Public Advocate Candidates Face Off at the Year's First Forum

20130206 200338 Public Advocate Candidates Face Off at the Year's First Forum“This is not a Pollyanna conversation. With all due respect, Reshma, you’re wrong.”

It was one of the few sparks in an otherwise genial forum for the five Public Advocate candidates, and it came, not so surprisingly, from Cathy Guerriero. Ms. Guerriero, along with Brooklyn and Manhattan State Sen. Dan Squadron, Brooklyn Councilwoman Tish James, former Deputy Public Advocate Reshma Saujani and education advocate Noah Gotbaum, spoke aggressively at the first forum of the year in the wide open Public Advocate race.

The current Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, is running for mayor.

“This is a difficult time for the New York City public schools and this is a difficult, hard to swallow conversation about parents and kids. Mayoral control is troubling at best and bad at worst. We need to do more than talk about this or that or minor points, we need to aggressively pursue conversations…” Ms. Guerriero, a Columbia University professor and Staten Island native, said, countering Ms. Saujani’s discussion of the consequences of putting Regents exams online when many students aren’t computer-literate.

In a contest that will tilt to the left of the mayoral race, the candidates fought to distinguish themselves among a thicket of progressive issues, such as ending mayoral control or decentralizing the school system, making housing more affordable and countering the rapid pace of development that has become a staple of the Bloomberg Administration. Ms. James arrived late to the forum hosted in Astoria, Queens by a variety of Democratic club, but she managed to flex her labor credentials when she told the audience her tardiness was due to a meeting she had with fired Cablevision workers. Ms. James was also able to quickly match Ms. Guerriero as a female firebrand, calling the Dept. of City Planning Chair Amanda Burden “Robert Moses in a skirt” and labeling the new Barclays Arena in downtown Brooklyn “a joke.”

“Whether or not you like the New Jerseys Nets and Jay-Z and all of that, the reality is that we really need to deal with the felt needs of the community,” she said. “The most pressing need in this city is not for a basketball arena, believe it or not, it’s for affordable housing. There are fifty thousand individuals going to bed tonight in our shelters. Twenty thousand of them are children.”

Like Ms. Guerrerio, who steeped much of her rhetoric in sports metaphors, Ms. James was blunt, pointing out that she even spoke with the murderer of her predecessor, James Davis, the night before he slayed Mr. Davis in the City Council chambers while discussing her route to public office. Despite the moxie from Ms. James or the measured confidence of Mr. Squadron or Ms. Saujani, all of the candidates had to grapple with a reality uncommon in many other political campaigns: the powers of the public advocate are relatively limited.

Mr. Squadron, the fundraising leader in the race and one of the overall front runners, was the only candidate to address budget cuts to bus and train services, but what the public advocate, an ombudsman of sorts for the mayor who can introduce legislation, can actually do to restore public transportation services or end mayoral control of the school system is less clear.

“It’s a job that’s inside the government, but outside the bureaucracy,” Mr. Squadron said. “In a city like ours, you need a bridge; you need a vehicle to connect communities, individuals, businesses into their government.”

Mr. Squadron spoke often of the “special interests” that dominate the campaign process and has made it known he will not accept donations from corporations or political action committees. For Ms. Saujani, nipping on his heels in the fundraising race, any discussion of corporations is tricky: she is a former hedge fund lawyer who once ran a pro-Wall Street Congressional race. While that campaign was alluded to last night, her past as a hedge fund lawyer was not. Instead, Ms. Saujani focused on her immigrant background, entrepreneurial initiatives like Girls Who Code and what she called a “technology gap” between men and women.

“I have met countless young women, many of them here in Queens, who are trapped by the technology gap,” she said. “With more and more jobs in the computing related field, we are not preparing our children for the 21st century. We are not preparing our girls for the 21st century.”

Mr. Gotbaum, the stepson of former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum (he did not net her endorsement), spoke about his founding of the volunteer group New York Cares and his leadership roles in various public school advocacy bodies, becoming one of two candidates to say the public advocate needs to be “a voice for the voiceless.”

“There are not enough independent elected officials standing up and calling out and speaking out on behalf and with those who are not being heard,” Mr. Gotbaum said.