North Central, and South Tribeca. I gave that committee up and moved on to do work on the contracts committee. Seeding out waste, fraud, and corruption in the council.

For the last eight years, I chaired the general welfare committee. This included social services, human services, child welfare, AIDS services, homeless services. You know people say to me "Steve, what do you do for a living?" and I tend to say I bang my hand against the wall, because that's what it felt like for the last eight years. I'm trying to make sense out of a very difficult system. Improve it and change it where necessary, but still provide services to New Yorkers indeed. At the same time protect the communities of our city that deal with the aftermath of those problems. I battled this administration for the eight years it had been there, because they do not listen to the people they govern. I take all of that experience, and step back and say, "What are we about to do?" Here's it in a nutshell. We are about to rebuild the government in our city. All of us activists for a year, twenty-five, or longer. We have never done what we are about to do, a new mayor, the new controller, new public advocate, four new borough presidents, and thirty-five new councilmembers.

It is virtually a brand new government. When I looked at that not unlike yourselves as a citizen who lives works, and struggles here I knew that I could make a difference in that new government, and there was only one spot that made sense. The office of public advocate. The person that is free to look at our systems of government, and figure out what works, and more often what doesn't. That's what I do. That's what I've done.


Q-What do you think the role of the public advocate will be and how will you expand and focus the role?

A-I would look first and I think we all need to start at the Charter. The Charter says you're the ombudsman, that we all know. You need to answer questions for people. You need to help folks. You need to solve their problems. The Charter's very clear, you need to do more. Go behind the problems to look for the patterns of abuse or mistake. Look for what's wrong with the system of government that's at issue. So if hundreds of kids call, or hundreds of parents call about child to child welfare system, you need to solve those problems if you can, but you need to look behind them to figure out the system of government, and what is wrong with the system.

That's what I have done in the council, I've done it for the child welfare system, I've done it for the homeless services, I've done it for the welfare system, and I've done it in environment issues and others. So that part of the job is described. You also make appointments for very important boards and commissions, the planning commission, the tensions board, I submit to you there are several others. I submit to you that questions of development, over-development of our neighborhoods running rough-shod over our communities, not giving folks who live, work and struggle in this city in neighborhoods not unlike yours or mine in brownstone Brooklyn, or here in the Village and in all the surrounding areas, not giving us a voice, and a say in what is or isn't developed or how it is developed. Well that planning board becomes important, that appointment is important. And so the diversity of the appointments that a candidate can make speaks a lot to the power of the office.

And lastly here's where it would be different. Mark Green has done a lot of interesting and good things, he has a consumer background, he has a child welfare background, we served together on his C-Plan, his organization that brings together advocates and activists to improve child welfare. But here's the difference: the next public advocate, which I hope to be, will be the public advocate in a brand new government. With a new mayor, comptroller on top, and a new council beneath and borough presidents except for the borough of Manhattan that will be brand new. That means the part of the Charter that says you are ex-officio a member of every single committee, can hold hearings and introduce legislation, is where the power will be expanded.

So that the bureaucrats that I have held accountable for the past eight years and have served next to some of the may be able to return, I can see the public advocate and those Councilmembers as well as those new members working together, continue to do that. And that's different, that's a different view of the job. Mark doesn't do a lot of that, not because he is not a good public advocate, but because he doesn't have to. The number of years of experience is already there. In a brand new government that will change. I think that portion of the job will change if I am elected.

Q-What do you find most objectionable about the current mayor, and what would you address as public advocate?

A-I think what I find most objectionable his unwillingness to listen to the people that he is supposed to govern. He governs this city in large measure by setting group against group, neighborhood against neighborhood, race against race, community against community. It's not good enough to say the city is much safer, it is much safer. But we don't need the level of violence that tenders to it, or the level of police brutality that tenders to it. It's not good enough to say that the streets are cleaner and realize that he has done that on the backs of a permanent underclass that he helped create, or at least keep in place, through Jason Turner's policies at HRA. It's not good enough to say for example, that we have a health crisis in the division of AIDS services and we're going to reorganize it, which is what he says, but what he does is try to dismantle it--but for law that I passed that preserves it. Someone asked me this just tonight, all you are is a critic, all you do is fight with Giuliani--that's not what it is, it's about holding government officials and bureaucrats accountable to us, to the people of the city.

And my problem with Giuliani is that he does not want to be held accountable. I can give you countless examples. I have passed more legislation than just about anyone that's been vetoed, we've overridden it and the mayor still attempts not to implement it. We've had to sue him over it. That's not good for the democracy.

So when you see the new government, in all likelihood a democratic mayor, a democratic set of officials--at least that's what I hope. Here's the difference--the difference is the value of what I do isn't in the battle, but in the solutions. Legislative and budgetary solutions I offer. And here's the difference--in a democratic administration one would only hope that if you take the time as the public advocate can to step back and figure out a problem, and offer a solution, instead of getting as I did with the homeless battle you are referring to eviction notices to a clinic for the mentally ill in my district, that I even had to rally to save, I would get a response, because I am offering it as a way of improving the operations of government.

Q-What is the number one issue for you as public advocate?

A-I find it's really hard name a single issue. I think public education is one of the most important issues we face. I think most politicians argue about governance and the structure, should we have a chancellor, should we have a commissioner, do we have board, and they missed the real issues--class size, science and technology, computerization, the need for well paid certified teachers, and so on and so forth--the substance of the system.

I happen to believe that we can rebuild the system continuously, and that's what we need to do. I happen to believe that both as an elected official and parent of two children in the system. And I think that public education is a key issue, but you can't separate that from the crisis in affordable housing. The need for continued renewal in terms of local economic development. You don't need mega-projects, this mayor is good for mega-projects and name and headline, but then it doesn't really account for the effect that it has on our communities and our neighborhoods.

Local economic development, the rebuilding of a linear shopping street that brings it back to life, that surrounds you and that allows a community surrounding it to thrive. I've done it on Smith Street. You may have read stories in The Times in the last three months or four months about Smith Street. That was my project that took it from a street with 40 percent vacancy to a street that is bustling with restaurants and old businesses and new and it's fully occupied and we've physically rebuilt it.

That's important. That economic development, except for The Times writing about a few restaurants, will never get a headline. But it's more important than some of the mega-projects they talked about and they don't materialize. So things like public education, affordable housing--which I could go on and on about, but its about creative use of our tax programs--local economic development, and the need to deal with the environment and sane transportation policies.

We have some of the worst transportation policies of the region, and there's a lot we can with those areas. Now, how do you deal with them as public advocate? Well, you can say Steve, all you can do is talk about them. That's a mistake. You can structure your office to have an inter-advocacy organization surround each issue. You can bring in the activists, the advocates, the consumers, the communities, and here's the difference: the use of staff time.

Those efforts, those self help efforts usually peter out, unless you have staff time. Mark does it, with what's caused C-Plan, it's his child welfare group; they're activists, advocates, providers, consumers of the service. They meet on a regular basis and on staff person is designed to keep it going. You can do that with public education, transportation, the issues I mentioned. And you're allowed to introduce legislation, hold hearings, and participate in the work of the council. So when people say to you "the public advocate can only talk about the issues"--that's wrong, it's a fundamental misunderstanding. I produced legislative and budgetary solutions my entire career. I would continue that as public advocate.

With affordable housing for middle and low-income people, I would seek out support from the state on a moratorium on all Mitchell-Lama conversions. If we lose the Mitchell-Lama buildings you all lose, the city loses an entire--a generation if you will--an entire set of middle class working New Yorkers who live in Mitchell-Lama housing.

We need to strengthen rent protection and rent stabilization laws. I was one of the handful of Councilmembers who voted against so called luxury de-controls. The Manhattan members voted against it because "it's going to effect our neighborhoods." But I have always had a broad vision of this city, a vision that has included all its neighborhoods, and I knew full well that if you set those numbers that the a) the real estate industry will pressure you to bring those numbers down and b) it doesn't take an extra week or month or maybe even six months to catch up in neighborhoods like mine, in Brownstone Brooklyn or any of the other communities that it is happening to.

So we'd have to fight to continue to undo the damage. I am a leader of those issues. And lastly, it's about tax policy. We give away hundreds of millions of dollars. We have spent years dealing with the city's tax policies. They have given away hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate, those luxury towers and or luxury office buildings in the theory that somehow jobs will materialize. A) They don't. B) They don't go to resident New Yorkers most of the time.

And so what you do instead with those hundreds of millions of dollars is commit it to a capital construction program of tax rebates and tax relief for people who build affordable housing. And there are so many examples of that. And there's more than enough money to begin to make serious dents.

Q-Where do you stand on term limits and campaign finance?

A-I was a co-sponsor of the campaign finance law. I think the 4-to-1 match component of that law is incredibly important for average candidates to be able to run for office. It drives down the influence of money. It means a ten dollar, fifty dollar, hundred dollar contribution is as important as five and ten thousand dollar contribution that the mayor's used to. It's the height of hypocrisy for him to stand up there and say it will cost too much. It's about democracy and participation. It doesn't cost too much--it cost too much for him because has rich and powerful friends, but it doesn't cost too much for the rest of us. Having said that, on term limits: I am personally against term limits, I think they are a false answer to some very real problems. The real problems being valid access, the influence of money--I think democrats and republicans alike need to tackle those problems.

But unless and until we do, it's the law, it passed twice, and as much I don't think it is a valid thing, I think it is an artificial or false answer to some very real problems, I couldn't vote to legislatively overturn it. I'm not one of the 22, I'm not sponsoring it, and I can't voter for it. You know how I explain it to people? I believe that we are going to have to live through the pain in order for people to see that it is artificial and that it won't work, and that the bureaucrats and the insiders will run amok unless we pick better than we have ever picked before, from your next Councilmember to your next borough president although you don't have a new race in Manhattan, to the three city-wides. I commend people all over the city to pick better than they have ever picked before otherwise the bureaucrats and the insiders will run amok.

You think it's difficult dealing with agencies now, I'll give you a sense of the scope of this. You all hear 35 new members, you hear that in the papers--let me give you a sense of the scope, 12, 15 members can get re-elected and come back, three of them have to be republicans so let's put them to the side, it's a minority party. So the 12 come back--they're the big shots! Second term, they're nice people, they're good people don't get me wrong. They're going to chair the big committees--it stands to reason. We have no less than 32 standing and sub-committees in the council. Do the math, 12 big shots taking the big committees, that leaves 20. So 20 people will walk in the door from day one, not only new, but they're chairing committees. So we can get a sense of the upheaval.

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Find what city council district you are in -- and learn more about what's going on there, and who's running.

What is this?
Gotham Gazette's Searchlight on Campaign 2001 offers a comprehensive look at what is being called New York City's most significant campaign season in modern history. (See the left-hand column for an explanation).

Districts of the Week

District 1 -- Lower Manhattan
Whoever wins the election in district 1 will represent immigrant Chinese garment workers, as well as Wall Street traders living in Battery Park City. There are several candidates hoping to be the council's firsts -- the first Asian-American man, the first Asian-American woman, the first gay Rhodes Scholar, the first dot-com guru -- running against some politically well connected opponents. Endorsements and fundraising will play a big role in this race. But voter turnout could be the main determinant of who will next represent district 1 on the council. The key question is how many voters from each community will come out on Election Day.

District 7 -- Washington Heights, Manhattan
The northern tip of Manhattan has become one of the most popular places for new immigrants to call home. The northern tip of Manhattan is a place that today's new immigrants call home. The majority have come from the Dominican Republic, but also from countries in South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. But it is not just new immigrants that are moving in. Students, artists, and other Manhattanites looking for less expensive rents and larger apartments have also moved north. Ten Democratic candidates are competing for the 15,000 voters expected on primary day. The winner who emerges from a crowded field of candidates will have to balance the needs of the newcomers with those who have lived there for years.

District 16 -- Highbridge, Bronx
The neighborhoods of district 16 are the city's poorest, with the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest median household income. But those who live there also point out that much is positive and stable about the area, thanks in large part to local organizations, not-for-profit agencies, and houses of worship that help hold the neighborhoods together. Each candidate for City Council believes that through his or her connections to churches and local organizations, they can help empower the community toward a better life. Helen Foster, the current council member daughter, will face Michael Benjamin, who has worked as an aide to several government officials and Anthony Curry, a Bronx neighborhood activist.

District 20 -- Northeast Flushing, Queens
This year district 20 may elect the first Asian-American ever to the City Council to an area which now has the second highest number of immigrants from Korea and Taiwan in the city. There are three Asian candidates in the Democratic race who have each drawn big endorsements. Council Speaker Peter Vallone enndorsed Terence Park, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi endorsed John Liu, and the New York Times recently endorsed Ethel Chen The campaign has also drawn national and international press coverage

District 25 -- Jackson Heights, Queens
Thirty-seventh Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens is one of the most diverse streets in the world. Little India quickly blends into Little Colombia, with vendors selling Latin American food to Colombians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and Uruguayans. And each summer, the Queens Pride Parade fills the same street with rainbow banners. So it is no surprise that this election year the district produced a diverse field of candidates. A number of them, however, found out that getting on the ballot is not an easy task, especially when the Queens Democratic organization sends teams of lawyers to challenge petitions. But five Democratic candidates survived and will face off on September 11.

District 31 -- South East Queens
When a heavy rain hits southeast Queens, many residents in neighborhoods like Springfield Gardens, Laurelton and Rosedale head to the basement with a bucket in hand. And it has been that way for the last 50 years. In the rush to build housing in the area after World War II, developers overlooked the need for storm drains in hopes that the city would eventually build a city-wide sewer system. The plan never materialized and the area has experienced "100-year rains" three times in the last decade. The eight Democrats -- all with little experience overseeing massive infrastructure projects--will try to convince voters that they can finally solve the flooding problems.

District 35 -- Central Brooklyn
The residents in council district 35 have some of the highest incomes in Brooklyn and some of the lowest. They can play in a famous park and a beautiful botanical garden, and live in the city's most crumbling public housing. They can attend one of the four institutions of higher learning in the district, and the worst-scoring high schools in the city. Such juxtapositions are a way of life for a district that includes the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens; mid dle-class African-American communities near Prospect Park; immigrant communities from Haiti, Sierra Leon, Nigeria, and Trinidad, and in Crown Heights, a mix of Hasidic Jews and African-Americans. Seven Democratic candidates are campaigning in hopes that they can bring some kind of unity, and attention, to the area. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the neighborhoods themselves.

District 39 -- Park Slope/Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
The candidates in district 39 include a chief of staff for an Assemblywoman, the husband of a member of U.S. Congress, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, an attorney and president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, the district manager of Community Board 6, and a labor organizer. This is the race to watch this year. The group of high-profile Democrats have raised a lot of money, almost $1.4 million combined.

District 45 -- East Flatbush
In no place in the city are the effects of campaign finance reform and term limits being felt more than in East Flatbush. The seven Democratic candidates seeking to represent this largely West Indian district come from a number of Caribbean nations. Many have been working on politicians' staffs and serving with community groups, clearly hoping someday to win their own elected office. Term limits has presented them with that opportunity, and they want to make the most of it. But this race that usually draws only about 8,000 voters could be decided by just a few votes. The candidates are attempting to come up with anything that will separate them from the pack.

District 49 -- North Shore, Staten Island
Staten Island has always been somewhat of a suburban stepchild to New York City. When a 1998 survey asked New Yorkers why they go to Staten Island, the top two responses were ''visiting friends and relatives" and ''passing through.'' But in many ways, the north shore has more in common with areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn than with the rest of the Staten Island. The top priority for all the candidates -- Jon Del Giorno, an administrative manager for the Board of Elections, Mike McMahon, an attorney and counsel to current Councilmember Jerome O'Donovan, and Debi Rose, an administrator at the College of Staten Island and the first African-American candidate in Staten Island politics -- is to make sure that the island becomes more than just a turn-around-point for the over one million tourists who ride the free ferry from Manhattan each year.

Register To Vote or Be A Poll Worker

Voter Registration Forms
After printing and filling out the voter registration form, please send them by mail to:

Board of Elections
32 Broadway, 7th Floor
New York, NY

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Poll Worker Applications

After completing the forms, please send them to the address on the form.

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Links You Can Use

Government sites
NYC Campaign Finance Bd.
NYC Board of Elections
NYC Voter Assistance Comm.
NY City Council
Federal Election Comm.

Local non-partisan sites
NY League of Women Voters
Common Cause New York

National non-partisan sites
Ctr. for Responsive Politics
Common Cause
League of Women Voters

NAACP Voter Empowerment
Vote Smart


Political consultants
Amer. Assc. of Pol. Consultants

Prime New York

Gotham Gazette
The Empire Page
Campaigns and Elections
Legislative Gazette

Political columnists
Andrea Bernstein
Joe Conason
Mario Cuomo (radio)
Rudy Giuliani (radio)
Clyde Haberman
Nat Hentoff

Joseph Mercurio
Joyce Purnick
John Tierney
Michael Tomasky

Political parties
Right to Life
Working Families
Marijuana Reform
Natural Law Party
Taxpayers Party

Political clubs and groups
Blueprint Camp. Finance Reform
Central Queens Greens
The Jefferson Democratic Club of Flushing
NY Young Republican Club
Stonewall Democratic Club
Village Independent Dems.

Abbreviations for Party Affiliation

American Dream Party (AMD)
Better Schools Party (BES)
Communist (Com)
Conservative (Con)
Constitution (CST)
Democratic (Dem)
Friends United Party (FUN)
Fusion Party (FUS)
Green (Gre)
Harmony Party (HAR)
Independence (Ind)
Liberal (Lib)
Libertarian (LBT)
Marijuana Reform Party (POT)
Natural Law Party (NLP)
Party of Ethics and Traditions (PET)
Reform Party (Ref)
Republican (Rep)
Right to Life (RTL)
School Choice Party (Sch)
Socialist Workers Party (SWP)
Working Families (Wor)

2001 Election Calendar

June 1 -- Deadline for candidates to join the Campaign Finance program, qualifying for the four-to-one match of contributions.
June 5 - First day for candidates from the eight major parties (Democratic, Republican, Indpendence, Conservative, Liberal, Green, Working Families, and Right to Life) to circulate petitions. Candidates running for City Council must collect the signatures of at least 900 people living in the district for which they are running in order to appear on the Primary ballot. Candidates not running under these eight major parties do not appear on the Primary ballot and have a separate set of deadlines.
July 12 - Deadline for major party candidates to file petitions.
July 10 - First day for unaffiliated candidates to circulate petitions, in order to appear on the ballot in the General Election. They must collect the number of signatures equal to five percent of the total enrolled in that party.
August 7 - Board of Elections announces candidates appearing on the Primary ballot.
August 17 - Last day for non-absentee voters to register to vote in the Primary Election.
August 21 - Deadline for non-major party candidates to file petitions to be included on the General Election ballot.
September 4 - Last day to postmark application for absentee voting in the Primary
September 10 - Last day to personally deliver application for absentee voting in the Primary Last day to postmark absentee ballot for Primary
September 11 - Primary election; Polls open at 6:00a.m. and close at 9:00p.m.; Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by 9:00 p.m.
September 25 - Runoff Primary election for Mayor, Comptroller and Public Advocate, if needed
October 12 - Last day to for non-absentee voters to register to vote in the General Election
October 30 - Last day to postmark application for absentee voting in the General Election
November 5 - Last day to hand-deliver an application for absentee voting, or to postmark an absentee ballot for the General Election.
November 6 - General Election; polls open at 6:00a.m. and close at 9:00p.m. in NYC; Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered by 9:00 p.m.

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