Imagining the Public Advocate

Five Visions for a Young Office

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."

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.

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 advocate—Democrats Stephen DiBrienza, Kathryn Freed, Betsy Gotbaum, Norman Siegel, and Scott Stringer—to 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.


STEPHEN DIBRIENZA (www.dibrienza2001.com)

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.


KATHRYN FREED (www.freed4advocate.com)

 "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.

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 GOTBAUM (www.betsygotbaum.com)

"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.


NORMAN SIEGEL (www.normansiegel2001.com)

 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.

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.


SCOTT STRINGER (www.scottstringer.com)

 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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