The hail was coming down in great gusts outside, but inside the New York Irish Center, just off the freeway in Long Island City, Queens, dozens of activists and organizers crammed in for several hours last Tuesday to hear from candidates hoping to be elected the next public advocate of New York City in a special election on February 26. The night was long because the list of contenders is 17 by last count, after another dozen or so didn’t make the ballot or dropped out.
Western Queens has become ground zero for political activism in New York in the last few years; it is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez territory, after all, and it is also in the shadow of where the gigantic new Amazon headquarters was supposed to land. Inside the Irish Center, where young hipsters in knit hats snacked on a tray of cookies, it was clear the public advocate contest has quickly become about who can storm the barricades best.
Ron Kim, an assemblyman from Flushing, decried the three men — Jeff Bezos, Andrew Cuomo, and Bill de Blasio — for conspiring to “give away your money behind your backs.” Michael Blake, an assemblyman from the Bronx, said the crisis facing NYCHA should mean jail time for those responsible. Nomiki Konst, an activist and investigative reporter, called for a public advocate in each of the 51 City Council districts to suss out “any shady deals going on” between local lawmakers and real-estate developers, and for the minimum wage to double to $30 an hour.
The public advocate office in New York is a historical accident. After the Supreme Court mandated that the city rewrite its governing charter in 1989, the position of New York City Council president was eliminated. The holder of that office, Andrew Stein, lobbied for a place to land in city government, and so the office of public advocate was created.
It was designed to be a sort of all-around city watchdog, with the ability to introduce legislation in the Council, monitor city agencies, make appointments to city boards, and serve as a check on the mayor. The public advocate is second in line to the mayor, should he resign or become indisposed. But the office also lacks an independent budget, which means any mayor or Council could cut its funding, and there are no clearly designated duties; if the public advocate went on a six-month cruise, the city would not grind to a halt.
Thus, Andrew Stein ended up turning the job down. Ever since, although its duties have remained undefined, the office of public advocate has served as a launching pad for ambitious pols.
The city’s first public advocate, Mark Green, held the position from 1994 to 2001, serving as a counterpoint to Rudy Giuliani in City Hall. He railed against the mayor and his myriad abuses, then nearly became mayor himself, losing to Michael Bloomberg. Bill de Blasio did one term in the job before becoming mayor, and Letitia James served just a bit longer than that before being elected state attorney general last year, after Eric Schneiderman resigned in disgrace.
That lineage is what led so many ambitious pols to take a flyer on this race; winning means an automatic slot in the conversation on what is shaping up be a thin field for the 2021 mayoral race. Plus, the city’s generous campaign matching system means that it is pretty much a chance to take free money to boost your political brand. Since this is a special election to fill the spot vacated by James — the first citywide special election in New York in decades — it is nonpartisan, which means that instead of running as Republicans or Democrats, candidates make up their own political party. Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal, for example, is running on the Livable City line. Dawn Smalls, an attorney and former Obama administration official, is running as the candidate of No More Delays. Eric Ulrich, one of only three Republicans on the City Council, gets to shed his GOP label and run on the Common Sense line.
With so many candidates in the race, and with turnout for this late February special election expected to be microscopically low, there remains some chance that one of the wild cards on the ballot — like Manny Alicandro, a Wall Street lawyer who boasts of his ties to Trump and pledges to “Make NYC Great Again” — wins.
But more than likely, pollsters and operatives say, the race is going to come down to either Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former City Council speaker, or Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn city councilman. (Blake, the Bronx assemblyman, is seen by most observers as running third, and a half-dozen other members of the Council or the Assembly retain a semi-plausible path to victory.)
“There is a leadership vacuum right now,” Mark-Viverito said in an interview last Tuesday at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, which the Queens Center for Gay Seniors was using for their daily $3 lunch of fruit cups and white-bread sandwiches. “We have a mayor that seems to lack focus on any issues that aren’t a pet project of his. There are issues that are really important, like specialized high schools, the closure of Rikers Island, that require a lot of community feedback and engagement and that has been really limited under this administration.”
Mark-Viverito was de Blasio’s handpicked Council speaker when she was voted in by her colleagues in 2014, and was seen as an ally of City Hall during her term in office. As she made her way around the luncheon, it was clear how much the world had changed since then.
“Ninety-three percent of eligible voters did not for” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “and yet she is treated like, I don’t know, she is a sign of the times or something,” one of the diners told Mark-Viverito. “I voted for her, but I didn’t know she was for all of this — banning airplanes, banning cars, banning cows.”
“I am not sure all of that is accurate,” she said as a gentle rebuke.
Mark-Viverito seems all but certain to enter the 2021 mayoral race if she wins, and in her conversation with New York, she didn’t rule it out. She wants to focus the public advocate’s office on NYCHA, on fixing the MTA — “it’s a pissing match right now between the governor and the mayor” — and on criminal-justice reform, including what she calls “borough bias,” the notion that crimes like marijuana possession and turnstile jumping are prosecuted differently in different boroughs.
As Mark-Viverito describes it, the achievements of the first couple of years of the de Blasio administration were possible because she was there in City Hall to prod him along.
“The mayor is too distracted on his yet-to-be-determined next steps. There is a leadership gap, you can just feel it,” she said. “And the truth is, it has always been that way. It was very challenging when I was speaker when you need to move things through and they drag their feet.”
Mark-Viverito is also making a gender-based push. The top three city officials, she says, are all white men. “When you don’t have a women’s voice at the table, it means we are not a progressive city.”
That’s a subtle dig at Williams, who earlier in his career expressed personal doubts about abortion and marriage equality (he has consistently voted in support of both on the Council).
Williams ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 on a ticket with Cynthia Nixon, but his previous support for socially conservative policies led her to keep her distance for much of the campaign. Still, while she lost to Cuomo by 30 points, he lost to incumbent Kathy Hochul by six, and got more votes in New York City.
“In my last race, I talked about turning that office into a public advocate for the state,” Williams, who calls himself “an activist elected official” and who has been arrested several times while in office for civil disobedience, told New York.
Williams is resolute that he is not running for mayor in 2021, conceding that the only thing that would change his mind would be if he were temporarily mayor during a vacancy at City Hall. He said that he would use the office to focus on the subways, affordable housing, greater transparency in city agencies, and criminal-justice reform.
“Daniel Pantaleo is making more money than he was before he killed Eric Garner,” he said. “This isn’t something that would have happened even under a Mayor Giuliani.”
Eric Ulrich, the Republican running for the seat, said that he would be the mayor’s worst nightmare if he won, but in many ways it is easier to see Williams serving that role, since de Blasio likes nothing more than a foil on his right. Williams would be needling the mayor from the left, especially on policing and affordability, space the mayor would like no one else to occupy.
“The mayor I endorsed in 2013, I haven’t seen in a very long time,” Williams said. “There has to be somebody that is holding him accountable.”