Finding Your Voice

Candidates for Public Advocate clash over job description

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's tour of the Morris Senior Center on East 181st Street in the Bronx on Thursday was not a flyby. Moving from table to table, switching from English to Spanish and back, she did more than meet and greet. She answered detailed questions. She spent several minutes with everyone she met. This was not standard flesh pressing. Gotbaum was really being nice.

And that just might be the problem. Her two main challengers in the September 13 Democratic primary, Andrew Rasiej and Norman Siegel, say Gotbaum has been so polite in her dealings with the Bloomberg administration that she has weakened the office that provides the most visible check on the substantial power of New York City's mayor.

Created in 1993 as a new take on the obsolete job of City Council president, the Public Advocate has the ability to monitor and investigate city agencies, collect and resolve complaints about services, and fight for public access to government information. The job description is a bit amorphous, and each of the three leading Democrats seeking the post puts a different spin on what it means. One thing all three agree on is that Betsy Gotbaum is no Mark Green.

She never intended to be. While Green locked arms with Rudy Giuliani for an eight-year wrestling match, Gotbaum sees herself as an ombudswoman, not a crusader. "I'm running to become Public Advocate," Gotbaum said in 2001. "I'm not running to become public adversary."

Green had no problem being adversarial. He picked public fights with the mayor over police brutality, workfare, child welfare, public information, environmental problems, and dozens of other issues. He was mocked as a "media hound," but against a popular mayor, headlines were the best weapon for an official with a tiny budget, no vote in the council, and no authority over city agencies.

From the outset, Gotbaum had a lower profile. In his first four months in office, Green weighed in on school recycling, trash removal, check cashing, child abuse, and high school sports, and accused the mayor of "Reaganism revisited." Gotbaum, hamstrung by a depleted budget and a smaller staff than Green had, did very little during her early months. The Times dubbed her "the invisible advocate."

Since that slow start, Gotbaum has fired off a slew of reports on food stamps, deaths of kids under city supervision, health care for women with AIDS, cancer rates in polluted neighborhoods, and more. She's received some press, but not as much as Green. She says she's visible enough to the people who need her office. "Look, I can't be who I'm not. I'm not a loud, aggressive person. But I can be aggressive and feisty," she says, recalling behind-the-scenes fights with the mayor.

Raising her voice is clearly not what she likes about the job, though: She says that the cops' random bag search policy is OK so long as it "makes people feel better." She seemed more in her element at the senior center, giving advice on eligibility for prescription drug benefits, posing patiently for pictures. "If I can't answer a question or you don't have time to ask me, call my office," she tells one crowd. "That's why we're here."

It's Wednesday afternoon, and Andrew Rasiej is standing at the top of the steps leading out of the City Hall 4/5/6 station, with a cell phone pressed to one ear and a tin can held to the other. Campaign staffers have formed a chain of tin cans going down onto the subway platform. The point of the stunt is to expose what Rasiej calls a "fatal flaw" in the MTA's "see something, say something" plan: the fact that riders can't use cell phones to call 911 from underground subway tunnels and platforms. It's the latest variation on the theme of Rasiej's campaign. "I'm running for Public Advocate to connect New York and bring it into the 21st century," he says.

The foundation of the campaign is Rasiej's Wi-Fi plan, a proposal to follow Philadelphia's lead and create low-cost wireless Internet connections for every household and business in the city. The purpose, Rasiej says, is "connecting all the tens of thousands of Public Advocates that already exist in our city."

"Power only really comes because of people," says Rasiej, who founded Irving Plaza and a nonprofit that supports technology in schools. "You can be the most effective orator on a soap box—a screamer like Norman Siegel—but Norman's only going have power if he can bring people to the issues."

Rasiej sees the Public Advocate's job as "to make people's voices heard," and he faults Gotbaum for failing to rally people to her causes. What drives Rasiej, however, is not any particular policy problem but improving info flow and citizen involvement (like City Council hearings online). He sees himself as the candidate of new ideas.

"For the Democratic Party to succeed," says Rasiej, "it has to learn to fix itself before it can get on with the business of fixing the country. It has two major problems: It's addicted to money, and it's addicted to failed incumbents." He's referring to Gotbaum. If he's elected, Rasiej says, "Four years from now, there won't be a single person in this city who won't be able to tell you who their Public Advocate is."

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.

"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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