By Michael McDowell
Now that New York City Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James has become the first woman and the first African-American elected State Attorney General in New York, the city is once again in need of a public advocate. At least 14 Democrats — and maybe more than 20 — aim to fill the position, which, prior to Tish James, was held by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The special election date has not yet been set.
Thirteen of these Democrats pitched their visions and fielded constituent questions at a recent forum organized by the Community Free Democrats, which was held at the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side. State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal hosted.
Each candidate had two minutes to speak, as well as three minutes for Q&A.
Nomiki “Nomi” Konst spoke first, and said she is running for public advocate “because the income inequality in this city is worse than ever…the job of the public advocate should be to check on the real estate industry.” Konst is a Democratic activist who was most recently associated with The Young Turks, and served as a Bernie Sanders surrogate in his 2016 presidential campaign.
“What I am pushing for, with every malfunctioning agency, I would like to have a public advocate, whether volunteer or not—[depending] on the budget of the office—working in every single city council district, who can say, ‘Why is it that the people who are in my neighborhood are not getting a response?’” Konst said, in response to a question related to lack of response from NYC Housing Preservation and Development.
City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, emphasized his work as chair of the City Council Transportation Committee—Rodriguez recently called for 100 miles of protected bike lanes to be added in the city every year—as well as his immigrant heritage and history of community activism.
Carmen Quinones, President of NYCHA Douglass Houses, asked Rodriguez about his position on the controversial Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which involves the use of public-private management partnerships to make decades-overdue repairs in NYCHA buildings. The program is controversial because RAD buildings lose public housing designation and convert to Section 8; critics argue RAD amounts to a backdoor privatization of public housing.
“I want to know how independent you are from the mayor, and from the special interests,” Quinones demanded. When Rodriguez sidestepped the question, another audience member asked him once more for his position on RAD; although Rodriguez said he supported NYCHA tenants, he did not state a position on RAD.
City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represents Flatbush, Midwood, and Canarsie, is focusing his campaign on “access to deeply affordable housing…for the people in NYCHA and all over, accountability and transparency, and the reform we have to continue…I’m with you in the street, and I will bring you to the halls of power to make sure you’re represented,” he said.
Many in the audience aired frustrations with Mayor de Blasio. “I consider the mayor to be in the pocket of real estate, and a phony progressive if there ever was one,” said one man. “If you were public advocate, and mayoral agencies were [not responsive to the concerns of the public], what would you try to do?”
“This mayor is not the mayor I supported a couple of years ago,” Williams said. “The governor has failed us. The mayor has failed us. The city council has failed us…I believe I have the best combination of being an activist and an elected official…to get something done.”
“What would you do to end the political dominance over New York City and New York State politics by the Real Estate Board of New York, better known as REBNY, and what would you do as a city council member to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act?”
“I will put my housing record, and what I’ve done to push back against RBNY and real estate, against anyone who is running in this race…I don’t know who dislikes me more, Airbnb or RBNY,” Williams responded, adding that he’ll push for more staff, an independent budget, and subpoena power.
Attorney Ify Ike, a co-founding principal of Think Rubix and former deputy executive director of New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative, stressed the independence of the office.
“We can’t hashtag our way out of this. We can’t rally our way out of this. We actually have to have somebody that has investigative and legislative power,” she said.
A recent announcement that Amazon would move one half of its HQ2 to Long Island City was another theme of the evening. “What is your position on the Amazon headquarters,” a woman asked.
“Amazon should not be here in New York City,” Ike responded. “We have to look at the 60+ elected officials who put their name on a letter inviting Bezos to the city…Amazon has to be investigated, and I think there needs to be a moratorium on what’s happening.”
Dawn Smalls, an attorney with Boies Schiller Flexner who has worked with both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and who served as the Commissioner for the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, said she is ready to meet the challenges of the office.
“I am a mom, I am an attorney, and I am a first-time candidate,” Smalls said, before noting her decades of experience in law, philanthropy, and politics. “I am running for public advocate because I believe New Yorkers deserve a public advocate who is truly independent, and has the will, the experience, and the ability to push through the bureaucracy to make sure that you actually see results.”
“I want to focus on a few key issues: the subway is first on my list. I think that the public advocate should talk to whomever and whatever has an impact on the services that you see every day. And that means talking to the governor if necessary: if the mayor can go to Paris, the public advocate can go to Albany,” she said, to applause. Aside from the subway, her other priorities are affordable housing, homelessness, and voting reform.
Ben Yee, a democratic activist and committee member, brought new energy after the forum had already run nearly an hour. Yee wants to take a civics curriculum citywide; start a political 311; unify community boards to better negotiate with the mayor; and expand the litigatory action of the public advocate’s office.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, formerly Speaker of the New York City Council, was a familiar name to most in the audience. Some expressed skepticism as to her independence from Mayor de Blasio, but Mark-Viverito stood proudly on her record, her legislative successes, and her activism.
“I would want to be able to travel to communities across this city and have constituents define for me how they think this office can best serve them. It’s not a top-down approach, it’s a conversation about how best the public advocate can help you with the issues and concerns that you have,” she said.
“I’m very much approachable, very much open, very much an inclusive leader, and that will be the way I am as public advocate,” she added.
Theo Chino, an entrepreneur and business owner, reminded the audience of his efforts to replace Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. “Every time the DA sees me, he becomes red, like a pumpkin. That means I am not afraid to take on the powers that be.”
“I’ve been an activist, but I haven’t been arrested doing my job. And I’ve been doing it so well that you don’t know me,” Chino said, to raucous laughter.
State Assembly Member Michael Blake, who also serves as a Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and said he is running for public advocate to “demand jobs and justice for the people.”
In response to an audience question on RAD, Blake came out against it. “What is happening right now [at NYCHA] is wrong; it is racist, it is discriminatory, it is unacceptable,” he continued. “I think every single person that is running for public advocate should be very clear: where did they stand when the opportunity came to speak up on RAD?”
A man asked about bail reform, which Blake supports. “When we talk about jobs and justice, what we need to do is focus on the front end, rather than the back end. If we help folks when it came to stem cells rather than jail cells, then we can have a real conversation.”
City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents Bushwick, Brownsville, and East New York, and who also served in the State Assembly, said he plans to focus on improving the lives of all New Yorkers.
“I would like to know what you will do to help small businesses,” a woman asked.
“Small businesses are the soul of our city. I support SBJSA [the Small Business Jobs Survival Act], and I look forward to continue pushing that as a public advocate,” Espinal said.
What about commercial rent control?
“We’re going to need Albany to pass legislation, but we need a public advocate who will be able to go to Albany, who understands how Albany works…I will be advocating for [commercial rent control] as public advocate.”
State Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, who represents the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, said he is running against overreaching executive power at all levels of government. O’Donnell said he opposes RAD, as well as recent efforts to modify Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) cooperatives. The first bill he would introduce as public advocate would be a bill granting the office subpoena power.
“What will you do to stop the enormous buildings that are casting shadows over our parks and neighborhoods,” a woman wondered, adding that many of these buildings seem to be primarily used as investment vehicles for wealthy foreigners.
“I would create automatic height limits, and I would ensure that those tall buildings, which are casting shadows over our parks and our historic districts, must be approved by the landmarks commission,” O’Donnell said.
David Eisenbach, a historian and lecturer at Columbia University, ran against Tish James last year. Eisenbach ran with “one promise, which was to pass the SBSJA,” he said.
“What is one realistic thing that you will do immediately that we can hold you accountable for,” a man asked.
“First thing, first week: I get to appoint one member of the City Planning Commission…I’m going to appoint a city planning commissioner who is an anti-RBNY activist, so we can stop these big real estate giveaways,” Eisenbach responded.
“What is your path to victory,” a woman inquired.
“I got 92,000 votes running against Tish James. I pulled votes from every borough and every electoral district. This is going to be a low turnout election—this thing is in February. I need about half of that total, half of the people who voted for me last September need to turn out and vote for me again, and I will win,” he said.
“What about animal welfare,” a man asked, after relating a story about real estate interest opposition to a proposed animal shelter in the Bronx.
“Throughout history New York has been at the forefront of every major rights struggle. But we are way behind the times when it comes to animal rights—it is shameful. We have to stop the kill policy, and on my staff I will have somebody dedicated specifically to animal rights, so that when the calls come in, that animal rights activist will make sure these issues get addressed,” Eisenbach pledged.
“We will fight against the mayor, and we will win,” said New York State Assembly Member Latrice Walker, who represents Crown Heights, Brownsville, and East New York. Walker spoke about her background, as well as her legislative credentials.
As to picking up where Tish left off, Walker is ready to litigate.
“The public advocate’s office does not have standing to sue. When the charter revision takes place in 2019, it will be my pleasure to say that we need standing…[and] I’d love to be able to open up subpoena powers for the office,” Walker said.
“Being an activist is great—I’m one too. Being an advocate is great—I’m one too. Being an agitator is great—I’m one too. Being a legislator is great—I’m one too. But being a litigator is important, because what happens when the advocacy doesn’t work? What else can we do? We will S-U-E,” she said, to an enthusiastic response.
Walker also supports additional protected bike lanes, as well as bail reform. She was the final candidate to speak; Tony Herbert was unable to attend the forum due to a family medical emergency. A lone republican, Councilman Eric Ulrich, who represents Ozone Park in Queens, is reportedly considering running as well.
In a crowded field, candidates will be challenged to distinguish themselves from one another, and no particular candidate emerged as a clear audience favorite on Thursday evening. The composition of the audience reflected the diversity of the Upper West Side, and the broad array of constituents the public advocate is elected to serve.
A number of local politicians were in attendance, including State Senator Brian Benjamin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator-elect Robert Jackson, and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal.
The forum was co-sponsored by the Ansonia Democrats, Broadway Democrats, Columbia Law Democrats, Hell’s Kitchen Democrats, the Manhattan Policy Forum, Manhattan Young Democrats, Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change, and Park River Independent Democrats.
Photos by Michael McDowell.