By Paula Katinas
Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed this week that he has set Feb. 26 as the date for the special election for New York City public advocate in the hope that the city can boost voter turnout.
“We chose this date to maximize voter participation. This was the latest date available under the legal limit that also would fall on a Tuesday that was not a vacation day, was a regular work day,” de Blasio said at a City Hall ceremony on Jan. 2 where he signed a proclamation to set the date.
Under the City Charter, the public advocate’s role is to serve as a watchdog over city government and an ombudsman on behalf of city residents. The advocate is also the first in the line of succession for mayor. The person holding the office can introduce legislation in the City Council and can file lawsuits on behalf of the city. The salary is $184,800 a year. The public advocate’s office operates with an annual budget of $3 million.
“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,” former public advocate Betsy Gotbaum told the Eagle in a recent interview. “It’s answering constituent complaints and trying to solve the problems, and by doing that you have oversight over mayoral agencies.”
The special election became necessary following the resignation of Public Advocate Letitia James, who left the post to become New York State Attorney General.
There are more than two dozen declared candidates lining up to succeed James.
Brooklyn and Queens lawmakers are among the candidates who have announced that they are running on Feb. 26. The names include Brooklyn Councilmembers Rafael Espinal and Jumaane Williams, Brooklyn Assemblymember Latrice Walker and Assemblymember Ron Kim and Councilmember Eric Ulrich from Queens.
Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez of Inwood, Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell of Morningside Heights, radio personality Curtis Sliwa and former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are also running.
Special elections in New York City are nonpartisan affairs for which candidates can create their own parties. Mark-Viverito is running for public advocate under a party called the Fix the MTA.
The public advocate’s office has often served as a springboard for ambitious politicians. De Blasio himself held that office before running for mayor in 2013.
The mayor vowed to work to increase voter turnout in the special election next month.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do get the word out. Special elections are always a challenge. Over these next weeks, we’re going to work very hard to inform New Yorkers about the election, to make sure they participate and make sure they recognize how important it is to the future of this city,” de Blasio said.
Special elections and primaries in New York City usually have dismal voter turnouts. The primary in June 2016 for federal offices had an 8 percent turnout, according to a report from the Board of Election. A primary for state and city offices that took place in September that same year wasn’t much better. Ten percent of voters showed up at the polls.
Meanwhile, with a large pool of candidates running for public advocate, each of the hopefuls is trying to stand out in the crowd.
The Brooklyn and Queens candidates all bring unique personal histories to the table. Their official biographies make for some interesting reading.
When in high school, Ulrich considered becoming a Catholic priest. He attended Cathedral Prep Seminary. But following high school, he became immersed in politics and civic activism. His council district includes Belle Harbor and Breezy Point.
Espinal, who represents East New York and Bushwick, taught adult literacy and General Education Diploma test prep classes in low-income neighborhoods before entering politics.
Williams, whose council district includes Flatbush and East Flatbush, is a first generation Brooklynite of Grenadian heritage and began his career as a community organizer and housing advocate.
Walker, who represents Brownsville, lived in public housing as a child and grew up to become a lawyer helping tenants fight eviction.
Kim, who was captain of the football and track teams at his high school, was later accepted into the National Urban Fellow program and served as an advisor in the Chicago public school system. He represents Flushing, College Point and Whitestone.