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Politics & Government

Public Advocate Race Heats Up; Mayor Says He Picked Election Date to Increase Voter Turnout

Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed this week that he picked Feb. 26 as the date for the special election for New York City public advocate in the hope that the city could boost voter turnout.

“We chose this date to maximize voter participation. This was the latest date available under the legal limit that also would fall on a Tuesday that was not a vacation day, was a regular work day,” de Blasio said at a City Hall ceremony on Jan. 2 where he signed a proclamation to set the date.

Under the City Charter, the public advocate’s role is to serve as a watchdog over city government and an ombudsman on behalf of city residents. The advocate is also the first in the line of succession for mayor. The person holding the office can introduce legislation in the City Council and can file lawsuits on behalf of the city. The salary is $184,800 a year. The public advocate’s office operates with an annual budget of $3 million.

The special election became necessary following the resignation of Public Advocate Letitia James, who left the post to become New York State attorney general.

There are more than two dozen declared candidates lining up to succeed James.

Brooklyn lawmakers are among the candidates who have announced that they are running on Feb. 26. The names include Councilmembers Rafael Espinal and Jumaane Williams, and Assemblymember Latrice Walker.

Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, Queens Councilmember Eric Ulrich, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez of Inwood, Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell of Morningside Heights,  radio personality Curtis Sliwa, and former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are also running.

Special elections in New York City are non-partisan affairs in which candidates get to create their own parties. Mark-Viverito is running for public advocate on the Fix the MTA party line.

The public advocate’s office has often served as a springboard for ambitious politicians. For example, de Blasio served held that office before running for mayor in 2013.

The mayor vowed to work to increase voter turnout in the special election next month.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do get the word out. Special elections are always a challenge. Over these next weeks, we’re going to work very hard to inform New Yorkers about the election, to make sure they participate, and make sure they recognize how important it is to the future of this city,” de Blasio said.

Special elections and primaries in New York City usually have dismal voter turnouts. The primary in June of 2016 for federal offices had an eight percent turnout, according to a report from the Board of Election. A primary for state and city offices that took place in September that same year wasn’t much better. Ten percent of voters showed up at the polls.

Meanwhile, with a large pool of candidates running for public advocate, each of the hopefuls is trying to stand out in the crowd.

The Brooklyn candidates all bring unique personal histories to the table. Their official biographies make for some interesting reading.

Espinal, who represents East New York and Bushwick, taught adult literacy and General Education Diploma test prep classes in low income neighborhoods before entering politics.

Williams, whose Council district includes Flatbush and East Flatbush, is a first generation Brooklynite of Grenadian heritage who began his career as a community organizer and housing advocate.

Walker, who represents Brownsville, lived in public housing as a child and grew up to become a lawyer helping tenants fight eviction.

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