Newly elected public advocate Jumaane Williams. Photo courtesy of youtube.com

A new sheriff in town

An Analysis by Michael Derek Roberts

He’s unabashedly and refreshingly candid. He has a strong sense of social and economic justice, especially when it comes to working people’s issues. And yes, he’s a proud Brooklyn Democrat but does not always toe the party’s line, and very often rubs “traditional, died-in-the-wool” Democrats the wrong way. If you’ve ever met him you will be struck by his boyish, almost mischievous demeanor that hides a sharp as a rapier political mind and instincts that always places him 10 steps ahead of his detractors and opponents.

Whom am I speaking about?

His name is Jumaane Williams and he’s the new sheriff, I mean, Public Advocate in New York City – his town. In the recent February 26 contest to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Letitica James, Williams – called by everyone by his unique first name – bested 16 other Democrats in what was an electoral route. His performance demonstrated his rising star power and influence within New York State’s Democratic Party. Jumaane’s victory also serves notice that at 42 years he can go the full distance – look out complacent politicians and special interest groups.

“We’re going to hold the powerful accountable,” Williams said during his victory speech at Cafe Omar on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, a popular nightspot that also serves as an unofficial community meeting place and ironically owned by the man he bested in 2010, former Councilmember Dr. Kendall Stewart. “I ran this campaign to be the voice of the people, and I do promise to raise my voice and raise the issues of the people of this city,” he said. “To the people who said it can’t be done, please move out of the way of the people who are doing it.”

As expected and predicted, voter turnout was not high. Fewer than 500,000 New Yorkers ultimately heading to the polls putting voter turnout at around 9% (the preliminary count is 434,000). The special election was called by Mayor Bill de Blasio in January to replace Letitia James, who vacated the office when she became the state’s attorney general. New York city’s Democratic voters chose Jumaane—who’s served on the City Council since 2010, representing Brooklyn’s 45th district— to fill the position. The son of Grenadian immigrants, Jumaane is a member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

The New York City Charter (constitution) defines the public advocate as “an ombudsperson for all New Yorkers,” which is often interpreted as being a foil against the mayor, special interests and entrenched city officials. In fact, Jumaane has not shied away from routinely criticizing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio. For example, just before the special election he said of de Blasio that “the mayor I endorsed in 2013 is not the mayor I’ve seen lately.”

However, with Jumaane as the new Public Advocate, the mayor – a former Public Advocate himself – was upbeat and oblique, educating him on what exactly the role of a Public Advocate should be. “As a former Public Advocate, I know firsthand how important this office is to our city,” de Blasio said. “The Public Advocate holds our entire City government accountable and amplifies the voices of all New Yorkers. I look forward to working with Public Advocate Williams to continue making this the fairest big city in America.”

“Together, we have to make sure that government is working on behalf of the people,” Jumaane said in response to de Blasio’s statement.

In a keenly contested race with many “big names” in a wide field of candidates, Jumaane was the candidate with the most name recognition and the front runner, thanks to his earlier run for NYS lieutenant governor as running mate with film star Cynthia Nixon during her failed 2018 gubernatorial campaign. But he’s also made a name for himself as a champion of working people and progressive issues, and racked up endorsements from many prominent public advocacy groups—including New York Communities for Change, 350 Action, and the New York Progressive Action Network—during his campaign.

So what can New Yorkers expect from Public Advocate Jumaane Willams?

Well, for starters the Public Advocate’s office and position is shaped and molded by its occupant. All former office holders have stamped their unique interpretation, style, and activities as much on the City Charter’s guidelines as on the temperament and personality of the office holder.

Jumaane is a political maverick and activist. He’s at home fighting for the communities that require a champion and voice. That’s what has defined his tenure in New York City politics. Among the issues that he’s stated will be priorities is a broad platform of “housing justice,” which speaks to his past as a tenant activist organizer. If you doubt his activism, just go back to 2015 when he was one of several City Council members arrested outside of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan offices during a boisterous protest for stronger rent laws.

I’m predicting that some of his major issues will be pushing to reform the city’s rent stabilization laws, enacting a moratorium on neighborhood rezonings – which is bound to cause tensions between Mayor de Blasio and special interest groups like the real estate lobby – as a way to “end displacement,” and holding the New York City Housing Authority accountable for the myriad issues its residents have had to live with over many, many years. Jumaane has also publicly said he’s going to keep NYCHA on the public advocate’s “worst landlords” list, which the agency landed on for the first time in 2018.

Other key issues include: making it easier for New Yorkers to vote, supporting criminal justice reform (including the closure of Rikers Island), legalizing marijuana, and combating climate change. Jumaane also wants to give the public advocate more power, including “subpoena power and the addition of voting rights in the council.”  That’s a very tall order but, admittedly, worth fighting for since this would add another layer of public transparency to city government. For now, the Public Advocate can only introduce legislation.

As he gets settled into his new office, and make the transition from City Council, he will have a certain amount of leeway in deciding how to use the limited powers ascribed to the public advocate in the City Charter. Aside from being second in line to the mayor, the Public Advocate can introduce and co-sponsor legislation in the City Council, review systemic problems within city agencies, and investigate New Yorkers’ complaints about municipal services.

While the city’s watchdog’s authority is still a bit nebulous, the Public Advocate has historically served as the ombudsman (or woman) for New York city residents, pressuring lawmakers and exposing issues that otherwise might not get attention. He’s going to be the “voice of the voiceless.” Here’s Jumaane firing the first salvo and serving notice as to where he’s headed in respect to public oversight issues in the City.

“We want to look at what’s called mandatory inclusionary housing. It’s the underpinning of all the rezonings that people have heard about — unfortunately those rezonings haven’t produced the type of affordable, income-targeted housing we want to see. I’ve called for a moratorium on most rezoning until we fix that. I also want to see a racial impact study before zonings occur and we’ll be pushing that as well.

We also want to set up the borough-based deputy public advocates with the satellite offices in the way we discussed in the campaign. We think that’s a few good things to work on in the next 10 months or so, and we know that there are going to be other issues that come up as we’re setting up.”

Stay tuned people, the new sheriff is just getting started.

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