The race for public advocate is heating up.
The Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club hosted a dozen candidates vying for the open seat vacated by New York’s next attorney general, Letitia James, at Manhattan College on Nov. 28.
Candidates are gearing up for a special non-partisan election, and include the likes of former city council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, as well as Councilmen Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams. All of them, with the help of the local political club, made their case before 100 or so potential voters, elected officials and community leaders.
The public advocate office was created in 1993, serving as a link between the electorate and the city’s government while also acting as a watchdog. The man or woman who holds this office is just one step from the mayor’s office, and in fact includes Mayor Bill de Blasio as a former occupant.
The public advocate has a “defined role within the city charter,” Ben Franklin president Michael Heller said ahead of the forum.
“It performs an important consumer affairs, or ombudsman, function.”
That could include turning up the heat on New York City Housing Authority officials to restore just that to residents’ homes, or pushing legislation to provide child care access for city employees.
Each candidate vying for the seat needs 3,750 signatures to win a spot on the ballot. They run on party names far removed from “Democrat” or “Republican,” and whoever wins will be forced to campaign all over again later next year to keep the seat through 2021.
Nearly all of the candidates attending the Ben Franklin forum seemed to agree certain problems specific to one part of the city — like Marble Hill Houses’ gas outages — reflect broader failures.
Namely, city agencies falling short on meeting basic needs, from health care, to housing, to education.
Investigative reporter and activist Nomiki Konst promised to crack down on “exploitative” companies like Amazon capitalizing on lucrative political deals that leave communities by the wayside, while tending to a “crumbling” NYCHA, and an all but derailed public transit system.
Activist, artist and attorney Ifeoma Ike, meanwhile — a first-generation Nigerian-American — said she’d push legislation for universal rent control while tackling school segregation in a system that’s “designed to fail certain people on purpose.”
Mark-Viverito said she’d “amplify the voice of discontent” about government by setting up a division focused on “aggressive research and investigation,” and introducing and implementing legislation to fix day-to-day, but dire, problems like poor subway service.
Attorney and first-time candidate Dawn Smalls — who served as chief regulatory officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the first two years of the Obama administration — said residents need an advocate “unbound to the current political machine.”
But she and other candidates also stressed the importance of electing a woman to the office.
“I think it is very challenging for New York City — trying to be the leader of a national progressive agenda — with an entire leadership structure of just men,” Smalls said. “And right now, it’s a leadership structure of just white men.”
She also emphasized the benefit of an attorney in the seat, since it’s “important to litigate” and to “use the full extent of the office.”
While the special election comes at a time of significant instability and major shifts for both sides of the political aisle, it’s hard to say whether James’ moving on to attorney general would qualify as a watershed moment, Heller said, or what the lasting effects of the transition to a new public advocate will be.
“That won’t reveal itself until any kind of results come in,” Heller said. “You have at least 10 people so far — more than that — who’ve said they want to run. Let’s see out of that how many actually generate enough signatures to get on the ballot.”
Of course, ultimately what happens is now up to voters, like Daniel Ranells of Kingsbridge Heights, who said the impending election could bring a tough choice given all the qualified candidates. Still, “better to have more people than less” to choose from.
Andrew Mutnick, meanwhile, suggested this particular race’s unpredictability could leave some progressive-leaning voters on edge.
“It’s a little nervous-making to think that it’s an open special,” Mutnick said. “There’s a lot of wonderful Democratic candidates. I would hate for a Republican to be able to sneak in.”
But Mutnick is less worried about that given the heavily Democratic voter rolls, and more focused on electing a candidate who will effect actual change on the litany of issues addressed at the forum.
“We’ve got some great bona-fides who have vision and priorities for the office,” he said. “There has been a bit of groundswell around, ‘Do we need this office, or not?’ I think some of (the candidates) made a very good case for powers that maybe need to be broadened, (like) subpoena power and really having teeth in the job.
“I don’t know to what degree that can be achieved, but I think a candidate who’s coming at it with that kind of drive might be a really good thing.”