By Albert Samaha
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Troublemaker. Watchdog. Chief executive of research and development. These are some of the ways the candidates for New York City public advocate explain the citywide elected office that's meant to field constituent complaints about government services and investigate bad bureaucracy. The eight-year-old post is still so new that the candidates often find many voters have never heard of it. But the good news is, any one of the contenders could remake the mold. Without a long legacy to follow, and with a job description broad enough to defy a single interpretation, each hopeful enjoys plenty of room to boom. Or bust.
Some candidates will simply say, "I'm running to be the next Mark Green." Not a bad strategy, considering the current public advocate is the apparent front-runner in the race for mayor.
But things weren't always so good for Green. In 1998, Mayor Giuliani, a political foe, convened a charter commission in part to try and eliminate his office. Other detractors have dismissed the office as ambiguous and even superfluous. A May 1998 Daily News editorial read, "Dump the public advocate: This useless post should have been killed during the last Charter revision."
Giuliani, however, lost and, in his defeat, proved the public advocate's utility better than Green could. (Only months later, expecting to see out a run for the Senate and resign his post, he threatened another attack, this time to take the public advocate out of first place in the line of mayoral succession. This year's candidates prefer to evade the controversial question of succession, each only claiming to be qualified to take the helm if necessary.)
During the 1998 charter commission's public hearings, it became apparent that what critics attacked as the office's weakness seemed in fact to be a strength: its lack of specificity, or, put another way, its broad scope. The mission is to ensure the delivery of government services to the people, but the means and priorities are open to interpretation. Depending on the officeholder, the public advocate can claim a great deal of responsibility for the well-being of New Yorkers.
With the primary less than a month away, the Voice sat down with the five major candidates for public advocateDemocrats Stephen DiBrienza, Kathryn Freed, Betsy Gotbaum, Norman Siegel, and Scott Stringerto hear their visions for this young, malleable office. (Although there are six others, these five alone have demonstrated the funding and organization necessary to run citywide.) A runoff is likely, with no obvious standouts among them. But the competitors offer significant differences in style, experience, plans, and philosophy.
In his four terms in the City Council, Stephen DiBrienza, 46, hasn't made a lot of fancy friends. Nor has the rep for Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and other parts of Brooklyn managed to become much of a political insider. Rather, as chair of the City Council's general welfare committee and before, he's advocated vociferously on behalf of those constituencies least likely to grace his campaign with money or prestige.
He pushed through legislation to provide meaningful transitional jobs and safety protections to workfare participants. He was a leading critic of city services to homeless families and people with AIDS, legislating to mandate improvements. He has actively advocated for domestic violence survivors and helped expose serious problems with the child welfare agency, contributing to its reform.
Under this mayor, though, bread-and-butter efforts have sometimes made for municipal drama. DiBrienza's welfare committee hearings have been called "contentious" and "raucous," his oration "hysterical." His irreverent grilling of commissioners has, to the delight of reporters, prompted them on occasion to walk out. Following a dispute over homeless policy, Giuliani once threatened to evict a community services center in DiBrienza's district. The mayor failed, only succeeding in getting the councilman's name all over the news.
But Giuliani can't run this time around, because of the same term-limits law that is keeping DiBrienza out of the council. Perhaps the absence of an enemy is why the councilman makes an uncharacteristically subdued case for public advocate.
He proposes no radical reforms or innovations, but says that he will "go behind the complaints and look for the systemic patterns and find the systemic changes that we need." He sees the public advocate playing a larger role as ex-officio member of City Council committees. During Green's tenure the council was made up largely of veterans, but term limits will cause two-thirds of the seats, including the powerful speakership, to turn over. It's a perfect climate, DiBrienza says, for an experienced former member like himself to propose legislation, call hearings, and even influence budget negotiations.
While all the other candidates live in Manhattan, DiBrienza believes that his Brooklyn background gives him real concern for the office's effect in the other boroughs. Indeed, he got his political start fighting the city establishment's reluctance to promote the "revitalization" of the Carroll Gardens and Park Slope areas.
Decades later, those neighborhoods are brimming with new, moneyed residents and tony businesses, and DiBrienza takes a great deal of the credit. But the shift is edging out some of the very New Yorkers he defends on his welfare committee. In fact, a Park Slope organization DiBrienza says he helped found 20 years ago to promote community improvement now fights to protect low-income residents from what that improvement has wrought. It remains to be seen whether DiBrienza's energetic advocacy can keep up with the times.