Finding Your Voice

Candidates for Public Advocate clash over job description

When Norman Siegel, who headed the New York Civil Liberties Union for 15 years, visits a recent block party sponsored by the 47th Precinct in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, people know him, including the cops.

One has the temerity to ask Siegel to stop handing out campaign literature. Siegel, of course, refuses. A friendly conversation with a higher-ranking officer ensues; he asks Siegel to keep the campaigning to the periphery, out of courtesy. But Siegel declines the invitation to sideline himself, so the commander walks away wishing Siegel the best of luck in his campaign. "He said, 'Whatever you say is fine with us,' " Siegel relates. "Easiest argument I ever had." He pauses and adds, "Not to sound arrogant, but that's why I have to win."

There's no question Siegel is targeting broader issues than Gotbaum has emphasized—military recruitment in schools, eminent domain in development projects, the right to protest—even if she agrees on some of them. He also wants to set up a stereotype-busting course at the police academy, create a New York City 9-11 commission to probe failures in the emergency response, and press for the Bloomberg administration to respect civil liberties in ways he says it didn't during protests against the Iraq war and the Republican National Convention.

Meet your Public Advocate: Betsy Gotbaum reaches out at a senior center in the Bronx.
photo: Kate Englund
Meet your Public Advocate: Betsy Gotbaum reaches out at a senior center in the Bronx.

"I think there has to be in the Public Advocate what I call a 'healthy tension' between that office and the executive and legislative branches of government," Siegel says. "If you are accommodating too much, then the whole concept of the Public Advocate as the monitor to hold government accountable is defeated."

Four years ago, Siegel squeezed into a runoff with Gotbaum and lost by nearly a 2-1 margin. This time he's counting on endorsements from a host of political clubs, NOW, and the UAW, as well as the name recognition on display in Wakefield.

"Every day people stop me, thank me for doing the work that I've done, and I don't think they all necessarily agree with my bottom-line positions, but what they all know is I'm a fighter, and that's what this office needs," he says. "She's not a fighter."

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