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On Deck?

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On Deck?

Public advocate Letitia James is ambitious, popular, progressive—and next in line to the mayor’s office. March 10, 2017
New York
Politics and law

New York City public advocate Letitia “Tish” James announced her most recent crusade this week: to ban New York City from doing business with any company that assists in building President Trump’s promised wall—“a monument to racism and bigotry,” as she calls it. “We will use our significant economic leverage to fight this xenophobic wall,” James says, by divesting the city’s pensions from wall-connected companies. This is not the first time that James has used her position to advance an unrelated ideological agenda: following Omar Mateen’s Orlando dance-club massacre in 2016, she tried unsuccessfully to force banks to stop lending money to gun manufacturers. 

However dubious James’s efforts to stymie national policy, she remains second in line to the mayoralty. Given the federal investigations into Bill de Blasio’s growing corruption scandals, it’s worth considering what the mayor-apparent could have in store for New York, were de Blasio suddenly to leave office.

The role of the public advocate in New York City’s government is one of the great mysteries of local politics, not least of all to the people who hold the title. Even the city charter is vague about the purpose of the office: “In addition to other duties and responsibilities, the public advocate shall serve as the public advocate.” Aside from presiding over meetings of the city council (though without a tiebreaking vote) and filling the vacancy if the mayor is removed from office, the public advocate is allowed by statute more or less to run a complaints bureau, to perform investigations into areas of concern, and to “report findings.”

Public Advocate James, an attorney by training and the only black woman to win a citywide election, comes out of the same milieu of progressive politics that nourished Bill de Blasio, her predecessor in the office, who managed to turn the post into a springboard to executive power. James and de Blasio, representing adjacent council districts in Brooklyn, were both nurtured by the union-funded Working Families Party. 

As a councilmember, James’s record mixed the sublime with the ridiculous. She was the first to warn that Mayor Bloomberg’s CityTime payroll system was shot through with enormous cost overruns and fraud; she was vindicated when several consultants involved in the program fled the country, indictments were issued, and the city sued for the return of hundreds of millions of overbilled dollars. But she also demanded action against a restaurant that offered a Tuesday night 50-cent special on chicken wings, after a series of violent melees involving “students” attracted by the deal. “I want this Tuesday restaurant promotion stopped, or the lease of this business revoked,” thundered James.

During her campaign for public advocate, James swore to take an activist role in litigating for the downtrodden. She quickly swung into action, filing suit against the city on behalf of foster children and disabled tenants. Some of these suits were dismissed; James was removed from others for lack of standing. She did achieve some victories in suing the government that employs her, but in relatively minor cases, including those involving the temperature of certain school buses or the transparency of School Leadership Team meetings.

Seeking a wider profile, James has staked out a number of dubious positions. One of her signature initiatives calls for New York City to sponsor a “retirement-security” investment fund for workers in the private sector. This “universal retirement system” would presumably be run either together with or parallel to New York City’s existing pension system, which covers hundreds of thousands of employees and retired workers. The current system is painfully underfunded, and annual city contributions to the plan eat up an ever-increasing percentage of the municipal budget. The city pays more than $9 billion, or 11 percent of the annual budget, in order to keep its employee-pension plan solvent. Though James does not explicitly advocate giving private-sector workers defined-benefit retirement pensions, the idea that the city government is best equipped to help people with their investment planning is ludicrous.

James is also pushing a proposal that would ban employers from asking job candidates their salary history as part of the interview process. According to the public advocate, this question “perpetuates the existing wage inequities women face.” In a triumphant shared press conference last November, Mayor de Blasio, appearing with James, signed an executive order banning the salary question for city agencies, almost all of which are either unionized or have rigorously defined (and publicized) salary schedules.

“Women working in the city government face a wage gap . . . three times as large as women working in the private for-profit sector,” James said, but that prompted a question: why did a unionized public sector do such a bad job of providing fair pay for women? James fumbled for an answer, suggesting that “women in the private sector have more educational background, and are in executive positions and are in a better position to negotiate.” Most women in the private sector, of course, are not senior executives able to negotiate lavish perks atop their seven-figure salaries. Like other pay-equity advocates, James fails abysmally to explain even the simple mechanics of wages, betraying her poor understanding of real-world economics.

Tish James is an ambitious, popular politician who surely covets a bigger role for herself. If de Blasio’s trajectory—from public advocate to mayor’s office—becomes the new path to political power, then New Yorkers should brace themselves for many more years of populist posturing and anti-business innumeracy.

Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal and project director of the Manhattan Institute’s NYC Initiative. He blogs about New York City politics at City Council Watch.

Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images

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