Progressive Association for Political Action Hosts Public Advocate Candidate Debate
By Mary Alice Miller
This year’s citywide candidates for Public Advocate – Norman Siegel, Bill deBlasio, Mark Green, and Eric Gioia – made their case to a standing room audience of voters at the elegant South Oxford Space. Hosted by the Progressive Association for Political Action (PAPA), the event was moderated by Walter Mosley, Male District Leader for the 57th A.D. and Co-founder of PAPA.
Attorney Siegel described himself as an “outside agitator” who spent his career representing the people vs. government. As a believer in civil rights, Siegel said someone with a “social justice mindset” needs to be in the office of Public Advocate. While attending the recent MTA Board meeting that announced a fare hike and service decreases, Siegel said he was struck by 3 women, 2 African-Americans and no Latino or Asian among the 20+ MTA board members. He suggests elections to the Board, with a requirement that the board reflect the diversity of the city. In collaboration with others, Siegel announced a citywide boycott of the MTA is being planned for June 1st. Siegel listed his latest advocacy fights: Speaker Quinn’s slush funds, term limit extension, public access to fields on Randall’s Island and Columbia U. expansion. Heralding the city’s talented community organizers “who don’t know each other,” Siegel wants to “decentralize” the office of Public Advocate by creating a “social justice network of advocates.”
Bill deBlasio, 39th Council District representative, is “proud to be” a New Yorker, an elected official, and a public school parent. “It takes effort to change how we do politics,” said deBlasio. “The office of Public Advocate is more important than ever; the concentration of power in is greater than ever.” DeBlasio said it was “wrong to extend term limits,” and for the mayor to meet with the publishers and editors of the city’s major newspapers amounted to “collusion.” But, according to deBlasio, last year’s presidential election proved “Democracy is alive and well; it must carry over to fights ahead. We cannot depend on this mayor to hear the struggles of people. The City Council has not been a powerful check on the mayor.” As an example of issues he championed, deBlasio recalled the mayor’s proposal to cut $129 million from classrooms. Communities organized and the Council refused to vote for a budget with those cuts. “We forced the issue, and won.” For developers of luxury housing, the Council won “no abatements unless they create affordable housing.” One year ago, said deBlasio, the mayor tried to close 14 child care centers, mostly in Brooklyn. “We lost 1, but saved 13.”
PAPA member Nancy Pascal asked the candidates about the role of the Public Advocate when particular zip codes are targeted for hefty increases in credit card rates. Siegel suggested ways the Public Advocate can address the economy. Siegel said the office should have jurisdiction over city agencies, create a commission, and hold hearings. Siegel pointed to his prime strength – being a civil rights attorney – he would challenge usury rates by bringing test case litigation. DeBlasio would “shine light on the issue,” and pointed out the current “vulnerability in the private sector.” DeBlasio said no matter the issue, the battle must be sustained.
Duke, another member of PAPA wanted to know about the role of the Public Advocate in aiding New Yorkers who lost their jobs. DeBlasio said: “This mayor will continue policies that protect the private sector.” As Chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, deBlasio said NY already has job training: the city is “training people on public assistance for jobs that don’t exist.”
Candidate Mark Green arrived late. After giving a short history of the Office of Public Advocate dating back to 1831, Green said the office is the second most powerful in New York City. He said he wants to be the city’s “1st and 3rd Public Advocate.” Green defined the Public Advocate’s responsibilities as three-fold: ombudsman, advocate, and counterweight to the Mayor. Green recalled how as the first Public Advocate under the city’s current structure, he stood up to Giuliani. Stating “shared values matter,” Green said when he was Public Advocate, he had town hall meetings in each of the City’s 59 Community Boards. In addition, Green said he “had the idea for 311. Bloomberg took it and won.”
Council member Eric Gioia arrived even later than Green. After describing his family background and what led him into politics. Gioia said he wants to represent “the people City Hall does not see or hear.” He said he has a record in the Council advocating on issues like child hunger and schools.
On job loss in NYC, Green said he would create one-stop job centers, and added, “The next generation of jobs are not on Wall St.”
Regarding the economy, Gioia said his district includes the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the city. Gioia described how for 30 years, no bank had been located within one mile of the Queensbridge. Residents used check cashing businesses to conduct their financial affairs, offering no opportunity for saving or obtaining mortgages. After a study that found wealth in the Queensbridge area, a march 1,000 strong, and Gioia’s advocacy, the community now has an Amalgamated Bank. Gioia said within the past year, 20 families obtained mortgages and have moved out of Queensbridge.
PAPA member Frederika Fisher asked the candidates to address the issue of racial profiling, and wondered issues the Public Advocate would address in the future. Green said when he was Public Advocate, he released a report entitled Poor Pay More, a series of investigations on the high cost of banking services and food in poor neighborhoods. Siegel said he the legislation 30 years ago that created the Civilian Complaint Review Board., and called “Michael Bloomberg’s record on affirmative action worse than Giuliani’s.” DeBlasio said, “We must demand that the power dynamics of the city change. Economics underlie it all.” Gioia suggested police/ community relations could improve and advocated precinct by precinct stop-and-frisk reports every single month.
Candidate closing comments: Pointing out the impact of state policies on the city, DeBlasio said, voters should “make everybody in Albany think their re-election is dependent” on what they do for the city. Gioia said, “Voting is where civic activity begins.” Siegel said, “I have a 40 year track record. We need a civil rights/ social justice mindset in the office of Public Advocate.”
Mosley said PAPA will have a closed door meeting with its members and, in consultation with community members who attended the forum, will make a determination as to who they will endorse for Public Advocate.
The Progressive Association for Political Action will host its candidate forum for the office for Comptroller in April.