For both Eric Gioia and Bill de Blasio, a seat on the City Council was always supposed to be a stepping-stone.
Mr. Gioia, 35, has been preparing for higher office since his election to the Council seven years ago, and has raised more money since then than all but three of his Council colleagues. Mr. de Blasio, 47, was a White House aide and the manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid before he decided to run for Council, and is still a respected name in national Democratic circles.
They both want to be public advocate next year. Which means that only one of them, if either, will make it to the next level anytime soon.
The two get high marks from good-government people like Gene Russianoff, the senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Dick Dadey, executive director of the good-government group Citizens Union, who said both men are “proactive” and could bring “a lot of energy” to the public advocate’s office, which is being vacated after two terms by polite incumbent Betsy Gotbaum. Both men are also strong politicians: They’ve proven themselves as retail campaigners by winning multi-candidate primaries, they have solid institutional support and they are adept at raising money.
Neither of them wants to talk about the other just yet.
“Look, I make it a policy not to comment on other candidates,” said Mr. Gioia when asked about Mr. de Blasio during an interview.
“Bill is, um—Bill has been—I’m trying to think how long he’s he been around. Twenty years? How long? So, Bill’s been an operative for 20 years and he is a real tactician. So, obviously, I take him really seriously, but I don’t comment on other candidates,” Mr. Gioia said.
And here was Mr. de Blasio, in a telephone interview, not commenting on Mr. Gioia:
“I think anyone understands who is running for elective office that you’re going to have opponents, and some of them might be people you respect or, you know, like or work with, and it’s just natural,” Mr. de Blasio said.
He was speaking while driving his Honda Civic on Sunday afternoon in his Park Slope neighborhood, preferring to explain how his work in the David Dinkins administration, and later, in the Clinton White House, prepared him to run citywide next year.
“It was more working with people from across the city, and constantly deepening those relationships,” he began, before excusing himself to deal with a minor parking crisis.
After a few moments, he resumed: “Sorry about that. Got to grab a space when you can. So, anyway, I think the point is, the Washington experience I have [was] valuable because you’re working with very capable folks and it’s a great perspective to gain.”
The list of declared candidates for public advocate also includes Councilman John Liu (one of the three council members to have outraised Mr. Gioia), civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel, Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV of Harlem and Republican operative Alex Zablocki.
Mr. Gioia prides himself on distancing himself from the City Council, saying things like “I avoid the members lounge like the plague”—he said that he was referring to lobbyists and interest groups—and that he’ll run his campaign “not in City Hall, but where the people are.”
Mr. de Blasio talks about his ability to “build a coalition” and marshal “key supporters” and “relationships” to describe how he’ll campaign.
Even critics of both men say they possess remarkable talents that could enhance the office, whose purse strings are controlled by City Hall and which has had a limited impact on actual public policy.
As public advocate, said pot-stirring New York lobbyist Richard Lipsky, “the power you have is to do what Eric does, which is create public interest in an issue, and B, to do what de Blasio does, and that’s bring a whole lot of people together.
“Bill is less enamored with making it a personality vehicle for himself, and that’s one thing Eric has to learn as he gets more experience, is to be able to utilize an issue for his own personal benefit—which all elected officials do—but at the same time learn to share the spotlight with others, so that he can have more power in doing what he’s doing.”
The as-yet-unarticulated rivalry between the two men is made that much more tense by the small fact that they still work in close proximity to each other.
At times, even recently, they have found common cause, as when Mr. Gioia joined Mr. de Blasio at one of his first press conferences to oppose the mayor’s proposal to extend term limits, which would have allowed many city officeholders, including the two councilmen, to run for another term. (Both voted against the extension, which passed anyway.)
But that spirit of cooperation on the term-limits issue was of the fleeting variety.
One lawmaker recounted getting a phone call from Mr. Gioia immediately after Mr. de Blasio announced his entry into the race on Oct. 28, in which Mr. Gioia asked, “Well, you’re going to help me now?”
The lawmaker recalled Mr. Gioia complaining about having worked with Mr. de Blasio on the opposition to term limits only to see him declare for public advocate “the minute it’s over.”
At a Nov. 20 hearing for the General Welfare Committee, Mr. Gioia grilled a city commissioner about the use of “finger imaging” to identify welfare recipients, and at one point cited “Governor Bush in Texas” for having implemented a similar program. Shortly afterward, Mr. Gioia left the hearing.
Before proceeding with the hearing moments later, Mr. de Blasio said, “Invoking Governor Bush, that’s a tall order.”
The primary is nine months away.