Daniel Squadron is standing in the exact spot where Hillary Clinton once stood. More precisely: He is standing in the Greenwich Village townhouse of a blue-chip Democratic fundraiser who used the same drawing room to raise money for Clinton.
Squadron, one of five Democratic candidates for New York City’s public advocate, does not address a check-writing audience nearly the same size. His host reminisces about the days when Clinton packed the joint back in 2000. But tonight it’s a crowd of 20. The high ceilings and surplus of wine glasses shrink the staggered circle of guests even further.
Squadron is not a fringe candidate. Endorsed by the likes of Senator Charles Schumer and the New York Times, he’s arguably the most recognizable candidate in the field. Yet it’s not the man who fails to draw the crowd—it’s the office he seeks.
Of the three citywide elections this fall—public advocate, comptroller, and mayor—it is the competition for advocate that has failed to capture attention. Left wanting for a sex scandal or a nationally recognizable name, the race has gone unnoticed by most New Yorkers. In the limited polling available, all five candidates garner support on either side of 10 percent. But the number that stands out is the percentage of voters who are undecided or unfamiliar with the candidates: 51.
“When I’m out on the street,” says Squadron, “people consistently ask, ‘What is the public advocate?’ Or, ‘Remind me why we have one.'”
On a recent Wednesday evening, Squadron traveled to the Floral Park neighborhood in the section of Queens that stretches into Nassau County, terrain unseen by most New Yorkers. The occasion: a forum for the Democratic candidates. The venue: North Shore Towers and Country Club.
Approximately 150 people gathered in the 33-story co-op’s signature event space (“Towers on the Green”), replete with matching emerald green carpet and curtains and mirrored beams. There was no shortage of gray hair or orthopedic shoes. Every few minutes, those in attendance were reinvigorated with another reminder of coffee and cookies for all who stayed (awake?) until 9:30.
One host for the evening, an elderly woman with a stopwatch and a quavering but determined voice sat at the end of the curtained table shared by the candidates. She kept track of allotted speaking time and yelled “time!” even if the candidate had already finished his or her response.
Squadron was quick to note the woman’s diligence, and so when he stood to answer an early question, he looked directly at her first. They locked eyes for a moment. “Ready?” he asked with a smirk. She nodded seriously and pushed the stopwatch’s start button with the force of her entire torso.
Squadron appeared to realize that his playfulness was lost on her. A hearing aide whined in the audience. Squadron pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, swiped at his cropped, dark beard, and began to speak.
This is the gig if you want to run for public advocate.
When the NBC affiliate recently gave a Sunday morning infomercial time slot to a public advocate debate, the station spent the opening minutes playing street interviews with New Yorkers, who were asked about their familiarity with the job. Responses generally came in the form of vexed expressions, occasionally accompanied by a laugh line: “That’s different from a public defender, right?”
The lack of interest in the race is surprising, considering the mandate. This is the office meant to be the bully pulpit for the voice of the people. This is the city’s ombudsman and, really, what do New Yorkers love to do more than complain? What’s more, if the mayor vacated the office, the immediate successor is the public advocate.
Squadron is well positioned to be second in line to the mayor. “Look, I think a lot of issues and visions for the city in a lot of the races have been under the radar because of the extent to which personal stories have overwhelmed it,” he says, referencing the likes of Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner. He also links lack of interest to the busy lives of voters and the nascence of the office.
Created in 1993, the office has been held by just three people: Mark Green, Betsy Gotbaum, and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. Both Green and Gotbaum have endorsed Squadron, and while de Blasio has not gone public with his choice, Squadron says, “I would continue many of the things Bill de Blasio has done.”
Squadron serves as a state senator representing Brooklyn (Williamsburg, Downtown, Greenpoint) and Lower Manhattan (Chinatown, the East Village, the Lower East Side). In speeches, he often announces that his district includes Ellis Island, as if answering a trivia question that was not asked, and notes that his grandfather immigrated through the famed gateway. Squadron breezed to victory for the Senate seat in 2008 after an unexpected win in the Democratic primary against Martin Connor, a 30-year incumbent. Now he is running for an office that is sometimes left to defend its existence.
Despite overseeing a budget of $2.2 million and a staff of 31, the public advocate has had its relevance questioned by some city leaders. Mayor Bloomberg wanted to abolish the post altogether, but settled for cutting the budget by 40 percent. The Republican party is not even fielding a candidate for the office, which makes the Democratic primary tantamount to a general election.
While a public advocate can introduce legislation, he or she is a non-voting member of the City Council. Squadron acknowledges that limitations. He says the job is about influencing legislative priorities and representing citizens bereft of lobbyists. He proposes dividing the office into four bureaus centered on children, housing, vulnerable citizens, and government accountability. “Housing is, in many ways, the existential issue for the city’s future,” he says.
Squadron, who grew up along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and lives in Carroll Gardens with his wife and son, wants to see the city prioritize housing for the next decade.
“The greatest thing about this city is that we have the strongest collection of diversity and energy and expertise anywhere in the world. That means people from around the world coming here to be part of the great engine of opportunity; it means people from around the country; it means people who are born here with fewer resources but still are able to get the opportunities offered—and it means people who can live anywhere in the world and chose to live here. If it’s not all of that, we’ve lost it. And there’s a real risk of that. The idea that it is inevitable that the city is going to change completely and we’re not going to be a city that’s diverse is absolutely unacceptable. It will mean we lose the city.”
When talking about basic necessities—housing, work, transportation—Squadron skillfully mixes practical and poetic oration. But these days, most of his talking involves explaining to his fellow New Yorkers what office he’s running for—and why it should continue to exist.
“The position of public advocate exists because in a city our size, which is really more like a large state or even a small nation, there are individual and community issues that inevitably get left out, that get left behind, that are overlooked. They are the orphans of the system.”