Public Advocate: A Position Worth Fighting For
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Follow me on Twitter @QueensTribune
What a wonderful field of candidates.
Over the past ten days I interviewed the four candidates for Public Advocate. There is clarity to the insight, talent and vision of each of the four but one must weigh those to determine which one best fits the strange job title of Public Advocate – supposedly the second highest elected official in the City.
Via Facebook and Twitter, as I did for the Comptroller race, I asked for questions for the candidates. For Public Advocate a single theme resonated from online readers/followers: What is the job and why shouldn’t it be abolished?
As a result of the last major City Charter Revision 1989, which replaced the old Board of Estimates with a new larger and more powerful City Council, the old position of City Council President was converted to Public Advocate.
According to the City website, the Public Advocate is:
• Next in line to the Mayor;
• Presiding officer at meetings of the City Council, a member of all Council committees and has the power to introduce legislation.
• An ombudsperson to cut through government red tape, investigating ineffective agencies and programs, proposing solutions that make government more efficient, and helping communities gain better access to government.
• A Trustee on New York City‘s largest retirement system and holds positions on other Boards.
But in reality, the people have not embraced the position; yet the four Public Advocate candidates and the four Comptroller candidates insist the watchdog role is essential and all agree that the Office’s budget should be tied to an independent indicator so as the Council or Mayor whose work the office monitors cannot decimate the position.
They all agree on the major issues we discussed: they opposed the term limits change, favor Mayoral control of schools and pension reform through collective bargaining and insist on tighter controls and review on member items. And while they all look to reform Albany and the City to a lesser extent, each is a realist and recognizes the limits of the political process.
The clearest difference amongst the four is generational. While they are all fighters in the reform sense of the word, Norman Siegel and Mark Green have been fighting for change for what seems like forever. They are both accomplished and talented and have impressive records. The young Turks – no longer so young – Eric Gioia and Bill de Blasio, are likewise committed and talented and must be viewed with an eye toward the future.
What it comes down to for this writer is should we view this position as the traditional ombudsman selecting the candidate who can shake things up most effectively for the next four years or should we look to the future and see the position as part of a long-range process of bringing new leaders into a position of power?
Norman Siegel has been a hero of mine for many years – I haven’t told him. My early membership in the ACLU gave me a connection to his outstanding work as head of the NY Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). He has been an iconoclast and one of the folks who have figuratively thrown bombs to achieve change. Norman has always been one of the good guys – outside the system.
But can Norman be effective from within?
Norman feels it down deep when he says: “I believe the job is to protect the rights of all New Yorkers — not just some; to hold the NYC Government, its officials and agencies accountable.”
Siegel is still is the same ol’ go-to-the-mat champion, “Where am I most comfortable? In a court of law. If there is a systemic issue and the administration says go to hell, you go to court and advocate.”
The only one of the eight citywide candidates I’ve interviewed in the past two weeks who travelled to the Trib by public transportation, Siegel acknowledged having his eyes opened by the train and bus sojourn. Left standing in downtown Flushing by a bus driver who refused to reopen his doors, a new mellower Siegel did not take down numbers and file complaints.
He told us about it and then called later saying that on his return trip, he waited for the Q88 — down the block from the Trib – for over a half an hour.
He knows the MTA needs reform. He testified at an MTA meeting in March and asked the 23 members present, “How many of you regularly use public transportation.” He continued without pause indicating no one responded positively and said to them: “I hope someday I could come back and every one of the 23 of your hands go up.” And told us, “Until that happens I have to keep pushing.”
Siegel closed by telling us: “I build bridges. This is a city that is now a majority racial minority and I’ve worked with lots of different groups. People say they can trust me. With the crap in New Jersey, in Albany, the slush fund in NYC – [public officials] can get seduced; but they can change.”
“New Yorkers deserve at least one person at the highest level of government who understands what they are going through. There are too many that the government doesn’t see,” Eric Gioia told us as he laid out his vision as the next Public Advocate.
A child of Queens, he worked his way through college and attended Georgetown Law School, where he got his big break – landing a job working in the White House Counsel’s office in the Clinton Administration.
He has parlayed his work experience with his family’s small business experience to advocate for the little guy.
However, it is in tone that Eric claims to differ from the other candidates. “Government is not Crossfire or the show Hardball where you get folks riled up with predictable arguments. We have been told for a long time that’s what politics are about, and people are sick of it. It has to be about improving people’s lives.”
It has to be, “Leadership by listening,” Eric explained. “Folks have a pretty good idea of what is going on in the neighborhood.”
Eric wants to be in neighborhoods, talking to real people, to unite a diverse city around common issues and goals.
“The job of public advocate is to protect the most vulnerable and to protect the middle class – you change the debate – right now we know what fixes the problems – dramatically expanding schools – preschool or pre k at 3 or 3 and a half in a publicly funded program. Schools should not end at 3 but at 5. You show me a good family, and I’ll show you a family that sacrifices for its children.”
Disgusted like everyone else with the corruption in government, in response to my question on how to fix Albany, he said facetiously: “I’m going to work on curing cancer first. We need real campaign finance reform – modeled on the city. We need to have nonpartisan redistricting. We need some form of term limits –I think 12 years is good.”
Eric left us with this thought: “I think it’s so unlikely that I’m here – a kid from Woodside who was a janitor at NYU – the only one who went to public school in the city in this race. Regular people should be able to run in this city.”
He surprised me. I’ve interviewed Mark before and was prepared for the same old thing. Even though he’s way ahead in the polls, Mark was humble. While each of the other candidates view the race as keeping Mark under 40% and then beating him one-on-one in a runoff, Mark is taking nothing for granted in his quest to be elected again to the office of Public Advocate.
He describes the office as the “Best bargain in City government.” “For 35 cents a citizen, the office answers 12,000 complaints about bureaucracy a year. It helps bring down water bills, saves a billion and half dollars a year for small business. It’s an office that has a huge payoff per dollar.”
He boasts (just a bit) that when he had the position, “Had so many initiatives that nobody bothered talking about abolishing the office.”
Green advocates using new technology in government. “It’s going to change the world . . . In the old days you had a top down father-knows-best government.
“No one of us is as smart as all of us,” he proclaimed as he handed us a program he wrote on how to use new technology to make government more transparent and smarter.
Asked for three goals in office Green responded: how to use information technology so the public can more easily interact with government; changing our economic development policies so instead of handing out hundreds of millions we spend more in micro seed generation – making sure the next Twitter is in New York; get healthcare coordinators in low-income school districts where if you focus on health issues we can start to stem problems in our youth.
When I asked if he views this as a stepping stone to the Mayoralty, Green said: “At a certain age you have to figure out what you want and what you love. I ran Air America. But when the city started going downhill economically, when the mayor announced the extension, I changed my mind and decided to let voters decide who would be the next Public Advocate at a hard time.
To close, he pointed to his independence. “Whatever critics may say, I’m an independent advocate – no one has ever said that I’m the pocket of anyone else.”
Bill de Blasio
Of the eight citywide candidates – Comptroller and Public Advocate – that I interviewed in the past two weeks, Bill de Blasio is the only one I had never interviewed before. Yes, I’ve met him before and remembered his as a politically astute, charming guy who is very tall.
I was right. Bill is the tallest person in public office that I have ever met.
What also struck me is that he sounded like he was making a case to the people for him to be running the City. With broad strokes, he responded to my questions as if he were running against Mike Bloomberg, although he was quite aware of the functions of the office he was seeking.
His goals in office include:
1) Making sure reforms for mayoral control of the schools are implemented at the community level – districts should have more meaningful role. I’m a public school parent – I feel the missing link is parental involvement.
2) Reforming land use and planning by improving the bargaining position of the City and involving community organizations. He cited Willets Point as an example where the system worked. The Advocate should raise the entire standard. It’s not how little can developers give away, there needs to be maximum affordable housing, jobs – we are giving away rezoning that is good for developers; we want to maximize local hiring. All of our rezoning and subsidies should follow one model.
3) Community police relations must be improved. There has been a tremendous success in reducing crime, Kelly has done a very good job, but I don’t think we have realized the dream of community policing. There have been incidents that have reduced faith in Civilian Complaint Review Board. A stronger CCRB would engage communities more.
de Blasio’s closing comment: “Anybody should want more watchdog. In the job you want somebody who is aggressive, will move government in the right direction and take on the mayor when he is wrong.”
Pictured with Queens Tribune publisher are (top to bottom) Norman Siegel, Eric Gioia, Mark Green and Bill de Blasio.