In the fall of 1995, Betsy Gotbaum lay sweating in a hot sauna in Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, worrying about work. She’d just been appointed president of the New-York Historical Society, the city’s oldest museum. And its most decrepit, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Just then, no less a luminary than Henry Luce III had her paged to the Gurney’s Inn phone.
“I just wanted you to know I’ve given you $7 million dollars,” she remembers him saying. She’d only asked for $5 million.
Ms. Gotbaum is widely credited with saving the institution with appeals to her well-heeled friends on and off New York’s charity circuit. But in her current role as Public Advocate, critics say she’s been unable to move the erstwhile star of that old orbit of friends: Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
And such inertia does not bode well for Ms. Gotbaum, because while the Public Advocate is first in line to succeed the Mayor in the event of an unfinished term, serves as the city’s ombudsman, and is an ex officio member of the City Council, its financial dependence on the very agencies it is called on to monitor makes it more of a mutt looking for scraps than a watchdog. Its lack of subpoena power renders it a fangless one at that.
Since Ms. Gotbaum took over, the situation has only gotten worse. Mr. Bloomberg shaved her budget and staff.
“The budget was $2.8 million. When I first came in it was cut 45 percent.” Why? “You’d have to ask the Mayor.”
Her partisans have a simple explanation. After Mr. Bloomberg responded to an early appeal from Ms. Gotbaum—donating $4,500 to her successful campaign for Public Advocate—he felt jilted by her endorsement of fellow Democrat Mark Green and found in her not a political fellow traveler, but someone who would try to continue in the role of constant irritant to the Mayor.
“The beauty and built-in problem of the Public Advocate office is that it is an independent monitor of Mayoral agencies,” said Mr. Green, Ms. Gotbaum’s predecessor and the city’s first Public Advocate, whose bitter battles with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped launch him into the city spotlight. “If the Public Advocate does his or her job, the Public Advocate may loose the job.”
Her critics accuse her of skirting that danger by shirking confrontation.
“I think she has the idea that you could accommodate the agencies, that you could use personal contacts to make the commissioners do the right thing,” said Norman Siegel, a civil-liberties lawyer who lost to Ms. Gotbaum in 2001, and who is running against her again this September. “She’s part of the established order in this town. She’s from wealth. She’s from that milieu …. This is a miscasting of her for this role.”
The players are certainly different from back when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani systematically and aggressively attempted to dismantle the powers of the Public Advocate’s office, in Mr. Green’s days. Mr. Bloomberg has simply given her that cold, patrician shoulder. It’s an even sharper weapon.
While Ms. Gotbaum’s critics concede that she is a victim of a vindictive Mayor, they also blame her for ducking the fight, lacking vision, and naïvely relying on her friendships with the city’s power brokers to get her way.
But Ms. Gotbaum says that one reason for her low-key style is that she doesn’t see much to get worked up about. After all, Mr. Bloomberg, a patron of the arts, hasn’t attacked museums like Mr. Giuliani did with the Brooklyn Museum, and racial tensions have been relatively relaxed compared to the flare-ups over police brutality that occurred during the last administration, which prompted Mr. Green to sue the city to get police records.
“We don’t have anything like that now,” said Ms. Gotbaum. “We aren’t down each other’s throats. I don’t have to get up there and scream and yell to get things done.”
But the diminutive Ms. Gotbaum’s low volume and low profile has created an image vacuum attracting a motley crew of candidates that range from the serious to the surreal.
Vigilante turned vegetarian Bernie Goetz can be seen feeding nuts to squirrels on his campaign Web site; a contender named Damon Cabbagestalk Jr. is in fact named Damon Cabbagestalk Jr.; and one libertarian’s lone Magrittean campaign promise is to get rid of the position all together. Ceci n’est pas un Public Advocate.
Indeed, the post of Public Advocate has never been clearly defined. Formed from the carcass of the once-powerful City Council President’s office, which a City Charter overhaul dismantled in 1989, the name of the position was changed in 1994 to reflect its more modest municipal ombudsman quality. It has now been occupied by two people whose seats on the left side of the aisle are as far away from each other as possible.
So it’s no surprise that the biggest issue in the race for Public Advocate—one of the noisiest, and bitterest, contests in this otherwise muted election year—is: What is the Public Advocate?
Despite its creators’ ambition for the role—that it might provide an internal counterbalance to the considerable powers of the Mayor’s office—in the past several years the shortcomings of the office have become quite clear.
“Every public official has their own style and focus; Betsy is different from me,” said Mr. Green, who is staying neutral in the race and explained that Ms. Gotbaum’s emphasis tends to be on the ombudsman side of the office.
Even though she last captured the public’s eye with a bathetic investigation on chlorine in the city’s pools, she has had some more significant projects. She forced the Department of Education to commit more funding to special education, kept a faulty Meals on Wheels program from rolling out of the Bronx and into other boroughs, reduced barriers to federally funded food stamps, and acted as a staunch opponent to the West Side stadium.
Her serious competition for the job is predictably unsatisfied.
Norman Siegel, a crusading lawyer who once led the New York Civil Liberties Union, and who is apparently unfazed by the office’s lack of independent subpoena power, thinks that the city is a town of “big mouths” searching for a legal avenger to make their voices heard.
“People get to the point of thinking you can fight City Hall. It’s like the Ghostbusters. You got a problem, who ya gonna call? The Public Advocate,” said Mr. Siegel, after stepping out of his law offices where he spent the morning trying to hang an entire case on a comma in a 100-year-old statute.
But in politics, Mr. Siegel is no fan of subtlety, and he recently made headlines with a television commercial that attacked Ms. Gotbaum for failing to address issues that may have caused the death of New York City firefighters on Sept. 11. Many have called the ad tacky, though Mr. Siegel claims that he gets teary-eyed when he watches the “mini-documentary” and argues that Ms. Gotbaum’s defense, that she raised money to buy new ambulances, reflects her flawed approach to the job.
“What is she good at? What did she come back with? Money. This is not the New York City public fund-raiser. This is the New York City Public Advocate. The job is advocacy.”
Also staging a serious campaign is a medium-is-the-message candidate named Andrew Rasiej. The former nightclub owner, who has salt-and-pepper hair and a deep, gravely voice that oozes George Clooney charm, imagines New York as a wireless city on a hill.
“Most politicians don’t know the difference between a server and a waiter,” Mr. Rasiej quipped as he sat amongst clicking laptops in the wireless oasis of Bryant Park.
A former advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean, Mr. Rasiej wants to give New Yorkers more of a voice via the Internet.
“It’s misunderstood as a techy idea; it’s really about empowerment,” he said. If elected, he plans to put public hearings online, respond to digital photographs of potholes, and install cell-phone access in the subway tunnels. “See something, say something? How? Are you supposed to run down the tunnel and yell at the tollbooth operator? Who’s not even there?”
Mr. Rasiej has posted a series of video blogs titled “Where Is Betsy Gotbaum?”, mocking Ms. Gotbaum for her low profile and asserting that she has woefully misunderstood and underutilized the office.
“This is not a fund-raising office or a socialite office. Betsy’s relationships worked in that arena, but in this arena she’s representing people she has never met,” said Mr. Rasiej, who also blamed Mr. Bloomberg. “Betsy tried to follow the same model [as Mark Green], and Bloomberg, being much shrewder than Giuliani, he’s ignored her. He’s marginalized her.”
From her spartan midtown re-election headquarters, where the campaign’s hired gun Hank Sheinkopf cruised the hallways in a fedora, Ms. Gotbaum dismissed the challengers as amateurs and cited her long years of public service as Parks Commissioner and as an aide for Mayors ranging from John Lindsey to David Dinkins as proof that she alone was up to the job.
She pointed out that Mr. Siegel wanted to turn a post bereft of subpoena power into a miniature law office and ridiculed Mr. Rasiej as a nightclub owner whose wild internet imagination had no connection to the Public Advocate office. Finally Ms. Gotbaum was getting feisty.
“I do have a lot of big ideas, but I’m also very realistic. Could it be more visible? Could we get more done? We can always get better, and I intend to do more in my next term,’ she said, and appeared to even entertain Mayoral ambitions. “Talk to me this time next year.”
As for the accusation that she is a glorified fund-raiser, she argued that rescuing the New-York Historical Society from bankruptcy had little to do with scrounging cash. “It had to do with vision,” she said.
Back at the museum, Alan Balicki, a senior conservator who worked with Ms. Gotbaum during her tenure there, testified to her energy and commitment: the way she cleaned latrines on her hands and knees before exhibit openings and brought fashion shows to the stodgy old salons.
“We were going through our dark ages and Betsy came with her light,” said Mr. Balicki as he restored a turn-of-the-century board game called “New and Improved Fish Pond Game.” But he hinted that Ms. Gotbaum was no longer the big fish in the little pond that she was at the historical society. “The politics are different,” he shrugged.