By Gloria Pazmino and Rosa Goldensohn, POLITICO
City Council members plan to introduce legislation this week to eliminate the public advocate’s office, likely setting up a fight with at least a dozen Democrats who are seeking to run for the post by the end of this year.
The legislation is being sponsored Council Member Kalman Yeger, a freshman Democrat from Brooklyn, along with a contingent of Bronx lawmakers who want to pass a law that would “abolish the office of the public advocate,” according to a summary of the bill obtained by POLITICO.
Yeger said the proposal, which would need to be approved by voters, was meant to spark a debate among Council members and other city leaders to determine if the office was worth the taxpayer expense.
“This is not something we can legislate out of existence, so we want to start the conversation,” he said in an interview. “The office, if it ever served a purpose, it has outlived it. This is not about Tish or about anyone who is running. This is about the office; for 30 years, this has been an experiment that has really run its course.”
He emphasized the move was not meant as a slight against the many people running for the office now.
“I have enormous respect for all the candidates. Jumaane [Williams] is a friend, I think the world of him,” Yeger said. “This is not about any aspirant to the office — it’s an opportune moment in the city. If it passes, the measure will go on the ballot.”
The measure is being co-sponsored by Council Members Ritchie Torres, Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz Sr., all of whom represent Bronx districts.
Diaz said the idea to eliminate what he called a “stepping-stone position” has been considered by lawmakers for years.
“It’s unnecessary. They don’t do nothing,” Diaz told POLITICO. “People have been talking about that for many years. I think that the time has come now.”
The battle for the public advocate seat began shortly after Tish James, who currently holds the post, announced she’d run for attorney general. James won that election last week. In a statement issued by her office Monday, James indicated her displeasure with the notion of abolishing the position.
“The Public Advocate’s Office under Tish James has played a critical role protecting the lives and interests of tens of thousands of the most vulnerable New Yorkers — and the sponsors of this bill know that full well,” Delaney Kempner, James’ spokesperson, said in a written statement. “From groundbreaking legislation to ban salary history, to holding NYCHA and bad landlords accountable, to protecting tenants, children in foster care, and children with disabilities, Public Advocate James has moved the needle forward every day of her tenure. Our most vulnerable communities will be the real losers if political games get in the way of real work.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio also touted the contributions of the office he once held.
“The Mayor supports the advocacy and the check on City Hall power that the office provides,” mayoral spokesman Eric Phillips said in an email.
The office of the public advocate was created after the 1989 charter revision, which did away with the New York City Board of Estimate, created the office of the City Council speaker and relegated the job of City Council president to a strictly ceremonial role.
Since then, the office has been seen as a political springboard, although not all of its occupants have successfully secured higher office after serving. De Blasio successfully ran for mayor after serving in that post in 2014.
When originally created, the public advocate would preside over the City Council’s meetings, but that role was transferred to the speaker following the 2002 charter revision. The public advocate can now sit in the meetings and introduce legislation but has no voting power, stripping the position powerless.
In recent years, the office has been used as a bully pulpit so that its occupant can call attention to issues in city government and act as a quasi-check on the executive branch.
Torres, one of those pushing to abolish the post, said this summer he was considering a run for public advocate.
“The question is where I would be most effective, so I’m debating which position would allow me to be a better advocate for the city,” Torres said in May. Torres could not be reached for comment on Monday. A spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the speaker will review the legislation and monitor its progress.
It is not yet clear how much support the measure will secure in the Council. James will vacate the office in January, when she formally assumes her new role. The mayor would then call for a special, nonpartisan election, which would have to take place in early 2019. As soon as the election is called, the candidates can begin circulating petitions to gather enough signatures to run in the special election.
A winner in the special election would still have to defend his or her seat, though — the city’s charter mandates the seat come up for an off-year primary and general election in September and November of 2019.