Public Advocate Candidates Square Off in Lively Forum

The Democratic candidates for public advocate (from left): Former deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani, NYPD community relations specialist and advisor Sidique Wai, Councilwoman Letitia James, college professor Cathy Guerreiro and state Sen. Daniel Squadron. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

The Democratic candidates for public advocate (from left): Former deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani, NYPD community relations specialist and advisor Sidique Wai, Councilwoman Letitia James, college professor Cathy Guerreiro and state Sen. Daniel Squadron. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

Five candidates running for New York City’s public advocate in the November Democratic primary squared off in a lively forum at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on August 5, disagreeing on everything from each other’s competence for the position, to how to increase funding for the office, to the legitimacy of stop-and-frisk. 

The city’s ombudsman is a high-profile, citywide position that can be a springboard for politicians yearning for higher office. The current public advocate, Bill de Blasio, is a mayoral candidate, and Mark Green gained recognition as the city’s public advocate in the 1990s and subsequently ran, unsuccessfully, for various city and state positions. City funding for the public advocate’s office was cut almost in half to about $2 million in 2005, during the tenure of Betsy Gotbaum. The budget has remained close to that during de Blasio’s tenure.

All five candidates at the forum sponsored by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media agreed that the public advocate’s office was underfunded but did not agree on how to remedy it.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron said raising the office’s profile would cause people to advocate for a larger budget. Political newcomer Cathy Guerriero, a college professor, wants to create a think tank of 50 experts who would support and advise the office, that she said would “quadruple” the public advocate’s effectiveness without taking money from the city.

Councilwoman Letitia James represents parts of Brooklyn since 2003. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

Councilwoman Letitia James has represented parts of Brooklyn since 2003. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

Councilwoman Letitia “Tish” James, who represents District 35 in Brooklyn since 2003 but surprisingly just edged out Guerriero for the lead in the only poll taken on the race, took issue with most of the responses. James wants to push for a larger budget from the city and said some of the candidates’ plans to raise money from private donors to support the office could create a “potential for a conflict.”

James criticized Guerriero as well as former Deputy Public Advocate Reshma Saujani and NYPD Community Relations Specialist and Advisor Sidique Wai for their lack of legislative experience.

“And the question I ask each and everyone of you, ‘Where were you? What did you do?’” said James. “Now all of a sudden you want to step up and represent the public when you haven’t represented the public in the past and you were nowhere to be found.”

This led to what was perhaps the most contentious part of the forum as the candidates went after each other’s record.

“I really didn’t want to do this but I’m going to do it,” said Wai, an immigrant from Sierra Leone. He criticized James for coming out late to support Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper who accused former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault and only to gain publicity. James, whose father was a janitor and whose mother scrubbed floors, contested the claim stemming from the 2011 high-profile case.

Reshma Saujani is a former deputy public advocate who in 2010 unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Carolyn Maloney. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

Reshma Saujani is a former deputy public advocate who in 2010 unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in the primary. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

Saujani, whose Indian parents fled Uganda, said she had done a lot as a private citizen to help immigrants including creating the DREAM Fellowship, which provides financial assistance to undocumented students.

She then addressed James, “I ask the same question, ‘Where were you when the City Council cut the Vallone scholarship, when you approved the budget that cut the one program for undocumented students?’”

But for all their blunt criticism of one other, they didn’t have a straight answer to the question of who they were supporting for mayor. Instead they cited friendships with many of the candidates and shared ideologies with more than one as the reason they had not endorsed any of them. Guerriero did say she liked a specific candidate but emphasized that it was not an endorsement.

Cathy Guerriero is a university professor and political newcomer from Staten Island. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

Cathy Guerriero is a university professor and political newcomer from Staten Island. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

“I like Bill de Blasio. Excuse me, Bill Thompson,” she said, correcting herself. “As the former president of the Board of Education, as someone who has been in government for 20 years, as someone who’s been in private and public [jobs], he gets it. He’s the adult in the room.”

The candidates didn’t criticize de Blasio’s tenure as public advocate but often spoke of what they’ve accomplished working with him.

However, Saujani did take offense when James took a shot at her saying that de Blasio hired a deputy advocate primarily to raise money.

“I question how close people say they are to Bill de Blasio when they think I was hired to raise money alone,” Saujani shot back.

Each candidate mentioned wanting to support various programs and legislation that help immigrants. Squadron specifically wants to tackle poverty among seniors in the immigrant community and would like to protect day laborers. Guerreiro, a professor and Staten Island native, said she wanted to protect dual language programs and college remedial courses.

“Education has always been and continues to be the corridor of power and access to immigrant populations and communities in New York City. For the first time in a long, long time we are not getting it done,” she said.

On stop-and-frisk, Wai and Guerriero said the policy is not the problem as much as the need to better equip, staff and train officers. James and Squadron, however, both supported the Community Safety Act, a group of city laws meant to combat the NYPD’s racial profiling, and joined Saujani in opposing stop-and-frisk.

Squadron added he would also like to change marijuana laws that contribute to the disparity in policing between whites and people of color.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron has raised the most money so far. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

State Sen. Daniel Squadron has raised the most money so far. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak, Voices of NY)

“My son is 2 years old,” he said. “Hopefully he never carries a small amount of marijuana but the truth is if he does, he is almost certainly not going to get a criminal record for that. That is not true of someone else’s son or his friend who is not white.”

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News 4/Marist poll from June found that James leads the race with 17 percentage points, followed by Guerreiro with 16, Squadron with 8 and Saujani with 4. As many as 54 percent of those polled were undecided.

Some political observers speculated that Guerreiro’s strong showing was due to confusion by Latino poll respondents who might have thought she was Latina based on her last name. She garnered 32 percent of the Hispanic vote in the survey, compared to 10 percent for James, 7 percent for Saujani and 4 for Squadron.

Guerreiro called the suggestion “offensive.” “I worked very hard to get a community that I think is vital to the city,” she said after the panel. “That’s just people unfortunately, I think, being disgusting in thinking that any community would vote for someone just because of the sound of their last name, I rebuke it.”

But James, whose district includes Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, agreed the Latino numbers in the poll were not reliable.

“When you review the poll there is some indication that most people believe that she is Latina and she is not,” James said. “The reality is I have more Latino support than anyone else because I have been a friend of the Latino community all throughout my career.”

In the money race, Squadron leads with contributions totaling $1.46 million, followed by Saujani with $1.39 million, James with $719,000, Guerreiro with $223,000 and Wai with $40,100, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

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  1. Pingback: Public Advocate Candidates Square Off in Lively Forum | Cesar Bustamante

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