The most successful political undertaking in recent New York City history might be the creation of the Office of Public Advocate—not because the job has anything to do with the public or with advocacy, but because it’s a spectacularly effective political launching pad, and that counts for a lot in the Big Apple. This much is clear from the size of the gaggle forming in hopes of replacing the former public advocate, New York State’s unlikely new attorney general, Letitia James, who was shooed into that office last November by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
James is not unique in the didn’t-do-much department. New York has had elected public advocates since 1993, and you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence that any helped make the city a better place. But the sinecure has been of enormous benefit to three of the four pols who have held it, with the last two (Bill de Blasio and James) parlaying unproductive incumbencies into major higher offices, and the first (Mark Green) barely missing out on New York’s mayoralty in 2001.
The role originates with the old Board of Estimate, which governed the city with varying effectiveness from 1901 until it was ruled unconstitutional and abolished in 1990, in favor of an empowered city council and a stronger mayor. When city government was reassembled, the position of city council president—an at-large elected office then held by long-time political personage Andrew J. Stein—evolved into the public advocate’s office. Insiders contended that the new gig had been created as a perch for Stein, but it didn’t turn out that way. Gadfly pol Green won the first public advocate race in 1993.
Green soon turned his attention to the mayoralty, generating stacks of self-serving press releases over the next eight years. Unsurprisingly, he was the morning-line favorite to win City Hall in 2001, and he came tantalizingly close, only to be defeated by Michael Bloomberg, even as smoke still rose from the 9/11 rubble pile. Under the circumstances, voters preferred the more substantive candidate.
Green was succeeded by civic presence Betsy Gotbaum, wife of legendary labor leader Victor Gotbaum. Gotbaum did as little as possible in the office, not even using it as a platform for publicizing herself. She was succeeded by then-city councilman Bill de Blasio. De Blasio, of course, made the most of the opportunity, winning City Hall in 2013, and reelection in 2017—and he’s now flirting with a presidential run. However ludicrous that new ambition, it does illustrate the career-enhancement potential of the public advocate’s office.
The latest exhibit is newly minted Attorney General James. She also rode a lightning bolt to higher office. Her relatively high visibility when then-AG Eric Schneiderman resigned in a sexual-abuse scandal last May put her at the top of the potential-replacement heap. New York City political leaders apparently backed her as part of a plan intended to elevate Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz Jr. to the mayoralty in 2021, and Cuomo encouraged the deal. James has her old job to thank for her big new chance.
In James’s absence, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is, ex officio, acting public advocate, pending a nonpartisan special election on February 26. The ducks are lining up to fill the vacancy. They include former city council speaker and radical activist Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Jumaane Williams—fresh from his campaign for lieutenant governor—and even ageless vigilante-cum-pundit Curtis Sliwa. Once polling costs and matching public campaign money are added up, the race is expected to nick taxpayers for some $23 million. And that’s just to fill the position temporarily, until a citywide general election is held in November (after the requisite primary, of course)—and that winner, in turn, will serve out only the remainder of James’s current term. That makes three elections in one calendar year to fill a post that has no power, and almost no duties, and an annual budget of $3.5 million.
Powerless the office may be, but pointless it is not. Not for the politicians, anyway. For them, it’s an opportunity to be taken, because you never know where it might lead. After all, if you don’t advocate for yourself, who’s going to advocate for you?
Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for Housing Works, Inc.