Public advocate post: Great title, little power

Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio shown at

Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio shown at a press conference in front of the quarters of FDNY Hook and Ladder Company 8. (Sept. 25, 2013) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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In New York City government, the Office of the Public Advocate has a terrific title and little power.

But whatever its public worth, the post is showing its value these days as a platform for the ambitious.

The public advocate officially plays the role of ombudsman, or watchdog. The advocate can introduce Council bills and has a few appointments in city planning, the budget and pension funds. More importantly, the advocate steps into any sudden mayoral vacancy, if only until a special election can be held for the top job.

The insiders' knock on the office has always been that its occupant, while elected citywide, analyzes and criticizes city programs without having to make the tough municipal choices.

One-term Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, having crafted a progressive-watchdog profile, leads in polls to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The hard-fought Democratic runoff held Tuesday to succeed de Blasio was tantamount to election; there is no Republican nominee.

Critics, usually mayoral allies, perennially wonder why the advocate's position even exists, and why there was a $13 million election this season for an office with a $2.3 million annual budget.

The office replaced the City Council presidency in the 1980s after the U.S. Supreme Court voided the city's broader governance system as violating the one-person, one-vote principle. A commission to overhaul the city charter wrestled with whether to preserve the office in a new form -- and decided to do so.

"There were three reasons for keeping it," says Hofstra Law School Dean Eric Lane, who directed the charter commission during the mayoralty of the late Ed Koch.

First, the job could create a credible "stepping-stone" to the mayoralty, Lane says. Second, commission members feared eliminating such a "stepping-stone" would be dimly viewed by a Justice Department concerned with enhancing minority representation (though all three public advocates so far have been white).

And, Lane recalls, Nat Leventhal, a deputy mayor in the Koch administration, spoke of how the ombudsman role, when it was in the Council president's office, helped him "see what the bureaucracy was doing."

Other players have recalled a reluctance to remove then-Council President Andrew Stein, though he didn't seek the retooled job. Whatever the dynamic, its title then was changed to public advocate to avoid confusion with the newly powerful role of Council speaker.

No wonder a full crop of five Democratic candidates made the primary ballot to compete for a clout-challenged job -- and that Tuesday's low-turnout runoff was needed between Councilmember Letitia James and State Sen. Daniel L. Squadron, both of Brooklyn, to see who won this "steppingstone."

For 20 years, the public advocate turned out to be a Democrat under a nominally Republican mayor, with tensions between them on regular display.

In 1998, Mayor Rudy Giuliani let it be known that he didn't want Public Advocate Mark Green to succeed him should Giuliani depart for another office such as the U.S. Senate. But ballot proposals brought no changes.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg made similar feelings known about Green's successor, Betsy Gotbaum. A compromise charter revision was approved, keeping the advocate as successor, but with limited powers and mandating a special election be quickly held to replace any mayor unable to serve.