Michael Stahl is a freelance writer based in Queens, New York. He’s written about the arts and culture, sports, psychology, politics, history, business and other topics for the likes of Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Quartz, Splitsider, The Bridge, and Narratively, where he also serves as a features editor.
A special election for New York City's top watchdog has many asking how the office can be more effective, or if it should exist at all.
New York City’s special election this month may not draw many voters, but the candidates are turning out in droves.
The city’s elections office confirmed last week that 17 names will appear on the February 26 special election ballot to be the city’s next public advocate. On paper, the position is an official watchdog for the people of New York. The person holding the office is tasked with monitoring public information and complaint systems, offering proposals to improve them, and attempting to resolve individual complaints about city services and administrative actions. Perhaps more crucially, the public advocate is first in line to succeed the mayor.
If nothing else, that means it’s a prominent perch for anyone looking to vault into higher office—and that’s what happened for the two most recent officeholders. This election was triggered when the former incumbent, Letitia James, was elected state attorney general in November. The public advocate before her? Current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
That fact, coupled with a modest $3.5 million budget and what the New York Times called “little real power,” has many asking why the office even exists. The New York Post and amNY recently ran op-eds imploring the city to dissolve the position, which was created in 1989. Both papers cited the millions of taxpayer dollars flushed into public advocate elections and salaries over the years. The Post reports this year’s special election could cost the city $23 million—and that’s separate from the general election in November to determine who will serve the remainder of the current term, until regular city elections are held again in 2021.
The office has other critics, too. Last fall, City Councilman Kalman Yeger, a Democrat from Brooklyn, introduced a bill to eliminate the office, calling it a 30-year “experiment” that has “run its course.” (The bill has five sponsors, but remains under committee review.) And Curtis Sliwa, a local radio host, said he would run for the office so he could exterminate it, though he didn’t qualify for the ballot.
David Eisenbach, a candidate in the race and a presidential history professor at Columbia University, says the public advocate can play an important role as long as it’s “used by somebody beyond just as a stepping stone to higher office.”
“On paper, it’s not really explicitly detailed of what can be done with the office,” he says. “How it gets used is really up to who gets the office.”
New York City’s special elections are nonpartisan, so candidates are using the party line on the ballot to further signal to voters what they’re all about. Eisenbach’s party name will appear as “Stop REBNY,” because he says “the Real Estate Board of New York has corrupted our entire political system.” He says that if elected, he would return to teaching when his tenure as public advocate came to an end.
“The problem with anybody who wants to be mayor and serves as public advocate is that you can’t do the job,” he says. “[As] public advocate, your job is to step on the toes of the most powerful people in New York City … so it requires really being somebody who is completely independent, who just wants to do this particular job—and that is to fight for justice every single day, not build a coalition to become mayor.”
Other candidates, hailing from a range of sectors, more steadfastly believe in the public advocate’s pull—and believe they can do plenty to justify the position’s $184,800 annual salary. There are city councilmembers, including Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn (a cofounder of the council’s Progressive Caucus) and Queens’s Eric Ulrich (one of the few Republicans in the council). Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has qualified for the ballot, as have state lawmakers Michael Blake and Ron Kim. There are also a handful of civilians, including Eisenbach and financial law attorney Manny Alicandro.
“Anyone who questions the position should be questioned,” says Rafael Espinal, a city councilmember from Brooklyn who’s in the mix. “This is a position that is supposed to hold the city accountable. … It matters that we elect someone who understands what the powers are and how … to drive the conversation forward.” He says this election can also serve as a referendum on the 2021 campaign for mayor, with its winner proselytizing about social issues that could define the next race.
As public advocate, he says he can continue introducing legislation to the City Council, but as a representative of all five boroughs, instead of just the district he currently serves. What he would be giving up, though, is the power to vote on legislation and issue subpoenas as a committee chair.
The public advocate position has been criticized for this lack of authority in the past, though there are hints that even that could change. This year, a commission appointed by the city’s top government officials has been tasked with updating the city charter based in part on public input. There’s speculation they could award the public advocate subpoena power, as well as a vote on legislation.
Mark-Viverito says the office remains vital to the city government, and endorses expanding the office’s capabilities.
“We don’t want less oversight or transparency. We need more,” she says. She says some city agencies, including the Department of Investigation or the Civilian Complaint Review Board, could potentially fall under the public advocate’s purview. “There should be ways of figuring out how to more effectively consolidate the role of public advocate.”
Those who see potential in the office point to some accomplishments of its most recent incumbent. Mark-Viverito cited lawsuits that James filed against the city’s Department of Education over services provided to students with disabilities, and against the Staten Island district attorney’s office over its refusal to release grand jury testimony related to the death of Eric Garner. (Multiple cases were dismissed, however, with judges saying the public advocate lacked authority to sue.) Espinal cited legislation James filed to prohibit employers from asking job applicants for their salary history.
With James’s ascension to state government, Mark-Viverito says she’s running partly because there is now “no woman in citywide leadership … and we’re supposed to be this progressive city.”
With the ballot settled, there’s the matter of who can participate in the televised debate on February 6. In order to appear, candidates must reach a fundraising threshold. Only 10 have done so—still making for a crowded stage.
And voter turnout is expected to be low, given the midwinter timing of the special election and general disinterest in the office. (In November 2017, 1.1 million New Yorkers, or 22 percent of the electorate, voted for public advocate—and that was during a regularly scheduled general election.) With a large field of candidates, New York City’s next public advocate could thus win the office with just a few hundred thousand votes. Maybe less.