A Public Advocate Forum for Community and Ethnic Media

Members of the community and ethnic media and students from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY ask questions of candidates for New York City Public Advocate during a Center for Community and Ethnic Media panel discussion moderated by Errol Louis. (Photo ©Skyler Reid/skyreid.com)

Four of the candidates for the position of NYC Public Advocate, selected by a survey of community and ethnic media, participated in a forum sponsored by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York on Feb. 7, lobbing answers to questions about everything from the closing of Rikers Island to the strengthening of protections for immigrants in the city. Errol Louis, political anchor for NY1, moderated the forum, posing his own questions as well as some from the audience of community and ethnic media and students at the school.

Louis started the forum by describing the powers that the public advocate position has and explaining that those powers have been interpreted in different ways by different holders of the office. Mark Green, who was the city’s first public advocate in the 1990s, wore the mantle of ombudsman and pushed for implementation of the 311 system, while the most recent public advocate, Letitia James, now New York State Attorney General, took the “advocacy and litigation route,” noted Louis, and also used the position to publish things like the “worst landlord” list.

There are currently 17 candidates running in the special election for public advocate on Feb. 26. At the top of the ballot is former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who described the position as that of “a watchdog – a check on the mayor, a check on city agencies, making sure that government is serving New Yorkers. The relationship that the public advocate has with the constituents of the city is important…I see the position as being aggressive about introducing legislation.”

Further, she said, “I’ve talked about dividing the office into having a division of research and investigation to be able to partner with institutions like CUNY or other academic institutions or think tanks to aggressively research areas where government is not serving effectively, where there are concerns that there is disparity in treatment by city services.” She said she also is considering a division of community engagement that would hire community organizers that look like and speak the languages of people in different communities around the city, and she said that she would include an office of legal aid to partner with law firms and look aggressively at areas of possible litigation.

Ydanis Rodriguez, City Council member who represents Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, first addressed the group in Spanish. Dominican born, Rodriguez said that he came to New York and worked first as a dishwasher, then as a livery taxi driver, an organizer, a teacher and then a Council member. “I know what it is to have spent 40 years working for social justice. I know what it is to be an effective legislator,” Rodriguez said. “I know what it is never to forget where I came from.”

And he asserted that the fact that he is an immigrant gives him a special connection with the 38 percent of New Yorkers who are foreign-born. “It’s great to have compassion but it’s a different story when you are discriminated against when you have an accent…As the public advocate, I will be the voice of the voiceless,” he said.

Rafael Espinal, the son of Dominican immigrants, was born and grew up in East New York, one of the most “disinvested communities in the city,” said the city councilman, who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Cypress Hills, and East New York in Brooklyn. He said he first entered politics because he was tired of city and state government “ignoring communities like mine.”

He said he has a vision of always tackling social and economic issues, and that he’s recently grown passionate about climate injustice, especially in communities of color. He said his was a fresh new voice able to take on issues in a creative way. He repealed the “Cabaret Law” that affected African-American and Caribbean communities and was used as a tool of enforcement. With Melissa Mark-Viverito he introduced the bill that made NYC a sanctuary city, and he stated that as public advocate he would work to strengthen the city’s anti-ICE stance.

New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake, who represents the South Bronx and is the son of immigrants from Jamaica, worked for President Obama, conducted outreach for minority- and women-owned businesses and later started a political consultancy. Blake, whose tag line is “jobs and justice,” will be listed second on the ballot after Mark-Viverito.

Citing his accomplishments in the Assembly since his election in 2014, including legislation to “raise the age” so that 16- and 17-year-olds would not be tried as adults in criminal court, he took issue with Mark-Viverito over the plan she championed to close Rikers Island and open jails in communities. Blake said that it was important first to pass policies like bail reform and speedy trial, and to look at things like how corrections officers are trained. “Let’s be very clear, we should be building schools, not jails,” said Blake. Mark-Viverito, for her part, did emphasize the need for criminal justice reform as part of an overall effort to downsize the Rikers population, most of which is awaiting trial.

On the controversy over Amazon’s plans to set up offices in Long Island City, Espinal observed that he was the only one of the candidates on the dais who had not invited Amazon to make a bid to the city, saying that it was clear to him that Amazon’s headquarters city of Seattle had suffered from housing inequities. He also, like all the candidates, emphasized the importance of ethnic media in providing information to the many diverse communities of NYC. All the candidates said that they would also be sure to encourage city agencies to place more advertising in community and ethnic media.

Louis asked the candidates to weigh in on some breaking news – that city agencies would be asked to implement a “program to eliminate the gap” through 2020 budget cuts for the first time in six years. Rodriguez said that the public advocate would have to be sure that any cuts did not affect firehouses, after-school programs, immigrant programs or working class New Yorkers.

Espinal said that for the past two years the council and the mayor had been working to make sure they put set-asides for a rainy day fund, and that before making cuts to the most vulnerable communities, he said, “we should see how we can utilize that funding” and look at unnecessary expenses of agencies, and make sure that the communities like East New York are not affected.


  1. Pingback: Center for Community and Ethnic Media – CCEM Hosts Public Advocate Candidates Forum

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