De Blasio’s Task: Make the Public Advocate Mean Something

When Bill de Blasio departed the Clinton orbit eight years ago—he was an adviser in Bill’s White House and managed Hillary’s successful Senate campaign—to represent Park Slope in the New York City Council, he insisted it was because he wanted to help ordinary people with their problems.

Last year, after the change in term limits thwarted a potential run for Brooklyn borough president, Mr. de Blasio announced his intention to seek the public advocate’s office, that maligned stepsister of citywide posts, with the idea that he might be able to do more with its limited statutory power, wring more from its shrinking budget and perhaps capitalize on its bully pulpit in a way that the incumbent, Betsy Gotbaum, never felt comfortable doing.

Mr. de Blasio, at least, believes he can succeed.

“Look, I think this office has tremendous potential that hasn’t been realized,” he said. “You’ve got the opportunity to work on behalf of any New Yorker with a problem with the city government. I think that part has been handled well by the previous advocates. But I think there’s potentially a lot more to be done with that, not just in terms of individual cases but systemic problems, areas where government is consistently not serving a particular neighborhood or a particularly agency isn’t doing its job effectively.”

The office has a broad array of powers, as Mr. de Blasio was quick to point out. The public advocate presides over the City Council, sits ex-officio on committees, can introduce legislation and order audits and appoints members to the City Planning Commission. Yet it has very little in the way of statutory teeth—a fact that’s inspired frequent calls for its abolition.

Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the office was “a total waste of everybody’s money,” and he’s pushed a 40 percent cut in the office’s budget for the next fiscal year, chopping it from $2.8 million to $1.7 million.

“Here are the numbers,” said former public advocate Mark Green. “Andy Stein was the City Council president—the equivalent of the public advocate from ’85 to ’93, my predecessor—in his last year, he had a staff of 65. In my last year, I had a staff of, give or take, 45. In De Blasio’s first year, at this rate, he may end up with a staff of 25.”

It means that unless he is content with that rump office, Mr. de Blasio will have to fight.

“If he can’t quietly arrange a budget modification, he has a choice by swearing-in day of being an acquiescent Mr. Inside or an outspoken Mr. Outside,” Mr. Green said.

Mr. de Blasio is not trying to be either, exactly. He says he respects the mayor and won’t have “knee-jerk” reactions to the mayor’s policies, and for now, he’s more sanguine about the finances than his predecessors.

“Having been a council member, with a staff of five or six people, it sounds like plenty to me. You’ve got a staff of at least a couple dozen folks,” he said. “To me, it’s just about being creative, getting the most out of the budget I have, working with a lot of partners, and I think a lot can be done.”

To get creative, he’s looking (where else?) to the grass roots.

“I think the traditional approach to government is more connected to where the office is; in other words, more of a focus on City Hall. I just have a different vision that’s more community-based,” Mr. de Blasio said.

It has occurred to many Democrats, and not just Mr. de Blasio’s supporters, that the office has the potential to be an extremely effective vehicle for achieving long-term political ends.

“The public advocate doesn’t have any such constituency to worry about,” said consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for both Mr. Green and Ms. Gotbaum, and for Norman Siegel, who ran against Mr. de Blasio for this year’s nomination. “The public advocate can define the constituency. The public advocate can do whatever he wants. He or she can take it any place they want.”

Including, perhaps, the mayor’s office. “It sets you up, because it gives you—if you do it right—tremendous exposure. You can find issues that matter to large segments of the New York population and you can drive them in the papers on a daily basis,” said Mr. Sheinkopf. “It’s the greatest bully pulpit in New York. You can say whatever you want, do whatever you want, fight, carry on, and no one’s going to get crazy, except for the mayor.”

Driving the mayor crazy might be either the best or the worst thing to happen to the office. In 2002, the mayor pressed a charter review commission to remove Ms. Gotbaum’s power to preside over the Council, but he didn’t press for the abolition of the office. Mr. Green survived an earlier call to abolish the office, because he was publicly at war with the mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, and the effort to cut the office was largely seen as a move by the mayor to remove a check on his own power. But the public advocate is no longer seen as quite the same persistent thorn in the mayor’s side.

“There’s a watchdog vacuum to fill,” said Mr. Green. “I think most fair-minded people would say the natural public check and balance of the past eight years—a watchful public advocate, an independent speaker, a not-for-profit world that was not reliant on the richest man in New York—would have spoken out more about City Hall.”

While Mr. de Blasio pledges to work with the mayor, he also says he’s “certainly willing to be a check and balance on the mayor, because I think there’s a deep desire for that out there.”

Asked to talk about the possibility of using the office as a launching pad for a future mayoral run, Mr. de Blasio said, “Look, I have to go in there and strengthen the office and get a lot done, and that’s all this is about. And whatever that means for the future, the future takes care of itself. I absolutely believe, especially with an office that has such potential but also has been under fire, you know, the most important thing here is to go in and do the work and then as a result of the work everything else will make sense.”

  De Blasio’s Task: Make the Public Advocate Mean Something