Some thoughts on the upcoming NYC public advocate race (and a little on 2020)

This is a version of an email I sent to some people in New York about my best impressions on the upcoming NYC public advocate race on Tuesday, February 26th. I’m glad to write these things up and share for free because I like organizing my thoughts and talking about local politics and engaging people. But I don’t really want to take on the role of a public political commentator; I don’t want that heat.

It seems like a real hassle and I need all the energy I can to take care of myself mentally, financially, and a physically, try to have a semblance of a career, and do work I actually care about. I’m not doing great on most of those things right now.

Anyway, enjoy, but use judiciously

Is anyone looking forward to the next 15 months of the 2020 Democratic Primary? Do hogs look forward to being rendered? Do souls sitting on the ferry with Charon look forward to reaching the other side of the Acheron for their future with Hades? Does Barron Trump look forward to Father's Day? 

We all know the primary season is liable to be terrible, because it's the time when a lot of people who generally agree on human decency and the need for change start sniping at each other, showing their asses, assuming bad faith, reacting to each other's worst instincts with their own worst instincts, and generally demonstrating how far we are from having our shit together. And then we pick up the pieces and try to feel good enough about each other win an election against someone truly terrible.

I do think we'll pull it off and get through it pretty decently, in part because we all remember how bad the 2016 rift got and many of us won't want to repeat it, but mostly because a lot of good work has been done in the meantime. As a result of that work we have a wider field of candidates, more aggressive and dynamic policy proposals, and generally a better window of possibility than we've had before. I'm not particularly worried about the personalities at the top of the ticket. I don't think we need an individual with the starpower of Trump, just someone to effectively organize the interests of the majority of people who aren't enamored with him. If we stay focused on fundamentals – good policy, a clear description of the problems people face in this country, voting integrity, organizational strength, good representation in staffing – we will win, while pushing the winning candidate into the best achievable version of themselves. 

(I'm speaking pretty vaguely and positively because I feel like vague positivity is the nudge we need right now in the primary - but willing to get into specifics with people who want to and aren't dicks about it.)

More immediately, however, we have a weird election in New York, for public advocate.

Tish James, now state attorney general, has vacated the position, which is filled in the interim by council speaker Corey Johnson (a little bit of a weird dual role). Next week, on TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26th, we'll have a non-partisan special election with 17 candidates to fill the role for the rest of the year. The same day, petitioning will begin for those same candidates to get on the ballot for the partisan primaries in June. During that primary, the Democrats (and other parties, but the Democrat is almost certain to win) will nominate candidates to appear on the November ballot and serve the remainder of James's term, until the next four-year election in 2021.  So, basically, the February election chooses someone to (A) serve most of 2019 and (B) have incumbency advantage for the primary.

The position itself is a strange one, and vaguely defined. Some Bronx politicians (in what was mostly a stunt to achieve some political concessions) proposed getting rid of it, which makes sense in some ways but ultimately I think that having an elected sort-of-watchdog role in a city with a budget approaching $100 billion is worth the staffing expenses even if the powers are limited. 

Basically, the public advocate:

* Can bring some lawsuits (but doesn't have broad standing to sue)

* Can introduce legislation into the council (but can't vote on it)

* Can perform oversight duties (but doesn't have much direct investigative power)

* Is first in line to succeed the mayor

* Has a bully pulpit to advocate for issues of interest

* Gains standing and name recognition to run for other offices in the city and state

* Has a higher base salary ($168,500 vs $148,500) than a council member, and gives council members who are term-limited and ineligible to run again a chance to continue to participate in the legislature.

(There's also been some talk of revising the city charter to add more investigative or appointment powers. I'm more focused on the state level, so my knowledge of the city-level stuff isn't strong enough to tell you how realistic that is, but I'm interested to hear opinions on it.)

Now, for more specific takes, but with a warning. I really don't know this election in depth; there are too many candidates, and I don't know everything about them. These are general impressions to the best of my imperfect knowledge. You should definitely continue to ask around. That being said...

There are a few candidates who have good arguments for why they could do well at the job, but realistically only a few have a real shot at winning. A crowded field and no primary means that there are relatively more chances for a long shot than usual, but without a lot of public attention on the race, and with no other contests on the ballot, candidates will need a lot of organization just to get people who might support them to actually stay aware of the election and show up. This means generally that gathering endorsements from unions, minor parties, local machines, and activist groups will be a major factor. 

On that front, council member Jumaane Williams is in the lead in endorsements from local clubs, labor unions, and elected officials (plus the Working Families Party), with former council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito second on clubs and individuals (though far behind on unions). Assemblyman and former Obama campaign staffer Michael Blake has a lot of elected high-profile backers, but is light on clubs and unions; similar for assemblyman (and Rosie O'Donnell brother) Dan O'Donnell. Republican council member Eric Ulrich has an outside shot if the progressives split the vote (and if he organizes enough conservatives quickly and quietly enough), but with the amount of union support that Williams has, it still feels unlikely, and even if Ulrich pulls it off he has almost no chance of prevailing in November after a primary. A lot of other folks are in there just to be there - more on them later.

(For more predictions, here's City and State with a breakdown from experts. Take it with a grain of salt; they seriously underestimated both the anti-IDC challengers, and the Dems aiming to flip Republican seats in the senate, but also take my commentary with a grain of salt, I'm new to this whole thing, have all sorts of biases, and have a chronically unstable career and generally am not great at taking care of myself so what do I know?) 

So that's who can win. But who would do the best job? There's a lot to balance. Many of the top candidates aren't attorneys, but would have to bring lawsuits. Others have no legislative experience, but would have to legislate. You need somebody who's enough of an outsider to keep pressure up on the mayor, governor, and council, but with enough political savvy to serve as mayor if there's a disaster, resignation-level scandal, or if the mayor gets a better job (can anyone think of a job de Blasio might want, despite nobody thinking it's a good idea?) Local knowledge is also key; it takes time and effort to build up accessibility, especially when many of the most vulnerable communities don't have a lot of visibility or ability to force the issue. And you also need people whose strengths match to the weaknesses in our political system; New York may be progressive in some ways, but real estate is very powerful, the NYPD is hard to crack (just look at de Blasio's experience), there are serious representational imbalances in citywide roles on gender and race, and corruption is an ongoing issue at every level of government.

Jumaane Williams, the frontrunner, has a strong case on a lot of fronts. As a legislator, he was by a lot of measures the most effective progressive, both in sheer number of bills passed (I've seen 53 cited) and in terms of pushing bills that make significant steps forward, especially combatting racism and the affordability crisis. His connections with activists, both among young progressives and older stakeholders in communities of color, are strong, and he's been pretty uncompromising on his core issues, which coincide well with areas where he's likely to face a tough fight. His credibility against the NYPD, for example, is pretty high - he's been a tough legislator against them on things like the Right to Know Act, consistently advocates against misconduct, and also been arrested at protests.

His biggest downside in my book is that he used to hold regressive views on LGBT+ and reproductive rights, due in part to a religious upbringing. To his credit, he's both apologized, and passed actual legislation that helps protect those right (most recently the "boss bill" to protective employees' reproductive choices against retaliation). Still, his reckoning with his past hasn't been thorough enough for my tastes, and he also has spoken recently at churches that have regressive views (though his own words have been good). Your mileage may vary on how far he's come. The progressive pro-LGBT+ Jim Owles Democratic Club endorsed Williams; but LGBTQ Victory Fund and Stonewall Democrats endorsed O'Donnell, and Lambda went with Mark-Viverito. 

Some other objections I've heard to Williams' candidacy are that he's allowed himself to be named as a plaintiff on lawsuits that he shouldn't have been part of, and that he got the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic Party through a sort of backwards process (chairman Frank Seddio announced his support for Williams back in November, but the endorsement vote was just held last week, after support was mostly rounded up). 

Overall, I think he'll be strong enough on his core issues to do good work, and I'm really heartened by the breadth of activist support for his candidacy and what that could mean about how he'll conduct himself. I think he needs to be consistently pushed on LGBTQ, reproductive, and gender issues, and also that for representational reasons I can see supporting someone else to get rid of the male dominance of New York politics. But overall, I think outcomes will be good with Williams.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, running in second, has serious political experience as council speaker and may be a strong contender for mayor at some point. Her funding is strong, and she has the backing of some of the top political groups, and she's been a prominent progressive for a long time – she's a co-founding member of the council's progressive caucus, and before that she was a labor organizer.

The major issue I've seen with Mark-Viverito is that a lot of progressive groups lost their faith in her during her council speakership, and give her some of the blame, along with de Blasio and others, for the advance of real estate interests and gentrification over that time period. Another sticking point is the Right to Know Act, a council bill in 2017 that called for increased police accountability. As council speaker, she held off on voting on the bill while she, the mayor, and councilmember Ritchie Torres negotiated with the NYPD to soften the bill's enforcement provisions (over the objections of Williams and Brad Lander). De Blasio, Mark-Viverito, and Torres all lost some progressive support over that incident. 

It's hard for me to see Mark-Viverito's specific case for an outside watchdog job, and she gave the least specific answers in the one forum where I saw her (an LGBTQ+ forum; she didn't show up for the Brooklyn Demoratic Party's event, likely because support had already coalesced around Williams). I also haven't met longtime activists who rate her highly, but that may be my own limited experience. She'd be a strong candidate for mayor or other central roles, but public advocate isn't the closest fit to her experience from what I can tell. 

However, in terms of representation, I can see it mattering that she's the woman most likely to win, with the other citywide positions all held by men. And she's definitely competent to serve. 

Michael Blake, said to be running in third, has a lot of political talent, but to be frank it's hard for me to see what exactly he offers that other candidates don't. He's a good speaker, and has a lot of support from elected officials, but almost nothing locally (besides Bay Ridge Democrats, one of the more moderate groups). His campaign experience, while impressive, doesn't seem like it translates to the job he'd be doing.

One major sticking point with Blake is his support of charter schools, and the funding his campaign has received from pro-charter groups. In the Democratic Party's forum, he said that a distinction had to be made between big charters and small independent charters. This reminded me a lot of the typical moderate Republican's defense of under-regulation and under-taxation of businesses with the view toward protecting "small business owners." 

Without labor or major local support, I don't know how strong a shot Blake has. But he's still probably "running in third." After him are interesting candidates, but not the most likely contenders. Some of them I like, though.

Dawn Smalls, an attorney who works Boies Schiller Flexner, a high-profile private firm that works on some public-interest cases, has a very strong case for doing a good job. She's also got a background in constitutional and public ethics advocacy, and has experience working in both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations and the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigns. 

Small does not have strong ideological views; her vision of the office is as a non-political one, focused on process. I'm more ideological than she is, as a left-leaning across-the-board progressive general supportive of radical solutions. But I also see why she could be a good fit in NYC where there's a healthy level of progressive activism (though it seemingly has hard ceilings) but a shortage of quality legal oversight. In forums, I was impressed by the precision of Smalls' answers, particularly along the lines of the office's legal powers. I also liked her clear answer to what she'd prioritize in housing ("deep affordability," rentals under $1500). 

Smalls doesn't seem to have a strong case to win. But her case to do the job looks solid to me, especially as one of the only attorneys in the race (and the most serious one). 

Rafael Espinal is another interesting candidate. He was one of the only council members to oppose the Amazon deal from the get-go (Williams and Mark-Viverito along with a vast majority of other officials backed the general principle of making a bid before the specific plan was revealed). He also has led on issues like the successful repeal of the New York City Cabaret law (an anti-dancing law criticized as racist and homophobic) and his current push to legalize e-bikes.

The biggest knock against Espinal that I've seen so far is that he hasn't rounded up big endorsements. This is true, for the most part, and while the Freelancers Union endorsement helps it doesn't really shed his label as the "hipster" candidate. I've also heard that he doesn't always have a focus on the biggest issues; that one's hard to judge for me, since I'm not closely focused on the council and it's harder to see absence than presence; but seems plausible. To be honest, in a crowded race I haven't looked that closely at Espinal since he's not a frontrunner and I've only seen him from time to time on other things. My read isn't that strong and I welcome more info.

Nomiki Konst probably has the most national profile of any of the candidates, but is low on local support (though the support that she does have is very visible online). If you're into national politics, you might know her from her work as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders, appearing on TV such as CNN or Fox News criticizing the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. If you're into state-level politics, you might know her from her work with the True Blue Coalition, which helped get rid of the IDC. If you watch the Young Turks, you might know her from that.

There's some good and some bad there. She's a tough sell for me because I always found her part of the case for Senator Sanders, which focused heavily on what I call "purity politics," distasteful and not great for focusing people on the issues. To her credit, I think she does engage in some useful fights, has generally good issues politics, and probably intends her arguments in good faith.

But that whole thing aside, I'm not wild about someone who is mostly experienced in national-focused media running for a local political role. I like people to build their support on local roles from strong ties to community groups that organize community interests, and from fighting for legal or legislative solutions. That work is hard and takes time, and I don’t think that this candidate has done enough of it.

Dan O'Donnell is entertaining, but I heard him speak a lot about what he used to do back in the day; one of his big selling points was taking down Vito Lopez, who's been out of power for six years and dead for three. It's not ancient history yet, but in two appearances I didn't see O'Donnell make a strong case for an ongoing struggle that he's particularly competent in. He's also one of the few white men in the race, and from a representational standpoint that doesn't look great (to be fair, he was the first openly gay man elected to the New York State Assembly, and that does mean a lot, but he's still a white man who represents the Upper West Side. 

Speaking of white men,

Jared Rich is perhaps the worst candidate in the race, almost comically bad, and so I enjoyed watching him speak and roasting him on Slack. He had no idea how to use the microphone, was wearing a suit that looked like it was borrowed from a bigger cousin and a tie that was worse than Trump's, and didn't make any coherent case for a thing he'd do (Micro example: all the candidates choose their own party name, since it's a non-political election. Most are like "Housing Residents First" or "Fix the MTA," but his is "Jared Rich for NYC." He's the only candidate to use his own name). He also at one point said he was for "the black agenda, the yellow agenda, the purple agenda..." prompting comments in two different Slack channels about "#allagendasmatter." Anyway this was fun but don't vote for him.

Ben Yee is a genuinely nice and optimistic guy who makes really informative presentations on local civics and makes party machines more accessible. I'm really glad he's around. He also didn't have any really strong political stances and couldn't name a piece of legislation he'd pass. I welcome his ongoing contributions to the political environment in NYC, I just think this isn't the role for him at this time.

David Eisenbach is a Columbia professor who is an interesting guy, but he also said he thinks he's viable because he got 23% in a two-way race against Tish James in 2017, and wow, with a 17-way race, that 23% would go a long way! This does not seem to me like a serious candidate. Can't say one way or another about whether he's a good professor. I dunno, maybe he's right and we'll all be shocked.

I didn't see any of the other candidates, but they are: Manny Alicandro, Anthony Herbert, Ron Kim, Ydanis Rodriguez, Raphael Schweizer, Helal Abu Sheikh, and Eric Ulrich. Of them all, Ulrich has the best shot as a Republican with a split scenario, as mentioned above. But all are long shots.

My personal favorite candidate, who will not be on the ballot due to an error by her lawyer, is Ifeoma Ike (pronounced ee-keh) best known as Ify Ike (pronounced like Eisenhower's nickname). She's an activist and professor, and former nonprofit administrator, and her answers were several rungs above everyone else to my ear. In the forum where I saw her, and in subsequent speeches I looked up, her answers were stunning in their depth, both in terms of framing and analyzing the forces around the issues, and in terms of citing real work done with actual groups of stakeholders.  As the saying goes, "I like Ike" and hope to see her remain on the scene. Maybe there is something negative about her but I haven't seen it yet. 

Okay, I remain buried under a bunch of other work, but hope this was helpful. Feel free to forward but leave my info off of it if the people are likely to bother me, because I don't want any hassle.