By David Brand
During his time in the state legislature, Assemblymember Ron Kim has been a fierce advocate for eliminating student loan debt, cutting corporate welfare and tackling exploitative private sector practices.
As a candidate for public advocate, Kim said he plans to reshape the office and focus on private sector abuse — but at least one city watchdog questions his power to do that.
“There has never been an action plan to transform this office,” Kim told the Eagle Thursday. “I’m focused on transforming this office to be the nation’s first and largest debt cancellation body dedicated to lowering people’s debt.”
Kim represents the 40th Assembly District, which includes Flushing, College Point and Whitestone. He was first elected to the assembly in 2012 and he serves as Vice-Chair of the Majority Conference of the New York State Assembly.
On Monday, he announced his bid for the public advocate office vacated by state Attorney General-elect Letitia James.
A special election to fill the office will take place in early 2019, though an official date has not been set.
Kim said the city and state’s decision to give Amazon nearly $3 billion in subsidies to build a corporate campus in Long Island City contributed to his decision run for public advocate.
“I’ve been focused on the corporate welfare issue and eliminating our giveaways to mega corporations and before the deal was struck I called out Amazon,” he said. “I’ve focused on prioritizing needs of everyday people.”
He also said he would investigate and limit the authority of “quasi-governmental agencies” like the Economic Development Corporation, which is shepherding the Amazon deal. But tackling consumer debt, and the culture that drives working class people deeper into debt crisis, is his main goal.
“This is a debt-driven economy of everyday people who are barely living, barely paying off interest,” he said. “This is the first time that we would have such a citywide office diving into the root causes of our societal failures in a real way.”
Despite his lofty goals, Citizens Union Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum, the Public Advocate from 2002 to 2009, said she doubts that Kim — or any public advocate — would have the authority to challenge the private sector to the extent that Kim pledges.
“Who gives him the right to do that?” Gotbaum said. “May I suggest to him that he read the Charter that established the public advocate and gives the public advocate its power.”
The city’s governing document charges the public advocate with a governmental oversight role. The charter tasks the office-holder with reviewing programs of city agencies and monitoring and addressing civilians’ complaints.
“The Public Advocate’s Office will try to solve problems for you,” she said. “The public advocate is monitoring trends,” in how the city operates. “That’s the whole point.”
Gotbaum specifically cited a her experience monitoring water bill complaints from residents of Briarwood. She noticed a trend in exorbitant water bills in the neighborhood and directed the city to investigate. Eventually, the city found and fixed a water leak that had caused the high utility bills.
“The purpose of the public advocate is something that nobody seems to get — the job is to be the ombudsman of the city of New York,” she said. “It’s answering constituent complaints and trying to solve the problems and by doing that you have oversight over mayoral agencies.”