What the heck is the Public Advocate?
New York City is governed by the City Charter, actually the 300 plus page “constitution” for the city. As a result of changes to the charter, necessitated by a federal court decision in 1989, the Board of Estimate was eliminated and a Public Advocate was created. The city is now led by a Mayor, the Chief Executive Officer, a Comptroller, the Chief Financial Officer, a fifty-one member City Council and a Public Advocate (PA) whose duties are described in the Charter (see above link beginning on page 16).
The PA was envisioned as an ombudsman for the city; however, the position has emerged as a stopping off place before running for higher office. The first PA, Mark Green ran and lost in a run for mayor, Bill de Blasio, a previous PA is now the mayor, Letitia James the current PA was elected as NYS Attorney General in November and will assume the position on January 1st, creating a vacancy.
The Charter requires that an election be scheduled within 45 days of the date of resignation of the office holder (probably the last Tuesday in February); the election is a non-partisan election only requiring the requisite number of signatures to be placed on the ballot. Fifteen potential candidates have formed fund-raising committees with a number of others possible – there could be over twenty candidates (!), and, there is no run off.
The New York City teacher union (UFT) is holding open interviews prior to an endorsement, on Tuesday I spent almost four hours listening to, questioning candidates and tweeting 240-character summaries of interviews (view here https://twitter.com/edintheapple). Hundreds of members will attend the interviews (in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn) and the Delegate Assembly on January 16th may/will endorse a candidate.
Why should the union endorse anyone? After all, the Public Advocate has no legislative or executive authority.
Let me be a little crass, all decisions are political and all politics is local. If you want be relevant you must be up to your eye balls in local politics.
On the other hand politics is frequently viewed with disdain, in her autobiography, “Becoming,” Michelle Obama opines,
“I had little faith in politics,” she writes. Nor did she have much faith in politicians and “therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one,” she continues. “In my heart, I just believed there were better ways for a good person to have an impact.”
The image of politicians puffing on cigars and making corrupt deals is commonplace, and, reinforced by House of Cards and other dramatizations.
As the teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona learned spending months organizing, standing on picket lines, political engagement is required and running for office can the only path.
As a union leader I learned early on that a powerful political club controlled my school board, I joined the club, was a regular at Thursday night club night. The union endorsed school board candidates, made phone calls, printed and distributed palm cards, we acted as political operatives. The union had a seat at the table, or, at least, someone at the table would ask, “we should check with the union.”
School closings are political decisions, all decisions have a political element: fighting school closings is an example, I’ve written about strategies a number of times, “How to Fight Your School Closing, and “School Closings: It’s Never the Kids Fault.”
“Politics” is not a strategy that you store in a closet until you need it. The UFT learned that lesson a long time ago, every year hundreds of UFT members travel to Albany on a lobby day. In the city union members meet with City Council members. I wrote a monthly newsletter to union members in my district with an occasional acknowledgment of an elected, ironically, I chided an elected in one issue and he haunted me for months to retract. I responded, “Do someone good that we can report and I’ll report it,” he did, we did, and our relationship was healed, and, it was a lesson for his fellow electeds.
Electeds or potential electeds scramble to “make the union happy” by supporting policies that union members support and opposing issues the union opposes. The union works closely with parents, civil rights organizations, other unions, they build coalitions.
Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be. Marshall McLean
The process of endorsement, the involvement of hundreds of members, the process empowers the union; the imagery is more powerful than any speech.
Come the January 16th the UFT Delegate Assembly will/may endorse a candidate; when the candidates are mostly friends it’s difficult to make choices.