By Bruce N. Gyory | December 9, 2018

The Public Advocate’s race in New York City to succeed Tish James, following her election as Attorney General, provides a real opportunity for the voters of New York City to take control of this contest. If voters are looking for a lever to gain that control I have an idea: make the yardstick for measuring who to vote for, who can best advance New York City’s “lobbying agenda” in Albany and Washington.

This essay will not mention a single candidate’s name, so that I won’t be advancing or opposing any one candidate. Instead my motivation here is exactly the opposite, I am encouraging New York’s voters to make the City’s policy agenda in Albany and Washington, rather than the ambitions of the candidates, the basis for casting their vote.

The nature of this special election for the Public Advocate’s office provides a real opportunity to do just that. This race will be telescoped in terms of time frame and it will be non-partisan in form. Moreover, by early January Mayor de Blasio must set a date for this non-partisan special election and the outcome will likely be determined by mid to late February of 2019.

If rumors are true we could have a dozen or perhaps two dozen candidates maneuvering between now and early January to run, with little time to raise large campaign bank accounts. Simply put the candidates will have neither the time nor the money to drive their messaging, barring the entry of an independently wealthy self-financed candidate stepping away from the city’s public financing system.

Given all of that, this contest could look like the political equivalent of the old Broadway show “What Makes Sammy Run?” But if voters wanted an alternative to this cacophony of ambitious candidates, they could impose a different order by functionally demanding that the candidates respond to their goals for the Public Advocate’s office.

The Public Advocate’s office was crafted under the City’s Charter as a derivative of the old President of the New York City Council. The underlying responsibility of the Public Advocate is to be ready to succeed the Mayor in case of tragedy or the Mayor’s ascension to higher office. Since the latter has never happened (New York City’s Mayoralty has empirically been the graveyard of political ambitions) and the former thank the good Lord, almost never (unless you count Mayor William O’Dwyer running away from a corruption investigation to become the United States Ambassador to Mexico, which made the City Council President Vincent Impellitteri Mayor in August of 1950).
In the fortunate absence of tragedy and the empirically bleak future political prospects of NYC Mayor’s, the Public Advocate has been an office of the Bully Pulpit. In the absence of a large staff, Public Advocates have had wide creative flexibility in terms of how they used the office. In fact, New Yorkers have been fortunate that their Public Advocates have been creative political entrepreneurs scratching, most often successfully, for governing relevance.

Mark Green was a press release machine jabbing away at Mayor Giuliani, with programmatic alternatives; Betsy Gotbaum was a much quieter but purposeful advocate of commonsense reforms (making her current position as the Executive Director of the Citizen’s Union a natural extension of her public service as Public Advocate); Bill de Blasio used a polemical style to nurture a progressive coalition which ultimately sustained him in two landslide general election victories as Mayor; and Tish James advanced a lawsuit oriented social justice agenda as Public Advocate which became an energy source this year in her election as Attorney General.

Where will all of that leave New Yorkers come this special election’s winter sprint from January through early to mid-February? I would suggest looking at whether there is a governing vacuum that the next Public Advocate could step into, which would advance the public interest.

Mayor de Blasio has enjoyed much political and some significant governing successes, but he has not put in the time or effort to be a successful ambassador for New York’s lobbying agenda in either Albany or Washington.
In fairness to Mayor de Blasio, he could have performed a bravura cirque du soleil quality performance and not have succeeded with a Republican Congress. Not to mention that President Trump has so far disdained the consensus of what New Yorkers feel they need and want from Washington. Nevertheless, de Blasio’s cold war with Governor Cuomo has not helped the city in Albany, even as one would have to acknowledge that the fault for this cold war is mutual between the Governor and the Mayor.

Meanwhile, de Blasio is at fault for not emulating Mayor’s Wagner, Lindsay, Koch and Bloomberg who cultivated relationships and alliances with Mayors and County Executive’s from around New York to advance an urban agenda. New York City’s ability to enact useful policies in Albany and Washington would be enhanced if that work was being diligently attended to.

These observations are not intended to disparage Mayor de Blasio, but I would suggest to voters that they approach this clear deficiency, the way a football coach would, who has a quarterback who can pass well, but is not mobile. Voters could therefore look at the race for Public Advocate and say, we believe Mayor de Blasio is likely to advance a strong agenda for New York City, but he is not likely to have the broken field running skills to produce touchdowns in Albany or Washington. Consequently, if we can find a Public Advocate who can help to successfully advance the city’s agenda in Albany and Washington, we can plug a hole which benefits the city.
Issues like the MTA, NYCHA, education funding, the challenges attending both the homeless crisis and the affordable housing to name just a few critical issues, require the enactment of positive results in Albany and Washington, if New York City is to make progress. Under the state’s Constitution and given the importance of federal funding formulas for things like transportation, housing and health care, city government cannot succeed as an island cut off from state and federal assistance.

To enact a capital plan bringing the MTA back into a state of good repair it would be a benefit for New York City if they had a policy alliance with the County Executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Rockland Putnam and Orange counties as well as the Governor. To make progress on equity in education funding, functioning alliances with the underfunded urban school districts in Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton and Buffalo as well as small cities like Amsterdam, Cortland and Glens Falls, would be most beneficial for New York City’s students and schools.

If voters agree the current lobbying hole is worth filling, they could look for a Public Advocate who can check four boxes.

First, will the next Public Advocate have the respect of both to Governor and the Mayor, as well as Speaker Heastie and soon to be Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins? Is the next Public Advocate willing to advance New York City’s interests with both to Mayor and the Governor, without taking sides in their cold war? In the parlance of streets will the next Public Advocate be willing to speak truth to power, but with a skillful diplomat’s voice?

Second, will the next Public Advocate be willing to put the time in to build policy-based alliances across the breadth of the city’s agenda with the State’s Mayor’s, County Executives and key members of New York’s Congressional delegation, the Assembly and the State Senate? Which candidates have a track record for doing just that?

Third, it would be counter-productive if the Public Advocate freelanced on setting their own legislative agenda. Given the past and current linkage of this office to the City Council, which Public Advocate candidate would be best able to establish a de facto lobbying alliance with the City Council and its Speaker, when it comes to Albany and Washington? If the Public Advocate were allied with the City Council on New York City’s lobbying agenda, the Mayor would be hard put to oppose that alliance.

As an aside, this entire argument comes from watching the then newly elected City Council Speaker give budget testimony last year here in Albany. Corey Johnson’s policy messaging skills as well as his people skills to connect last year with Senators and members of the Assembly could be a foreshadowing. From Upstate Republicans to Suburban Democrats as well as New York City liberals, you could sense in that hearing room last winter, a hunger for New York City leaders who came to Albany with both an open hand and an open mind. Simply put, they found in Corey Johnson a breath of fresh air.

Therefore, which of the Public Advocate candidates would have the political skills to thread that triangular needle of being able to productively engage with Albany’s leaders, especially the Governor (given the Executive’s Budgetary powers and prerogatives), elected officials across the state and most importantly the New York City Council, so that the Mayor could not easily reject a Public Advocate’s activist role as a lobbying force, precisely because it would advance the prospects for the de Blasio administration’s overall success.

Fourth, to achieve all that, it would be a major plus if the next Public Advocate had no mayoral ambitions and were clear as a bell in proclaiming that as a sworn commitment to voters. If the other governing players on the field saw the next Public Advocate as angling for Mayor, the Public Advocate could be easily dismissed as a not so honest broker on behalf of the city’s lobbying agenda. But if the next Public Advocate foreswore mayoral ambitions with a Shermanesque pledge, perhaps the Public Advocate would become a more credible advocate for New York City in Albany and Washington.

If this approach to what voters want in a Public Advocate merely remains the irrational ravings of an aging professor (and I resemble that description), then nothing will happen. But if Gotham’s voters tell the candidate’s that this model is what they want and need in a Public Advocate, then the candidates will have to react positively to win this election.

I repeat, this campaign’s telescoped time frame and the relative lack of fundraising resources from the candidates, means the voters could, if they chose to, dictate the terms of engagement in this special contest for Public Advocate.

Were Shakespeare still around, he might paraphrase himself, in assessing this opportunity, by saying that the fault dear voters is not in our stars, but the solution is in ourselves.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.