Imagining the Public Advocate

Five Visions for a Young Office


 "I digress. I do that a lot," admits public advocate candidate Kathryn Freed, 54, the three-term councilwoman from lower Manhattan's District 1. Indeed, her obvious passion on issues from the city's pesticide use to solid waste management to zoning laws to ferret ownership suffers somewhat from her trademark inability to know when to say when.

Candidate Stephen DiBrienza gets nod from several unions last week at City Hall.
photo: Julia Xanthos
Candidate Stephen DiBrienza gets nod from several unions last week at City Hall.

But she's managed nevertheless to help pass an anti-bias law and a prevailing wage requirement for some city contractors. She also demanded the city avoid contracting with sweatshop companies, and she has actively defended women's reproductive rights. Protection of the environment and of loft dwellers have been pet concerns.

In a field light on color, Freed claims a talent for inclusiveness. "Everyone talks about how we need to deal with race relations more openly," she says, "but I'm the only one who's brought diverse groups together to make their neighborhoods better." It's true that District 1 houses an unusual mix of Latinos, Asians, and whites.

But Freed's elaboration on this point, as at other times, compromises rather than clarifies. Recalling one community effort that drew a multiracial coalition, she says, "I got a lot of the Chinese groups to come in, first time ever they'd testified. It politicized them. It was high time, since they'd really kept to a little community of their own." Chinatown's active labor and tenant groups might take issue with her claim. And her discussion of diversity ignores the serious turf wars of recent years, where longtime working-class immigrant residents and wealthier arrivals have fought over limited housing and commercial space.

Still, constituents calling into a Public Advocate Freed's office might discover something rare with officials—empathy. "I explain to people that, if you're frustrated and angry with the city government, then the public advocate's office is the place to go," says Freed. It's difficult to imagine a candidate more frustrated and angry with the "toxic soup" of pollution, the inefficiency of the city's contracting procedures, or the dangers of heavy commercial truck traffic—all issues Freed proposes to take on if she wins.


"Betsy is the real people's voice," intones Ed Koch in a television ad for his former employee's campaign. Gotbaum, 63, is many things. A former investment banker and prodigious fundraiser. A staffer for former mayors Koch, John Lindsay, and Abe Beame, and parks commissioner for Dinkins. And after seven years as president of the New-York Historical Society, a nonprofit pro. But the real people's voice?

Gotbaum has been plugging an "on-the-job training program" for welfare recipients she initiated in the early 1990s at the parks department. But in an interview at the Soho office of political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who is also gunning for Green, Gotbaum confesses ignorance about Giuliani's controversial workfare program—one that has severely impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. "I don't have time to find out," she says. She boasts that her initiative taught participants "auto mechanics, forestry, planting." Before it, she says, "God knows where [the welfare recipients] were and what they were doing . . . off looking for a job, ho ho ho." She wonders, "What's better than being a gardener in a park?"

Her out-of-touch perspective jars with the kinds of working family issues, like child hunger and school construction, that her campaign has raised and that a public advocate might address. It's especially strange considering that, by her own admission, her husband's tenure as a union leader is why many people know the Gotbaum name.

But Gotbaum insists that operating above the fray is the best way. As public advocate, she says, she would choose to compromise rather than contradict, "working with other elected officials" behind the scenes. She recalls, "When I was a commissioner, if any elected official called me, we would respond and help them get done whatever they needed." She says, "Everybody laughs at me and says, that's not really going to work. Maybe people want the fight. I believe the fight becomes what's most important, as opposed to getting stuff done."

With the strong possibility that a fellow Democrat will occupy City Hall next year, her conciliatory style might be an asset, and some of her proposals would certainly require it. For instance, her "expediter's office," where interventions would be made into stalled city contracts. And a public-private funding venture to partner corporate money with community efforts like health care clinics and senior centers.

Yet the public advocate's primary duty is to serve as the people's watchdog over city services, not to broker deals or raise money. The post requires vigilance even with friendly forces and a willingness to object even at the risk of indelicacy. It is not yet clear whether Gotbaum—who weighed a mayoral run before concluding "I wasn't ready" and then turned her sights on the public advocate seat—is up to the task.


 Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel took on some weighty issues over the decades—racial profiling, limited access to City Hall, state surveillance of citizens, and censorship even of the KKK. But then he resigned last March as head of the New York Civil Liberties Union to run for public advocate. Now, says Siegel, 57, "I'm becoming more loose. I get the audience laughing a lot." On a hot summer morning, the liberated lawyer revels in his casual gear—a lilac linen shirt, khakis, and sandals—and juggles talk of the city's social ills with his delight in becoming what he claims to despise, a politician.

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