By Mary Alice Miller
A lifetime of service as an advocate for the people of New York is beginning to pay off for Council member Letitia James. 32BJ SEIU has endorsed her campaign for Public Advocate. Anticipated endorsements include the United Federation of Teachers, the Transport Workers Union, 1199, Mason Tenders, and Trade and Hotels. Why? “Because I talk about wage stagnation, outsourcing and the privatization of public service jobs. The growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and the poverty rate in our city. 50,000 individuals are sleeping in shelters, 20,000 of whom are children. The vanishing middle class,” said Councilwoman James.
James says what the City of New York really needs is a Public Advocate in 2013 “that will be independent and will continue to criticize the administration and the City Council when necessary, and stand with them when they do right”. She has stood by the Bloomberg Administration on green initiatives, bicycle lanes, plazas, healthy food. “But I have criticized him from time to time,” said James.
Letitia James has stood strong against the mayor on some memorable issues. It was James who first uncovered the CityTime massive fraud and millions in wasted taxpayer dollars. James was an advocate during the 2010 Blizzard which left New Yorkers stranded under 4-foot snow drifts while Bloomberg and his top administration were out of town leaving no one accountable. From the beginning, James was skeptical of Atlantic Yards and the yet unfulfilled promises of affordable housing and good permanent jobs in exchange for millions in subsidies for a basketball arena. And James was one of the prime plaintiffs against overturning term limits.
As Chair of the Sanitation Committee, James pushed for equity regarding garbage removal, proposing a transfer station be placed on the Upper East Side to supplement those in Bushwick, South Bronx and Harlem. She is concerned about the Bloomberg Administrations cuts to education, the proposed closing of 20 firehouses and the corrupting influence of corporations on politics.
James staunchly believes the budget of the Office of Public Advocate should be a line item just like the Independent Budget Office, and not subject to politics. She offered a brief history to explain why. “The best-known public advocate was Mark Green. He had a budget of $6 million dollars and about 60 employees. The Public Advocate currently has a budget of $1.9 million and about 19 employees,” said James. “The cuts began to happen when Betsy Gotbaum stood with us on term limits. They continued to cut the budget. Now that Bill de Blasio is running for mayor, the budget was cut even further.”
The Office of the Public Advocate basically has five functions: 1) to be an ombudsman to negotiate complaints throughout the city of New York, because according to James, not all elected officials are equal; 2) the Public Advocate is Speaker Pro Tem, who in the past attended hearings, presided over the City Council Stated Meetings, can vote in case of a tie, and proposed legislation; 3) the Office of Public Advocate basically is the “Charter Cop” to make sure each of the executive offices is adhering to the NYC Charter; 4) Office of Public Advocate has the ability to litigate, to sue. “Mark Green sued several individuals. When he was PA, he had a number of attorneys on staff,” said James. “The last two PA’s have not been in the position to do that. Mark Green issued a number of FOI’s – freedom of information requests – to get at information to hold government accountable”; and 5) OPA has an appointment on city planning and an appointment on the pension board.
“I have asked the pension board to divest from gun manufacturers and to divest from companies that engage in a pattern and practice of harassing tenants,” said James because “pension dollars were being invested in private equity companies that were being used to buy Mitchell Lama and rent-controlled/stabilized buildings and then going after the tenants and urging them to leave because they wanted to rent out the apartments on the market.”
With imagination and ingenuity, James said the Public Advocate can create as many bureaus as you want. “I would like to create a bureau in the OPA to deal with low-wage workers and the abuses and violations they are experiencing. I would like to create a bureau for individuals to come forward with ideas on legislation and a bureau to deal with all the development that is happening in the city of New York because the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process is stacked against communities,” said James. “I think it is time to transform that.”
There are other challengers campaigning for Public Advocate. One candidate has nominal political experience; one ran a raucous Wall Street-funded campaign against Rep. Carolyn Maloney, garnering 19% of the vote; and a third candidate – also funded by Wall Street – demonstrated his true colors recently when he broke his contract with his campaign consultant and took two of her employees while she was sitting Shiva during the days after the death of her father.
James is undeterred. “The road to victory is clear. In terms of fundraising they beat me, but when it comes to people power I have more donors than anyone else,” said James. “My donors are giving $5, $10, $20. Their donors are giving $4,000, $5,000. My donors are not in the position to do that. But I have 2,500 donors from all five boroughs. With that, we are going to win. We are going to raise our voices and make sure that individuals whose voices are lost and have not been heard from will be heard in the Office of Public Advocate.”