Guide of guides: Public Advocate special election
New Yorkers will go to the polls tomorrow to vote in a special election for the new public advocate, a citywide watchdog with few direct powers beyond proposing legislation. Public advocates use the office to bring attention to issues of concern, and those elected often seek higher office.
The role was previously filled by Letitia James, who took office as New York State Attorney General in January. Before James, the office was held by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
There are 17 candidates on the ballot for public advocate. Some are better known than others. Since special elections in New York City are nonpartisan affairs, candidates cannot run under traditional party affiliations, such as Democrat or Republican. They must instead run under parties of their own creation.
For those playing catch up ahead of the vote, you’re in luck: there are almost as many voter guides as there are candidates. We’re cobbling together the best for you, and also sharing some important election need-to-knows and a wrap up of our previous coverage, by candidate.
What you need to know
When to vote: The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Where to vote: Find your poll site here.
Check your registration: You must be registered to vote. Check your registration status.
If you experience issues when voting: The Board of Elections can be reached at 866-Vote-NYC. Additionally, the state attorney general urges voters experiencing problems or issues at the polls to call the office’s hotline at 1-800-771-7755 or email [email protected]. Also, tell us! Email [email protected] or tweet to us at @BklynEagle.
For friends or relatives who cannot speak English: Interpreters will be available inside the poll sites for Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali speakers, as required by federal law. A city initiative will make Russian, Yiddish, Haitian Creole and Polish interpreters available at these poll sites.
Our guide to voter guides
- Campaign Finance Board candidate profiles
- Campaign Finance Board’s extensive archive of reporting on the special election
- City Limits Voter Guide
- Gotham Gazette: Last-Minute Guide: How the Public Advocate Candidates Have Tried to Define Themselves
- Chalkbeat: The education voter’s guide to New York City’s 2019 public advocate race
- Ballotpedia candidate profiles
- The New York Times: Public Advocate Race: 7 Factors That Will Help Decide Who Wins on Tuesday
- AARP New York Voter Guide
- Girl Scouts: How will candidates work to advance gender equity in New York City?
- Gay City News: An LGBTQ Voter Guide for NYC Public Advocate Race
- City & State: The endorsements for NYC public advocate candidates
Our coverage, by candidate
Our publications — Brooklyn Eagle, Queens Eagle and Brooklyn Reporter — have been following the candidates. Below is a wrapup of some of our reporting, with additional context from the candidates’ websites.
Current role: City Council member (East Flatbush, Flatbush, Flatlands, Marine Park)
Party: It’s Time Let’s Go
Williams, who has spent much of his City Council tenure fighting for criminal justice reform and police accountability, vows to reshape the office of public advocate.
At the Western Queens Public Advocate Forum, Williams said he would establish deputy public advocate offices in all five boroughs, placing the deputies in communities that have the highest concentrations of Civilian Complaint Review Board complaints against the NYPD.
In a statement on his campaign website, Williams said he believes the public advocate should be given “additional tools” to be able to fully fight on behalf of New Yorkers. He called for the public advocate to be granted subpoena powers and wants the public advocate to have voting power on the Council. Under current law, the public advocate can introduce legislation but cannot vote on bills.
Current role: City Council member (Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Howard Beach, South Ozone Park)
Party: Common Sense
Eric Ulrich, one of only three Republicans on the City Council and the only GOP council member from Queens, has made the watchdog role of the public advocate a central theme of his campaign. Ulrich vowed in a video launching his campaign for public advocate to stand up to Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Now more than ever New Yorkers are looking for someone to stand up to Mayor de Blasio and his so-called progressive agenda,” he said in the video.
Ulrich supported the now-defunct $3 billion deal that would have brought Amazon to Long Island City and warned that such fierce opposition to a company that would have created 25,000 jobs might deter other companies from coming to New York City in the future.
Current role: Former City Council speaker
Party: Fix the MTA
Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Puerto Rican City Council speaker, is running for public advocate on a platform of fixing the city’s crumbling transit system and holding the MTA accountable.
Mark-Viverito has put forth a plan called “Weed for Rails,” in which she calls for the legalization of recreational marijuana. Under her plan, tax revenues from pot sales would be dedicated to repairs of the city’s subway and bus system.
She is also a supporter of congestion pricing, which would charge drivers a toll to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street to fund transit repairs and upgrades.
Current role: City Council member (Bushwick, Brownsville, Cypress Hills, East New York)
Party: Livable City
Rafael Espinal was a guiding force behind major changes in the city’s cabaret laws, successfully pushing a repeal of “No Dancing” laws that dated back decades and creating the post of Office of Nightlife and the Night Mayor to oversee businesses.
As public advocate, Espinal vowed to continue working to assist small nightlife businesses while at the same time protecting the quality of life for residents who live near the nightspots. “Not everyone is a night owl and their peace and quiet deserves to be respected,” he wrote in a statement on his campaign website.
Espinal is a supporter of congestion pricing. Speaking at a forum hosted by the CUNY Newmark School of Journalism, he called the concept “a great way to lower congestion, lower pollution and make sure that New Yorkers are finding alternative ways to getting around the city.”
Current role: State Assemblymember (Flushing, College Point, Whitestone)
Party: People Over Corporations
The controversial deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio worked out with Amazon, offering $3 billion in tax breaks for the tech behemoth set up a headquarters in Long Island City, caused Ron Kim to throw his hat into the ring for public advocate.
As public advocate, Kim said he would reshape the office and work to protect everyday New Yorkers drowning in debt. “There has never been an action plan to transform this office,” Kim told the Eagle in a recent interview. “I’m focused on transforming this office to be the nation’s first and largest debt cancellation body dedicated to lowering people’s debt. This is a debt-driven economy of everyday people who are barely living, barely paying off interest. This is the first time that we would have such a citywide office diving into the root causes of our societal failures in a real way.”
Current role: State Assemblymember (Morrisania, Melrose, Belmont, East Tremont)
Party: For the People
Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake said that if elected public advocate, he would fight to protect the rights of small homeowners and to protect communities from overdevelopment.
“I will fight for a 15 percent flip tax on properties bought and resold in one year, and a 10 percent tax on properties bought and resold between one and two years to deter speculators. I will also promote community land trusts to ensure permanently affordable home ownership and expand down payment assistance and other resources for home buyers.”
Unlike many of his fellow candidates in the race, Blake supported the Amazon deal and said he was disappointed when the company backed out. “This could have been a game changer if done the right way,” Blake told the Eagle.
Current role: Investigative Journalist
Party: Pay Folks More
Nomiki Konst said she is running for public advocate to reshape the office and make it pay closer attention to the needs of New Yorkers. Konst, who lives in Astoria, said part of her mission would be to “decentralize” the public advocate’s office by setting up smaller public advocate’s offices in all of the city’s 59 community board districts. The purpose would be to ensure oversight of city services on the grassroots level and to garner feedback from residents.
“You’ll have someone trained in the neighborhood to respond to community needs besides the community board,” she told the Eagle in an interview.
In keeping with the name of the party she created to run in the special election, Pay Folks More, Konst is calling on the city’s $15 minimum wage to be doubled to $30.
Current role: State Assemblymember (Upper West Side)
Party: Equality for All
Daniel O’Donnell said he has a history of fighting to preserve neighborhoods against infringements from high-end developers looking to change zoning laws to build large-scale buildings that change the character of communities. He pointed to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to rezone a section of East Harlem as an example of upzoning that has the potential to harm neighborhoods.
“I believe that increased development requires increased commitment from developers to support the neighborhood’s ability to handle the additional burdens, especially when it comes to transit,” he told the Eagle.
O’Donnell vowed that as public advocate, he would pay close attention to transit issues and would fight to make all subway stations accessible to the physically disabled.
Current role: Attorney
Party: No More Delays
At a candidates forum in Astoria in January, Dawn Smalls, a lawyer and former Obama administration official, said she would hold Mayor Bill de Blasio accountable to build 1,500 affordable housing units that were supposed to be built at the Long Island City site where Amazon was slated to set up its headquarters before the company backed out of the deal.
In her campaign, Smalls has also emphasized education and said she would demand that the state release hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding the New York State Court of Appeals ruled the city was owed following a lawsuit over inequities in school funding filed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
Smalls vowed to go to Albany to fight for the funding. “If the mayor can go Paris, the public advocate can go to Albany,” she said.
Current role: City Council member (Washington Heights, Inwood, Marble Hill)
Party: Unite Immigrants
Ydanis Rodriguez, chairperson of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, is a supporter of congestion pricing but told the Eagle that he favors the concept only if the funds generated by the tolls are used to reinvest in into the city’s transit system.
“I am very clear, any congestion plan that we bring to the city of New York should also reinvest some of those $1.3 billion,” Rodriguez said. “There should be some relief for people who live in the surrounding area and invest some of the money into areas important to those communities for transportation.”
Rodriguez said he is running on a platform to improve city schools, protect tenants in rent stabilized buildings and assist the city’s small businesses. He is a supporter of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a Council bill aimed at protecting small businesses.
Current role: Educator and Democratic district leader
Party: Community Strong
Benjamin Yee, who teaches coding and is the Democratic district leader of the 66th Assembly District in Greenwich Village, said he is running for public advocate on a platform of bringing government closer to the citizens.
His goal is to implement a program called Civics for All to give everyday citizens through workshops and online guides information on how government works so that they can use that knowledge to navigate the system and fight for their communities.
Yee has also spoken out on education issues. At a forum in Bath Beach earlier this month, Yee spoke out against Mayor de Blasio’s proposal to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and said de Blasio should consider changing the education system for the grades prior to high school as a way of ensuring more diversity in the city’s elite high schools.
Current role: Professor at Columbia University
Party: Stop REBNY
David Eisenbach, who ran for public advocate against Letitia James in the 2017 Democratic primary, said the city is not doing enough to stop greedy developers from taking over neighborhoods. He has named his party Stop REBNY (Real Estate Board of New York). On his campaign website, he vowed to fight against what he called giveaways to the real estate industry.
Eisenbach also said he would work to improve the lives of homeless people, tenants who live in NYCHA buildings and small business owners.
Current role: Attorney
Party: Jared Rich for NYC
Jared Rich, an attorney specializing in housing issues, has made housing, education and transportation the cornerstones of his campaign.
He promised that if he wins the public advocate race, he would fix problems at NYCHA developments, fight waste in the MTA, scour the city’s budget to see if there is any hidden money that could be used to fund school improvements and work with district attorneys to get drug dealers off streets.
The candidates also include: Anthony Herbert, a community activist running under the Residents First Party; Manny Alicandro, a lawyer running under the Better Leaders banner; and Helal Sheikh, a Queens businessman who called his party Friends of Helal.
Assemblymember Latrice Walker, who represents Brownsville, had been running for public advocate under the Power Forward party but has reportedly dropped out of the race. Her name will still be on the ballot.
Update (4:59 p.m.): We updated the section on interpreters after news broke that such services from the city initiative would be allowed within poll sites.