Politicians are lining up to become New York City’s next official loudmouth.
More than 20 candidates have filed paperwork to run in a special election next month that will pick the city’s public advocate, a job that comes with a $165,000 salary, a $3 million budget and a bully pulpit — but little actual power.
The thick crop of candidates, some with deep credentials, are running for a post with a somewhat vague job description that functions as a city ombudsman. The public advocate can investigate citizen complaints about agencies and services, introduce legislation to the City Council and issue press releases. The advocate has no subpoena power and no vote on whether proposals pass. The public advocate can, however, file lawsuits and serves as mayor if the mayor dies or becomes incapacitated.
Ever since the position was created in 1993, critics have said the job should be abolished. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg once called it “a total waste of everybody’s money.”
“Nobody needs another gadfly and we have an aggressive enough press,” he told the Staten Island Advance in 2009.
And yet, the job remains coveted, partly because it has become a springboard to real power.
The last public advocate, Letitia James, just became New York’s attorney general. Her predecessor, Bill de Blasio, is now the mayor.
“It’s amusing that an office that some people want to get rid of has 20 people running,” said Betsy Gotbaum, who was public advocate before de Blasio and is now the executive director of the Citizens Union, a good-government group.
“My principal theory of the office is that it’s the ombudsman position of New York and as such it’s very important,” said Gotbaum. “It’s like constituent services but because you’re elected citywide it gives you a little more power than, say, a local councilperson.”
The lineup for the Feb. 26 special election includes present and past members of the City Council and the state Assembly, lawyers, community activists and entrepreneurs. The field of 22 candidates will likely shrink when the city Board of Elections meets to finalize the ballot Tuesday. The winner will have to compete again in a June primary and a November general election if she or he wants to serve as public advocate past the end of 2019.
The front-runners include Jumaane Williams, a city councilman who ran for state lieutenant governor on a ticket with actress Cynthia Nixon and nearly defeated incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in last year’s Democratic primary, as well as Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former City Council speaker, and Assemblyman Michael Blake, who is a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
They are running to fill the seat vacated by James’ ascension to the attorney general’s job.
Almost all the candidates are Democrats — as are all four people who have held the job since it was created — but the special election is nonpartisan and the candidates are running on made-up party lines such as Equality for All and Fix the MTA, a reference to the agency that runs the city’s subway and bus systems.
Mark-Viverito said she’s “been consistent about standing up for everyone.” Williams, who had to take time off his campaign for lieutenant governor to go on trial for obstructing an ambulance during a street protest, said, “I’ve been a very productive, activist elected official.”
The public advocate’s office was created out of the previous position of City Council president, which had been a powerful position but was weakened and then abolished in an overhaul of the city charter. Some political insiders believe that the public advocate’s position was created as a sinecure for then-City Council President Andrew Stein, but he dropped out of the first election for public advocate eventually won by Mark Green, who served two terms starting in 1994.
A group of City Council members introduced legislation last November to eliminate the public advocate’s office. But no action has been taken on the bill, possibly because so many Council members are running for the position. Several candidates said rather than abolishing the office, the city should make it relevant by granting it subpoena power and a seat on the Metropolitan Transportation Association board.
Green, who ran for mayor in 2001 but lost to Bloomberg, said calls to ax the public advocate’s office always fizzle.
“Why would people not want an office that will help you navigate city bureaucracy and maybe get City Hall to listen to your concern because you can’t afford a lawyer or a lobbyist?” Green said. “You want a people’s advocate.”