Watching the Watchdogs

While the office of the public advocate may be designed as a watchdog position, its current low budget essentially makes it little more than a bully pulpit for politicians on the rise. Elected in 2009, Bill de Blasio has spent the better part of his one term laying the groundwork for his current run for mayor. And the current crop of contenders appears destined to follow suit.

The most familiar name in this year’s race is Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James of the Working Families Party. A former Legal Aid attorney, the 50-year-old James isn’t afraid to inject race and class into the political discussion. If elected, she would be the first African-American in the position. Her main likely opponent is 33-year-old State Senator Daniel Squadron, a product of the city elite who has Bloomberg’s approval and is widely seen as the Democratic Party’s fresh and clean anecdote to messy city politics. And there’s 37-year-old Reshma Saujani, the former financial attorney (and de Blasio staffer) who ran and lost as a sympathetic-to-Wall Street candidate in the primary against Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in 2010.

James seems like the obvious pick for progressives. She has been a vocal critic of stop-and-frisk and has advocated against budget cuts to necessities like child care centers. Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, called James a “champion” on fighting poverty, and she’s gaining the support of labor groups* due to her support for the living wage bill. However, Squadron leads the money race with $1 million in fundraising, including a significant amount from developers, while James has just less than half a million dollars raised. Saujani, meanwhile, has raked in more than $750,000, much of it from folks in the finance and high-tech sectors.

The amount of money already raised may seem just a bit excessive for a job that has little statutory power. But during the Giuliani administration, Mark Green, the first officeholder, created a model when his office ran investigations and filed litigation to probe wrongdoings in the healthcare industry and racial profiling in the N.Y.P.D. The public advocate can do some of the work that smaller community groups can’t, and he or she can also act as a megaphone for groups with concerns about city government. Given that we’ll be hearing plenty from the next public advocate over the next four years, it’s thus essential to know what the leading contenders would bring to the job.

In order to show her investigative credentials, James cites her experience as a former assistant attorney general (under Eliot Spitzer). “I’ve issued reports and negotiated a significant number of settlements,” she says. Moreover, she “negotiated hundreds if not thousands of consumer complaints.”

James has also shown that she will follow her conscience despite her ties to activist groups. She helped lead the opposition against the Atlantic Yards project even though the project was supported by the Working Families Party and ACORN, both of which had helped get her elected to the city council. James has represented Fort Greene and the surrounding area since 2003, and in recent years has made some dubious alliances. Her latest campaign finance filing shows a $1,000 contribution from the Coca-Cola PAC, most likely because she was a vocal opponent of Bloomberg’s crusade against large soft drinks. James denied any particular outreach on her part to the cola giant, but she co-wrote an op-ed against the ban and even proclaimed it a violation of civil liberties. The issue itself is producing an unusual alliance between the N.A.A.C.P. and both the corporate and libertarian right.

Despite the soda industry support, James still trails both Squadron and Saujani in fundraising. Noting that New York City’s campaign finance laws prohibit a Sheldon Adelson-type patron, Democratic political consultant Jerry Skurnik explains that a candidate can still outperform an opponent on the campaign trail even with less money. “The majority of the voters in a Democratic primary are liberal progressives, and James has been an active member of the progressive caucus,” says Skurnik. “At this time four years ago most people thought Mark Green was the overwhelming favorite, but de Blasio won because he got the bulk of the support of the progressive labor unions and I know that James is working on that.”

Squadron has other electoral advantages beyond simply his campaign war chest. In public he exudes the breezy charm he inherited from career politicians like his mentor, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. Paul Balser, who sits on the boards of the United Neighborhood Houses and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, explains that he is impressed by the young legislator’s ability to work a room full of philanthropic bigwigs. “He shows up, he offers advice, he is precisely what an advocate ought to be,” Balser says.

By contrast, James has a sometimes-curt style that can be off-putting. “She’s made enemies, like fellow Council members,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “My impression is she’s too out there in some ways both personally and politically.”

James, though, says that she can get crossover support, noting a “grassroots” outreach effort. For example, James received a $1,000 contribution from the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 and fought against litigation that sought to racially integrate the ranks of the Fire Department. The union’s mostly white and hardly class-warring membership isn’t James’s likely constituency. Sources indicated that it was her advocacy against that firehouse’s closing that won her the positive attention from the UFA.

Squadron gets plenty of money from the city elite; his major donors include many real estate developers and lawyers, raising the question of whether he would think twice as a public advocate about doing anything that makes life unpleasant for this crowd. Scott Levenson, a leading staff member during Green’s tenure as public advocate, predicted that the “real estate industry would certainly like a friendly voice” in all three citywide elected positions. A distinctive feature of the Bloomberg years, Levenson says, has been “the use of air rights and up-zoning of avenues to help the industry.” And he adds, “the future of those issues could certainly dominate the landscape for years to come.”

As just one example of developer interest in Squadron, Mets owner Fred Wilpon maxed out his contribution to the campaign, and several members of the Wilpon family have contributed as well. The Wilpons certainly wouldn’t want a leading elected official to raise questions about their plans for Willets Point. Eminent domain was employed to wipe out the auto-body shops near CitiField, but rather than the mixed-use project originally proposed, according to some reports the Wilpons now want to build a shopping mall.

A campaign spokesperson, Dan Levitan, dismissed the influence of such funders, stating that “Daniel Squadron is a leader for transparency and accountability in government—with an unimpeachable record fighting for affordable housing for New York City families.” Squadron, Levitan notes, has been a consistent advocate for campaign finance reform. Moreover, Levitan maintains that Squadron “is running a grassroots campaign with nearly 1,500 individual contributions and has not accepted a dime from corporations or special interest PACs.”

The issue of real estate and housing in this race is, indeed, where things get cloudy. Squadron, for example, has been on record protesting slumlords in his district and has sponsored successful legislation to get more federal money for the New York City Housing Authority.

In an interview, James cited her record of criticizing the NYCHA administration, which was outed by the Daily News last year for sitting on federal money while residents waited for vital repairs. Lawmakers also hounded Chairman John Rhea when he kept a $10 million study on cost reduction by the Boston Consultant Group secret. When the report came out, city councilmembers wondered why the study couldn’t have been done in-house, but instead was farmed out to a private group that once employed Rhea.

But last August at a city hall press conference, James said she was convinced that Rhea and NYCHA were doing their best to address problems that residents faced. “Point the finger at Washington, not here, and not at the Chairman, who has been doing the best he can,” she insisted. But at the end of October, NYCHA proved to be completely unprepared for Hurricane Sandy, as public housing residents in hard-hit areas spent three weeks without heat and electricity after the storm, and many are currently suffering from mold growth.

Amidst all the controversy, Rhea made a $500 donation to James’s campaign coffers. Oddly, the filing lists him as “chairman” but does not say of what entity, whereas most contributors list the name of their employers. Asked for an explanation, James merely stated, “I guess he is supporting my candidacy.” A NYCHA spokesperson declined to comment. One veteran political insider expressed surprise that Rhea had given money to any candidates—let alone that James is the only campaign he has chosen to support.

During a press conference on January 17 with NYCHA residents from storm-ravaged buildings, James said that the authority “violated the warrantee of habitability,” and called on the agency to give rent abatements to those who were without service. She said that federal funds “should trickle down to the most vulnerable,” and that “government, unfortunately, from the top to the bottom failed miserably” in response to Hurricane Sandy.

Harsh words, but one glaring omission: She did not call out Rhea by name.

Daniel Goldstein, who was also at the forefront of the ultimately unsuccessful battle to stop the Atlantic Yards project, believes that James’s heart is still in the right place. “She was standing with the people who are disempowered,” he said of her fight against the use of eminent domain to build a basketball arena. “I see the role of a public advocate as for the people who are disempowered, people who are not getting closed-door meetings with mayor.”

Goldstein adds that while James has been around the political scene long enough to be a part of the establishment that Squadron inhabits, she has passed that up on purpose. In Goldstein’s view, “That’s not where her backing comes from—that’s not where her heart is.”

It is understandable that the talented and ambitious Squadron, without an immediate avenue to join the New York congressional delegation, would look to a citywide office in order to get out of the mess that is Albany. But Squadron’s rapid rise to the position of good government watchdog may fuel even more cynicism about the public advocate’s office. If money were to propel Squadron (or Saujani) into the seat, it would strengthen the arguments to eliminate the public advocate’s post altogether.

A Squadron nomination also could cause a public relations problem for the Democrats. It seems unlikely that either former comptroller Bill Thompson or his successor John Liu will get the nomination for mayor, so the top of the ticket in November for the party would be all-white (Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is the leading candidate for comptroller). Many would argue that this is not the image the Democratic Party in America’s leading city should project. As public interest attorney and James supporter Arthur Schwartz sees it, “It’s important to have an African-American in a citywide elected position.”



*(Note: I have a job editing a magazine for a union—Social Service Employees Union Local 371—that has donated to James’s campaign. I played no part in that decision and only discovered that fact through independent reporting. The views expressed here are my own.)

Contributor

Ari Paul

ARI PAUL has covered labor and politics for the Nation, Guardian, Forward, Alternet and many other outlets.