Insiders See Close Race in Public Advocate’s Runoff

Councilwoman Tish James and State Senator Daniel Squadron face off in a debate. (Photo: YouTube)

Councilwoman Tish James and State Senator Daniel Squadron face off in a televised debate. (Photo: YouTube)

Although the chaotic Democratic mayoral primary has ended with Bill de Blasio emerging the victor, the race to replace the public advocate is just ramping up.

The October 1 runoff between Brooklyn Councilwoman Tish James and State Senator Daniel Squadron is widely seen as a tossup by political insiders, who note each Democrat carries glaring strengths and weaknesses into the contest. While Ms. James has a broad labor coalition and would be the only non-white Democrat to win a nomination, Mr. Squadron has enjoyed a fund-raising advantage and solid debate performances thus far.

With just about 100,000 voters expected to show up to the polls in two weeks, exact predictions are hard to come by. Nevertheless, many see Ms. James, who bested Mr. Squadron 36 percent to 33 percent in their initial contest last Tuesday, as the slight favorite.

“Councilwoman James has always taken on powerful interests on behalf of everyday New Yorkers, voting against a Bloomberg third term, standing up to anti-choice extremists, and making landlords provide apartment repairs for tenants,” argued the James campaign.

Without a mayoral runoff to worry about, powerful unions like 1199 SEIU and 32BJ will be working overtime for Ms. James, who, supporters noted, was elected to the City Council on the labor-backed Working Families Party line alone. Just yesterday, the Central Labor Council convened a meeting of 41 leading labor operatives to discuss ways to boost Ms. James’s candidacy, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.

“If the Working Families Party and labor goes big on GOTV–especially among African-Americans–for Tish, she wins. It will all come down to what labor does or doesn’t do for her,” an unaligned operative told Politicker. “It’s Tish’s to lose.”

Still, others see the race as tilting towards Mr. Squadron. “This is Tish’s to lose and she just might,” said one Brooklyn Democratic insider, also unaligned with the campaigns. The insider argued that Mr. Squadron’s better-organized operation and turnout efforts could win the day. “When it comes to a three week GOTV sprint, I think Squadron has the upper hand because he’s got a better machine.”

Backed by a wide array of elected officials, The New York Times and the coveted Hotel Trades Council, Mr. Squadron spent far more money during the first phase of the race, particularly on television commercials featuring his former boss, Senator Chuck Schumer. And Mr. Squadron, whose district spans Brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be able to rely on certain affluent white voters who may be less familiar with Ms. James.

But much of the contest, observers noted, could depend on how much each of the candidates is able to fund-raise over the coming weeks. Ms. James spent a paltry $771,095 and barely competed on the airwaves leading up to last week’s primary, but is now on about even footing with Mr. Squadron–part of Ms. James’s campaign’s strategy, a source said. Mr. Squadron, meanwhile, appears more adept at raising money quickly, with Mr. Schumer, a formidable fund-raiser himself, already laboring behind the scenes to shore up support.

The Squadron campaign is touting their momentum, noting that Mr. Squadron polled at just 8 percent early in the race. “Daniel has the momentum and grassroots energy going into the runoff,” said campaign spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick. “We came from behind to make it into the runoff because New Yorkers want a Public Advocate who will fight for them and get results.”

One insider noted that the runoff, between a moneyed white candidate and a surging minority rival, is reminiscent of the 2009 citywide race for comptroller, where Councilmen John Liu and David Yassky clashed. Mr. Yassky was able to flaunt editorial board endorsements and Mr. Liu held a demographics edge.

Mr. Liu won.