Save This Office


Most people don’t know who or what the Public Advocate is, polls show, but just four years ago, the city’s Democrats nominated Mark Green for mayor, largely because of the remarkable ways he turned this limited post into an engine for change in Rudy Giuliani’s New York. All that’s happened since is Betsy Gotbaum.

If Gotbaum wins the primary on September 13, she may be our last official Advocate, interring it with her own paltry performance. Lost in the mayoral coverage, the race for Advocate is not just a contest between Gotbaum and five others, led by civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, it’s a fight for the preservation of this vital voice itself, which both mayors Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg have tried to abolish.

It’s not, as Gotbaum’s opponents charge, that she does nothing. It’s that she thinks so small and talks so big. Her television commercials on the air now feature the vague claim that she cajoled the Bloomberg administration into serving hot meals to 2,000 seniors in the Bronx. She actually said in a recent WNBC debate that the “accomplishment” she’s “most proud of” is “making sure that home-bound seniors get their daily delivery of hot food when the mayor started a program in the Bronx to have frozen foods twice a week.” She contended at an earlier NY1 debate that Bloomberg “has not met with me since we had a rather large argument” over this Meals on Wheels program “in his office.”

Bill Cunningham, the mayor’s spokesman, says that “the most she might’ve said” at the meeting, which was not about Meals on Wheels, “was that he ought to look at the frozen-food program,” adding that if Gotbaum hasn’t met with Bloomberg since, it was because of the mayoral campaign. Cunningham contended that the “optional” program only offered frozen meals to 2,000 seniors who wanted them—”so they could put them in the refrigerator and eat them when they wanted”—and that seniors “always had the choice of hot meals.”

The Gotbaum ad says she “stopped” the program from going to other boroughs, but a Department of Aging spokesman contends that “there was never any plan to take it citywide” and that 42 percent of the Bronx seniors are currently selecting frozen meals. Cunningham added that Gotbaum reported that the meals were delivered late the day she traveled with a city driver, “but we regarded that as unscientific since he had to wait for her to talk to the seniors at each stop.”

Compare that contentious Gotbaum claim with a synopsis of Green’s undisputed record. He helped kill the mob-controlled private carting industry that was gouging city businesses at a half-billion-a-year cost, enacted a bill to bar gender-based retail pricing, forced the state to regulate dry-cleaner toxins, successfully sued the Giuliani administration for police misconduct data, and issued hundreds of newsbreaking reports that did everything from rate HMOs to count the uninsured.

Delivering Thanksgiving turkeys was the trademark of old Tammany leaders. It’s unbelievable that it’s become the top commercial claim of one of New York’s three citywide leaders. Here’s a laundry list of a few other Gotbaum stunners:

  • In her Citizens Union questionnaire, she claimed she “led the battle against the Jets stadium,” which must have come as a surprise to Sheldon Silver, Cablevision, Chelsea, the Straphangers, and all the other stars that aligned against it. What she actually did was file a frivolous lawsuit against the stadium that was quickly dismissed because she has the legal authority only to sue city officials, and she sued the MTA, a state agency. Her complaint was filled with charges against the city, but she decided not to name it as a defendant in the action. Norman Siegel says she should have brought the case on behalf of individual plaintiffs who were damaged by the stadium project, rather than in her own name, and that she should’ve sued the city as well. The outside attorney who represented Gotbaum pro bono on the case, Charles Stewart, says that if she’d done that, it would’ve been like “punching the mayor in the nose.”
  • Faced with Siegel’s extraordinary legal efforts on behalf of 9-11 families, Gotbaum claimed in one debate that she “helped the Port Authority police get health insurance and coverage.” She acknowledged to the
    Voice that she’d actually never helped the Port Authority police get health coverage, only that she briefly interceded with an Authority official to get permission for PA cops to get free mental health counseling from a Saint Vincent’s Hospital doctor. She reprimanded Siegel at the debate for his “inappropriate use for political reasons” of “something that was so tragic.”
  • When Siegel compared her “wonderful, wonderful” praise of the gigantic Atlantic Yards development planned in Brooklyn with her condemnation of the use of eminent domain for private projects, she insisted in the debates that she’d been told by developer Bruce Ratner that he was “not going to use it.” In fact, a Ratner-tied group filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent eminent domain case, the memo of understanding for the project explicitly authorizes “acquisitions by eminent domain,” and it is the threat of such compelled sales that often makes its use unnecessary. While the project itself has compelling pluses and minuses, Gotbaum’s rose-colored contradictions suggest a disquieting ignorance of well-reported fact as well as the history of publicly aided development.
  • Though Gotbaum has repeatedly said that the ombudswoman role of her office is its “heart,” she conceded in a
    Voice interview that she has no statistical measure of how well her staff handles individual complaints. She’s handling fewer than Green, but only marginally. Though Gotbaum didn’t post data on complaints since 2002, it suddenly appeared on her website after we asked about it. The numbers suggest that her office is “advocating” on behalf of more complainants than Green, and “referring” fewer complaints to other agencies; but it’s impossible to tell if that’s helpful or unhelpful. The shift in referral totals also appears to be a statistical aberration, since most of it is due to Gotbaum’s closing of Green’s child welfare unit, which once took on hundreds of listed referrals. Gotbaum has clearly released far fewer reports, filed fewer suits, and introduced less legislation.
  • Gotbaum can legitimately claim some impact from her work on food stamps, infant deaths in homeless shelters, and rent increase exemptions for seniors. But all she can say, for example, is that she pushed the Department of Aging to get the exemptions out to seniors quicker, or that she got signs installed in shelters warning parents not to sleep with their children. As salutary as these efforts may be, they are not a rationale to maintain an office created in the 1989 city charter as a powerful, independent, vehicle for populist action.

  • Betsy Gotbaum said after the 2001 election that she voted for Mike Bloomberg, even though she ran on the Democratic ticket with Mark Green. She revealed in one of the recent debates that she fully expects Bloomberg to be re-elected, promising to “try very hard” to work with him “next term,” even though, if re-nominated, she will be running on the Democratic ticket again. Her vote against Green was the first indication of how little she valued what he had made of the office she has so diminished. It is also a measure of how self-serving she can be, calculating no doubt that revealing her vote would help her win the favor of the new mayor, who determines her office’s budget.

    Instead, Bloomberg successfully pushed a charter change to require a special election within 60 days should the mayor die in office, chastened no doubt by the prospect that Gotbaum might succeed him for up to 16 months, as the prior charter provided. At a recent debate, Gotbaum declared that she would run for a full term at the end of the 60 days. None of her opponents were gripped by the same hubris. She actually said she’d done a “great” job as Advocate. That’s high praise for a hot meal.

    Research assistance: Jessica Bennett, K. Emily Bond, Leslie Kaufmann, and Nicholas Powers