The public advocate was created in 1993 to be the city’s chief watchdog and the second in line to the mayor.
The person in that position could also introduce a bill in the City Council, sit in committees and make sure agencies are responsive to complaints. In practice, the office, being vacated by mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, has essentially been a citywide soapbox with a roughly $2 million budget for the public advocate to bring attention to his or her causes and agenda.
The top candidates are Councilwoman Letitia James, state Sen. Daniel Squadron, former deputy public advocate and attorney Reshma Saujani, and educator Cathy Guerriero. An August NBC 4/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed James in the lead with 17% and Guerriero in second place with 13% of the vote, but 51% of primary voters were undecided.
All of the candidates have promised to use the office to look out for working New Yorkers.
James is running on her council record, which includes her opposition to the 2009 term limits extension and her warnings of the cost overruns on the CityTime payroll contract, and opposition to school closures.
“I have the record of accomplishment and I think I have the independence and tenacity to become the next public advocate of the City of New York,” James said.
She has been backed by the state Nurses Association and major unions such as SEIU 32BJ, the building workers union, and SEIU 1199, representing health care workers.
As public advocate, she said she would focus on getting more money for the office’s budget, fighting hospital closures and working toward “responsible development” that includes affordable housing.
Squadron, who was endorsed by the first two public advocates, Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum, is focusing on his legislative accomplishments, including an assault weapon ban that became part of the state’s strict gun control law. He also touted his work with community groups and with the MTA for full-line reviews on the F, G and L trains that led to better service and will soon be done for bus routes in Co-Op City in the Bronx.
“That was a concrete result that made a difference for thousands upon thousands of transit riders,” Squadron said.
Squadron also has plans to create four offices: Advocate for the Most Vulnerable, like immigrants; Children’s Advocate; Accountability Advocate for city agencies; and Housing Advocate for tenants.
Saujani has similarly proposed establishing four deputy public advocates to devise programs related to education, jobs, women and seniors, and affordable housing. Despite the cash limitations, Saujani said she would bring in resources for these programs from foundations and individuals, similar to her work as deputy advocate under de Blasio running the Fund for Public Advocacy, an in-house nonprofit.
“It is incumbent on the public advocate to bring in additional resources,” Saujani said. “It’s about being innovative.”
As a founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that teaches technology, Saujani wants to expand computer science in city classrooms.
Guerriero, who has taught at Columbia University Teachers College, calls herself the primary field’s faith-based candidate and touts her lack of government experience.
She is also racking up endorsements from uniformed and law enforcement groups representing NYPD lieutenants and captains, and deputy wardens and city correction captains. She is a vocal supporter of retroactive raises for unions that need to negotiate contracts with the next mayor.
“You’d better understand the value and voice of the bully pulpit,” Guerriero said. “What I can do is lean on the next mayor.”