Clashing on bike lanes and if the office should exist, the leading candidates for Public Advocate went toe-to-toe on NY1 in their only live televised debate Tuesday night.
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A DEBATE OVER IF THE OFFICE SHOULD EXIST
Although the debate was friendly in tone, there were stark political differences between Democratic Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Republican Staten Island Councilman Joe Borelli, who served together in the City Council. Borelli is a President Donald Trump supporter and a regular guest on Fox News. Williams, a darling of the left, has previously supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Borelli went after Williams for being the "protester-in-chief." Williams has been arrested in several demonstrations, mostly notably when he was a Brooklyn councilman protesting the deportation order for immigration activist Ravi Ragbir in January 2018.
Borelli pointed to those protest arrests as not the best use of the office. He has advocated for eliminating the Public Advocate altogether.
Williams countered that he has used the office to advocate for what he believes in.
"Do what you can with what you have where you are. If you are in your comfort zone and you are comfortable, you haven't done enough," he said. "The Public Advocate's job is to ensure that we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Until everybody feels they are in a just society."
Partially because of the costly special election for the office, some New York City lawmakers have expressed support for a bill to eliminate the job altogether, arguing its lack of real power makes it a waste of taxpayer money.
Borelli hasn't ruled out that possibility. He has said if the Public Advocate is not given a larger role in city government, such as being a check on the mayor, then the city should abolish the office.
Borelli argues the city comptroller could be first in line to succeed the mayor. To the Republican, the Public Advocate should not exist simply to wait for a mayor to leave office.
On that point, Williams agrees. He also wants the city to give the Public Advocate greater power, such as the ability to subpoena city government and vote in the City Council. In addition, he's moved to reorganize the office so deputy Public Advocates can help constituents organize and advocate for their priorities, such as housing and education.
To that end, he calls for the city to pour more money into the Public Advocate's budget, although in a February 27 interview on Inside City Hall, he backed away from his promise to have a Public Advocate office and staff in every borough. So unlike Borelli, Williams has not suggested the office be eliminated.
"I want the Public Advocate Office to really fill that gap, in which communities are feeling they are not being heard, that there's real communication up and down," Williams said in an interview on Mornings On 1.
NO TO 'BREAKING THE CAR CULTURE'
The two candidates were not all that far apart on the push to "end the car culture" in the city by promoting more bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. Over two dozen cyclists have been killed by vehicles on New York City streets this year.
"People who rely on their cars every day to get to work or go to the doctor or whatever, they are not hot-rodding down Queens Boulevard," Borelli said. "They are using it because they need to use their cars."
"'Vision Zero' was a good attempt; it's not working. We have too many deaths," the incumbent Public Advocate said. "I also think people should refrain from saying, 'Break the car culture.' Because we have residents that need their car. But what I do say is that we need to change the car culture."
MAYORAL TALK AND LIGHTER MOMENTS
When they were asked if they would run for mayor, Borelli was unabashedly skeptical of a Republican winning in a heavily-Democratic city.
Williams, meanwhile, reiterated that he will not run in 2021, although he didn't squash the possibility of one day aiming for the top of City Hall:
There were also some lighter moments in the cordial debate. During the lightning round, the candidates were asked to name their favorite city-based musician:
WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC ADVOCATE DO?
On the one hand, the Public Advocate is one of the city's highest-ranking jobs. It's one of just three citywide elected offices (the others are mayor and comptroller) and first in line of succession should something happen to the mayor.
On the other hand, it's a job with little real power and a vaguely defined mission. Essentially, the office functions as a city government watchdog and an ombudsperson for the public.
The Public Advocate investigates complaints and issues reports, and can also introduce legislation in the City Council, although he or she cannot vote on it. The Public Advocate can also preside over Council meetings, though not all have exercised that option.
In practice, the job is what the office-holder makes of it. It is a highly visible perch that allows its occupant to raise his or her profile without the messy complications of real governing. That makes it a good place for people who have their eyes on Gracie Mansion.
Since the position was created in 1993 (a descendant of the old City Council president position), it's been held by five people. Two of them ran for mayor: Mark Green, who narrowly lost the 2001 election, and Bill de Blasio. Letitia James was thought to be a potential 2021 mayoral candidate before she was elected state attorney general last November. The current occupant, Williams, says he doesn't intend to run for mayor in 2021.
One thing the job doesn't come with is many resources. The office has a budget of only about $4 million.
WHY IS THERE ANOTHER PUBLIC ADVOCATE ELECTION THIS YEAR?
A special election was held for the office in February after James became the attorney general. However, due to New York City election law, that election did not give Williams the office for the rest of the term. All told, the Public Advocate elections — when including public matching funds for all the candidates that ran in February — are estimated to cost over $15 million, according to the city's Board of Elections.
But whoever wins this Public Advocate election will be in office through the end of 2021, as long as he does not leave office early. Voters will head to the polls in 2021 to elect all citywide elected officials for four-year terms.
This Public Advocate election will be Tuesday, November 5, although you can vote early starting later this week.
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