What’s the deal with the public advocate? – A voter guide for the February 2019 NYC special election

Hey New York City! Have you heard? We have an election coming up! On Tuesday, February 26th, we choose the next Public Advocate!

What is the Public Advocate and what do they do?

The public advocate is the official NYC job title for ombudsman, or person in charge of investigating individual complaints against the government or government officials. While the public advocate attends city council meetings as an ex-officio member, can introduce council legislation, and cast a vote in case of a tie, they are not elected by any single district, nor are they appointed by the mayor. Rather, the public advocate is one of three city-wide elected offices (along with the mayor and comptroller). As such, the public advocate is second in the line of mayoral succession. When the public advocate office is vacant (as it is right now), the Speaker of the City Council temporarily fills the role until a new one can be sworn in.

According to the Charter of the City of New York, the public advocate runs and monitors constituent complaint services, investigates and attempts to address recurring and/or multi-borough complaints about city services, investigates alleged failures of city officials to follow said Charter, and holds public hearings as needed to address issues brought to their attention. Putting all of that together, you can think of the of the public advocate as the city people’s lawyer, or perhaps their HR representative against the city management. You want HR to have your back, right? Vote for the best public advocate.

However, the public advocate, unlike the council investigative committee, doesn’t have subpoena power, and cannot actually affect most council legislation or mayoral dictates. Some public advocates have focused more on the investigative aspects of the job, while others have used it to champion community outreach initiative. Some have used the bully pulpit (and high salary) that comes with the title to affect public opinion in the city, while critics of the position have claimed that it is merely a stepping stone for higher office (NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYS Attorney General Letitia James were both public advocate immediately before being elected to their current positions) and therefore should be dissolved. The job as laid out in the Charter is flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of agendas, so in choosing your candidate for public advocate, you are voting not only for the person to fill the job, but also for a particular opinion on what the job should actually entail.

So why an election now?

New York City local elections are held on off-years, so they never coincide with the major state and national elections. The last one was in 2017, and the next one will be in November 2019. The public advocate, like the mayor and comptroller, serves a four-year term, so the next regular public advocate election will be held in 2021. However, in the 2018 midterm elections, the previous public advocate, Letitia James, was elected to serve as the New York State Attorney General, leaving her post vacant. According to the Charter of the City of New York, when the post opens up during a city election off-year (like 2018), a special election must be held to fill it until the next regular city election. This means that the public advocate elected this Tuesday will serve until the 2019 city election cycle, when they must run again. Because the special election has no primary, the election is nonpartisan and candidates cannot run as a member of an official political party – but in September 2019, all public advocate hopefuls (including the incumbent elected in this round) must first win the nomination of a party through the primary system or choose to run as independents in the November general election.

Does this election even matter?

If you ask me, the answer is a resounding yes. Although the winner of this election may only hold the office for nine months, a lot can happen in that time. With the end of the Amazon deal, investigations into the New York City Housing Authority, investigations into the MTA by the NYC comptroller, and a mayor who seems to be thinking about running for a (much) higher office, it may be useful to have a designated city representative ready to stand up for New Yorkers as needed. The office of the public advocate becomes what the office holder makes of it, so regardless of what public advocates of the past have done, we should take this opportunity to vote in the best possible candidate who will make the office into what we need it to be. Whoever wins will have to run again very soon, but will have the advantage of the incumbency going into the next round, so now’s a great chance to get the best possible candidate into office.

And on a more cynical level, this election will likely have significantly fewer voters than the general elections in November. With a whopping seventeen candidates running for a special election in a city with low voter turnout under the best of circumstances, it’s possible the winner will win by only a handful of votes. All votes in all elections are important, but if you want to cast a vote that stands a high chance of statistical significance, there’s no better way to do it than to show up on Tuesday.

Who’s running, and how do I vote?

Turns out a whopping seventeen candidates are running. They are as follows:

Melissa Mark-Viverito – Fix the MTA
Michael A. Blake – For The People
Dawn L. Smalls – No More Delays
Eric A. Ulrich – Common Sense
Ydanis Rodriguez – Unite Immigrants
Daniel J. O’Donnell – Equality For All
Rafael L. Espinal, Jr. – Livable City
Jumaane D. Williams – It’s Time Let’s Go
Ron Kim – No Amazon
Benjamin L. Yee – Community Strong
A. Manny Alicandro – Better Leaders
Nomiki D. Konst – Pay Folks More
David Eisenbach – Stop REBNY
Jared Rich – Jared Rich for NYC
Anthony Tony Herbert – Residents First
Helal A. Sheikh – Friends of Helal

Latrice Walker withdrew from the election, but her name will still be on the ballot.

Polls are open on Tuesday, February 26, from 6am to 9pm. You can double-check your registration here, and find your polling place here.

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