The Public Advocate: A Bagel Breakfast With Betsy
Trib Publisher Mike Schenkler and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum before a bagel breakfast this week. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
It was an informal stop-by. Our old friend Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum had been threatening to show up with bagels and lox again. Actually, the first time, I believed she called it "smoked salmon." The difference is a lot deeper than the obvious religious orientation; itís also an outer-borough verses Manhattan thing. However, as informal the breakfast was, let me go on the record to say Betsy fits right into the outer-boroughs.
The longtime public servant is a high-powered fundraiser, former head of the Manhattan-centric New York Historical Society, wife of former labor leading giant Victor, and part of the institution of New York since the Lindsay administration. However, she can be as Queensy as Claire Shulman.
Now coming from this writer, calling a Manhattan person Queensy or likening anyoneís political style to Shulman, the matriarch of Queens, is about as good as it gets. And on a gut level, Betsy is pretty darn good.
However, Betsy finds herself in the unenviable situation of serving in a position that is poorly or barely defined, underfunded and sadly powerless, save her bully pulpit which Iím afraid has been historically viewed as occasionally full of bull.
Her early-on battles with the Mayor relegated her to a back-seat driverís role in City government.
But Betsy cares and Betsy is popular. Her numbers in a recent Quinnipiac poll are not surprisingly way better than the Mayorís but also better than the Comptrollerís Ė her friend Bill Thompson.
So when Betsy showed up with her press pro Anat Jacobson Ė who seems to flack for some of the finer most interesting people in our City Ė and breakfast, I knew I was in store for a fun time. We were joined by my Trib partner Mike Nussbaum, whose government service goes back to sharing an office with Betsy during the Lindsay 60s Ė with Queens DA Dick Brown up one level and right next door. Angela Montefinise, our new editor, was to join us but we broke open the bagels while she was ministering to the newsroom flock.
Itís full disclosure here: while I generally conduct the political interviews, when another Trib journalist is present, they take the notes Ė even if Iím going to write the story. In this case, I expected Ang to play scribe but I realized we were well underway with a good political exchange while I was carefully making sure the lox covered the cream cheese on both bagel halves. I was looking forward to enjoying my time with Betsy and not really working, so I handed the pad to Anat and said, "you take the notes."
Admittedly, this was one strange move, but informality and the moment led me to think, what the hey. I could always respin when I write. As a matter of fact, I wasnít sure what, if anything, was going to be written and it was holiday season and Betsy brought the breakfast Ė I sure wasnít in attack mode.
(Note to future interviewees: Journalists are suckers for a good meal. Also, it might be noted that I am sitting in my hotel room in Florida writing this column. Lil, Allison and I are down here chasing the sun and visiting mom until New Yearís Day. So I asked, Betsy answered, we all chatted, Anat took notes, Ang typed and edited and Iím writing.
I havenít looked at the notes yet, and I probably will in order to recall the discussion. But knowing Anat, I have my work cut out for me since she sees only perfection when it comes to Betsyís principles.
Angís typed file begins: "The following is based on Anatís notes. Of course, donít forget to mention what you guys talked about before I came in Ė my amazing weight loss, done on the Weight Watchers plan ó 45 pounds! You should do a column on THAT!" Yes, Betsy noticed a change in Ang and remarked.
True, my new editor is much less a person than she was last year. She credits it to her diet and exercise, but I know itís the hard work, the new position and demanding boss.)
"It would be nice to have a woman speaker," was Betsy initial offering to our discussion on future City officeholders. I predicted that in the 2005 Citywide race, Giff Miller would drop down and become the next Comptroller Ė also prognosticating that Comptroller Bill Thompson would be a candidate for Mayor.
Millerís 8 to 1 match proposal will "outrage" constituents, Betsy asserted ó "They have been taxed enough."
"But itís hard to raise money," bemoaned Betsy who has demonstrated a unique flair for the extremely difficult campaign challenge.
In response to my question as to whether she is concerned about her own race, she said, "Iím always concerned with my election," although she said she dismissed as insignificant the threatened candidacy of Brooklynís Carl Kruger.
Betsy it seems, two years out, is sitting pretty ó but in the political game, anything can change. And it does ó quickly.
Aftrer our session of who is running for what, we jumped from subject to subject and Betsy reacted.
On Bloomberg: "He doesnít listen."
"Education and housing are the biggest issues."
In Queens, overcrowding is "out of control." In two years, the schools will be even more overcrowded. She said, "I warned them of overcrowding last year," referring to two reports issued by her office. She said old district offices have rooms that are not being used and could provide space for classrooms. The DOE predicted that school enrollment will go down in NYC by 91,000 kids in 10 years. Betsy scoffs at the projection as total fantasy.
As for housing, she said, "For the middle class, itís a terrible situation."
Whether or not the Olympics come, she announced, "They are going to do the housing [in Long Island City] regardless." As for the Olympics, she wants to move the West Side Stadium to Willets Point in Queens.
Betsy is currently doing a food stamp program with an office in Sunnyside. It includes private outreach programs. She got the city to make food stamp applications less complicated, reducing a 17-page form down to two pages. She got the City to make offices more accessible and believes that her work had something to do with the 8,000 new people who received food stamps in October alone.
In her small way, with the limited resources of her office, Betsy has made a difference. Whether it is getting new windows for an overlooked school in Flushing, to opening up the food stamp program to some of our Cityís most needy, Betsy picks her fights carefully. She is part crusader, part conscience, part catalyst and part just plain crazy.
Betsy has no dreams of being Mayor but continues to bang her head against the Cityís proverbial wall of inequity and wrongdoing.
Her spirit embodies the essence of "Public Advocate." Her energy, her time and her dedication lay the foundation of an economically challenged office. If it werenít for Betsy, the office of Public Advocate would have likely fallen victim to the Cityís budget crises.
With Betsy, weíll always know there is another person at City Hall whoís watching, and this one is doing it just because she cares.