Who’ll Advocate for the Public?


The race for Public Advocate—never a focus of much attention even before the world was turned upside down on September 11—has suddenly become a crucial contest.

Of the seven candidates in the primary, two will face off in the October 11 runoff. One will be Betsy Gotbaum, who won 24 percent of the vote and whose ample campaign war chest will allow her to bombard voters with TV ads between now and then. The other is likely to be civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, who won’t be on TV as much but who has articulated a vision for the Public Advocate’s office that voters should get a chance to hear.

Created by the city charter changes of 1993, the Public Advocate’s office has always been vaguely defined, with few concrete powers other than making its occupant first in the line of succession. It’s a high-profile job with a small budget and no required heavy lifting. But the office proved its worth under Mark Green, who used it as a bully pulpit and also employed a sharp staff that conducted diligent and perceptive government oversight. In and out of court, Green used the office to spotlight Giuliani’s autocratic tendencies. He won decisions releasing public records relating to police discipline and won the right to conduct a legal inquiry into the mayor’s release of confidential court records of police shooting victim Patrick Dorismond.

Green’s performance in the office and his successful use of it to launch himself towards higher office was one reason that so many candidates emerged. (In contrast, just two sought the larger and more powerful job of city comptroller, a post that carries numerous labor-intensive responsibilities.)

But the Public Advocate’s race has been overshadowed at every step of the way; first by the mayoral and City Council contests, then by the attack, and now by the wrenching debate over Giuliani’s demand to hold onto City Hall.

But if voters glossed over the differences between the Public Advocate candidates before last week’s primary, the players now stand out in stark contrast.

Gotbaum started the race as the odds-on favorite. She is smart, quick, and well-liked in establishment and journalistic circles. As former parks commissioner and later as head of the New York Historical Society, she rubbed elbows with the city’s elite, and it has shown in her fundraising. Her campaign has emphasized her ability to facilitate and compromise, and she has differentiated her style from that of her often feisty opponents, whom she has criticized for being overly aggressive. The wife of the former chief of the city’s municipal workers, Gotbaum earned the enmity of several city unions when, as parks chief under David Dinkins, she laid off city employees while putting welfare recipients to work. She promises to be a problem solver and to help win improved schools, housing, and health care. But she has carefully steered clear of the city’s thorniest issues—police brutality, racial profiling, and government conflicts of interest. In her major statements and speeches, she’s managed to avoid even mentioning Giuliani’s name. When Voice reporter Chisun Lee asked Gotbaum in August about Giuliani’s own workfare programs, she said she hadn’t studied them yet. “I don’t have time to find out,” she said.

With votes still being counted at the time of publication, her challenger in the runoff appears to be Siegel, who, on Monday, had a 3400-vote lead over his nearest rival, Brooklyn city councilman Steve DiBrienza. DiBrienza was a little more than 1000 votes ahead of performer Willie Colón. Lagging behind Colón by 2300 votes was Manhattan assemblyman Scott Stringer.

Unlike Gotbaum’s strategy, both Siegel’s and DiBrienza’s emphasized their past successes in tangles with City Hall. “No one has taken on the mayor as effectively as me,” said DiBrienza, who used his council committee position to investigate Giuliani’s welfare programs. DiBrienza said his goal would be to beef up the office’s ombudsman role and keep a skeptical eye on whoever is in City Hall.

Siegel also pledged to watchdog government, but, alone of the candidates, he proposed to vastly expand the office through the use of volunteers.

The advocate should be “the people’s lawyer,” said Siegel, someone who makes sure citizens get both a hearing about the decisions affecting their lives and protection when government works against them. To do so, Siegel would recruit scores of volunteers, ranging from lawyers to housekeepers, who would staff agency task forces and little City Halls located in borrowed space throughout the city. “We would be be in 100 neighborhoods within four years,” he insisted.

Like other first-time candidates, Siegel has tried to turn his inexperience into a virtue. In this job, however, it might just be true. “Insiders can’t monitor insiders,” said Siegel. “There is always an increased rationalization on their part to go along with what other political figures are advancing.”

Siegel has always been a gadfly. He has helped everyone from the Ku Klux Klan to struggling cabbies obtain permits to demonstrate. “I ain’t gonna change,” he insisted proudly when asked about his past role as civil liberties advocate. After the 1985 racial killing in Howard Beach, Queens, he formed a civil rights organization that held scores of meetings in black neighborhoods and white ones, all aimed at encouraging citizens to openly air their concerns about race issues in their communities. Unlike any other white politician to ever seek citywide office, he has repeatedly invoked the problems of racism as core to the city’s problems. “The central issue in this city is race,” he repeated throughout his campaign.

A graduate of New Utrecht High School in largely white Bensonhurst, Siegel took his civil rights advocacy back to his old neighborhood. Since 1990 he has taught a weekly class at the high school.

If he makes the runoff, Siegel will labor under the same financial disadvantage as he did during the summer, when Gotbaum outspent and out-fundraised her opponents almost three to one.

His tactics will emphasize what he calls “mini-town meetings”—gatherings where he is as much a listener to citizen complaints as a campaigner.

In one demonstration of the role he said he sought to play if elected, Siegel wrote privately to City Council Speaker and then mayoral candidate Peter Vallone after Vallone proposed legislation last month seeking to create a city reconstruction commission to be headed by Giuliani.

“I wrote that the powers were way too broad,” said Siegel. “The bill basically would have allowed the commission to do anything appropriate to accomplish its goals. There wasn’t even a plan for public hearings; they were just going to rush it through. From my perspective, that was interfering with the powers of the mayor and the City Council.”

Siegel said he was also alarmed that few objections were voiced last week against the mayoral edict that pictures couldn’t be taken at the site of the Trade Center’s collapse.

“The goal has to be how to protect New Yorkers without abridging their rights. There has to be both security and freedom, but there has to be a lot of informed discussion among the public to achieve it.”