Imagining the Public Advocate

Five Visions for a Young Office

It's no coincidence that Al Sharpton is among the first-time pol's most prominent champions. Sharpton is another figure whose dedication to the rights of poor people of color clashes at times with his dedication to himself. Both men mingle with celebrities as much as they mingle with the masses; they both relish and excel at drawing the spotlight. If there is a people's movement, these men want to lead it. "If I win," says Siegel, "we'll kick the doors open for others. We become a symbol."

Yet any apparent conflicts in Siegel's progressive politics are an issue only because he ventures to be progressive in the first place. With an impressive record of high-publicity court wins, good name recognition, and friends in places high and low, he is a candidate of consequence. He might, therefore, choose a path more likely to please than provoke. Instead, he says, "There's race and class overtones to the potholes," meaning that even the minor service complaints a public advocate gets can be traced to greater societal injustices. He proposes to "take those issues and dramatize them." His plans for office, more radical in philosophy and form than any of his opponents', include creating a unit dedicated to helping political novices—"especially new immigrants"—win races themselves.

But wouldn't New Yorkers rather have their garbage picked up today and ponder politics tomorrow? Siegel condemns such cynicism, but he is not a fool. "I could crash," he admits. "I could come in last place." If so, of course, he'll go down fighting.

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.


 Assemblyman Scott Stringer, 41, is a mama's boy. Not only does he dote on her, but he followed the former councilwoman into politics. Emulation, as a professional rule, has gotten him far. It helped him win the Upper West Side assembly seat in 1992, when he ran to replace mentor and boss Jerrold Nadler, who had resigned to run for Congress. And now emulation may serve him again.

"I want to be the next Mark Green," he tells voters, expressing not only a wish but in some ways a record. Bureaucratic bungles and credit card fees. Electricity taxes and MetroCard refunds. Long-distance phone service scams. These consumer-friendly issues are Stringer's hallmark and were Green's claim to fame in his pre-mayoral candidacy days.

Saving constituents money is a legitimate, even important, public advocate task, but it entails little political risk. Green is known for denouncing police misconduct, but he is hardly an activist. Stringer says he was arrested "during the Diallo struggle"—which Green was not—but as a Democrat with an extremely liberal reputation in a majority-Republican state government, he has so far not initiated the scrutiny in areas like criminal justice and welfare policy that many liberals and progressives say is needed.

He has, however, joined colleagues in promoting gay and lesbian rights and, as he boasts in recent ads, in advocating an anti-stalking measure, a popular bipartisan issue. He has opposed tax cuts and budgets he believed would diminish monies to the city, and he's defended the tenants' side in rent regulations debates. He promises to make affordable housing a pet project should he win, through the public advocate's power to appoint a representative to the City Planning Commission.

With no experience in city government, Stringer argues that his Albany contacts would be a boon to the city during rent regulations negotiations and budget battles. They have certainly been a boon to him, generating dozens of endorsements and, after seasoned fundraiser Gotbaum, the second-biggest bank in the race—a necessary counterweight to the low name recognition from which Stringer apparently suffers. Working under Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the most powerful Democrat in the state, has helped Stringer get the party's official backing in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn—which means important logistical support in a race of generally qualified, politically similar rivals.

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