By Sabina Mollot
On Tuesday, New York voters will have the opportunity to elect the next public advocate, following the last occupant of this office, Letitia James, becoming the attorney general.
While this is a role with little governing power, it’s widely seen as a stepping stone for individuals looking to become mayor or to gain other prominent positions. As to why New Yorkers should bother with this race, there is also the fact that the office exists to be a watchdog, a check on the mayor. Meanwhile, the public advocate is also the first in line to assume the title of mayor if something were to happen to the mayor. The public advocate can also introduce and sponsor legislation.
This race has proven to be extraordinarily competitive with 17 people on the ballot (one of them inactive) in an open special election. Voters shouldn’t expect to just pick a random name that matches their party as candidates have come up with their own party lines. The competition won’t end after February 26, though. In September there will be a primary and in November, a general election.
Read on to learn a few details about each name on this race’s bloated ballot.
Most of the information comes from their own campaign literature.
Manny Alicandro previously wanted to become attorney general and considers his priorities to be homelessness and fixing the transit system. The New York Post recently called him a pro-Trump attorney who wants to make the city great again. He is one of just two Republicans in the race.
Michael Blake is a Bronx assembly member and a lay minister who says he’s focused on affordable housing (including helping NYCHA), tenant rights, jobs and transit. He told amNew York he would fight the privatization of public housing. As an assembly member he has pushed for rent stabilization and women and minority-owned businesses. He previously served as associate director of public engagement and deputy associate director of Intergovernmental Affairs under President Obama.
David Eisenbach is a Columbia professor of LGBT history and U.S. presidency who’s been an outspoken advocate for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and a vocal critic of the Real Estate Board of New York. He has run unsuccessfully for this position before against James in the 2017 primary, but got 92,000 votes.
Rafael Espinal is a Brooklyn City Council member born to Dominican immigrant parents. On his website bio, he says his priorities are improving New Yorkers’ quality of life, including cleaner streets and more reliable transit.
Anthony Herbert is a Brooklyn native whose family became homeless in the 1980s when he was a teenager, according to his campaign bio. He serves as the president/CEO and chair of the Multi-Cultural Restaurant & Night Life Chamber of Commerce and has worked as special assistant for former Council Member Priscilla Wooten and former Congress Member Edolphus Towns. He wants to see the management of NYCHA transferred to the Battery Park City Authority.
Ron Kim is a Queens Assembly member and one of the most vocal critics of the now defunct Amazon deal. He said if elected he would make the public advocate the first dedicated government office to canceling private debt, starting with student loans.
Nomiki Konst is an investigative journalist whose work has focused on corruption and Albany’s now-dissolved Independent Democratic Coalition as well as the DNC. She said she isn’t accepting donations from real estate developers. If elected, the Astoria resident said she’d push to raise the minimum wage to $30 an hour. She’s been endorsed by actress Rosario Dawson.
Melissa Mark-Viverito may have the best name recognition on the ballot since she was previously the City Council speaker from 2014-2017. From 2005-2017 she represented Spanish Harlem/El Barrio in the Council. She’s said her priorities, if elected, would be to fight for NYCHA and other affordable housing, and to use revenue from congestion pricing and marijuana to fix the subway.
Danny O’Donnell is an openly gay member of the Assembly and previously a public defender for the Legal Aid Society. His priorities are transit, including making the subway more accessible and he has proposed setting aside 15 percent of new units for housing the homeless.
Jared Rich is an attorney from Brooklyn who studied politics before getting his law degree. If elected, he said he would investigate how money earmarked for schools is wasted and focus on the opioid crisis by cracking down on pharmaceutical companies. Looking into conditions at NYCHA and subway money misuse are also priorities.
Ydanis Rodriguez represents Upper Manhattan in the City Council is currently the prime sponsor of the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act. He told amNew York, along with wanting more transparency in the MTA he wants to see more creative solutions to the affordable housing crisis, including with uses of vacant and underutilized properties. His activism during Occupy Wall Street earned him the title of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2011.
Helal Sheikh, a Bangladeshi immigrant who’s lived in Queens since he was 17, is now a teacher and community advocate there. His platform involves preserving affordable housing including pushing for stronger rent regulations in Albany. He also wants to offer more incentives to landlords to provide affordable housing and help prevent homeowners from losing their homes. He also wants to increase funding for senior housing and senior centers.
Dawn Smalls is running on a platform of fixing NYCHA and the MTA, reducing homelessness and voting reform. She’s an attorney who has also for the last few years served as commissioner of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. During the 2008 election, Smalls served as a regional political director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and then as the New York political director for President Barack Obama.
Eric Ulrich is a City Council member representing Queens. He has garnered a flurry of headlines due to the fact that he is Republican, with most debating if he even has a shot. His goals are to make government more transparent at all levels and to support faith-based schools. He also would fight for more community involvement in development and to expand health services for veterans.
Jumaane Williams is a Brooklyn City Council member and seen as one of the frontrunners in this race. He ran against Kathy Hochul last year in the race for lieutenant governor and according to his bio, though he didn’t win, he got more votes than any other candidate of color in a statewide primary. His public advocate bio states, “As public advocate, I would call for a moratorium on rezonings that simply transfer wealth from communities to real estate developers, unless we have Universal Rent Control to end displacement.” Prior to his career in politics, he served as executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors. He recently made some headlines due to opponents pointing out that he has said he wasn’t in favor of gay marriage or abortion. He has since said he does support marriage equality and the right to choose.
Benjamin Yee is a Brooklyn native turned Manhattan resident who gives workshops on civic engagement at activist events. He has served as digital director for the New York State Obama campaign during the general election, and was later hired by the New York State Senate to revamp their IT infrastructure. Technically, he is already an elected official, serving as the secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and State Committeeman of Assembly District 66. If elected, he said he would encourage civic education to make communities more involved in decisions that affect them. Along with bad landlords, he would be a watchdog on issues like wage theft and mishandling of elections by the Board of Elections.
Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Assemblywoman and attorney, is no longer running an active campaign. However, her name is still on the ballot. Her campaign website, still up, says she would want to see the office of public advocate strengthened to enable more investigative work. A native of a NYCHA development that was demolished, she said she would focus on the housing crisis.
Local club endorsements
The Samuel Tilden Democratic Club and the Gramercy Stuyvesant Independent Democratic Clubs have not made endorsements in this race.
The Albano Republican Club is endorsing Eric Ulrich, a Queens Republican who’s been a City Council member twice.
“He’s the only one we are confident will hold de Blasio’s feet to the fire,” said Albano Vice President Bryan Cooper on the club’s decision. “As far as the City GOP is concerned, especially Manhattan GOP, the rest would be a rubber stamp for de Blasio.”