Ten candidates for Public Advocate clashed Wednesday night over their support for Amazon building a campus in New York City, their legislative record on addressing the crisis in public housing, and if they support a plan to eliminate an admission test for specialized high schools.


Ten candidates out of the 17 who are running qualified to participate in the debate at the CUNY Television Studios. Eight of those 10 are current or former elected officials.

They're vying to replace Letitia James, who left the position to become New York state attorney general.

NY1 will host a second debate with leading contenders in the race two weeks later on February 20 at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. NY1 is hosting the debates in conjunction with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, Politico New York, and several other co-sponsors.

The special election will be Tuesday, February 26.


The candidates overwhelmingly disparaged Amazon's HQ2 deal to bring a split of its new headquarters to Long Island City, along with the nearly $3 billion in tax incentives the corporation will receive, and criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for agreeing to the deal without community input.


Nearly all the candidates reiterated the concerns of advocates and protesters who have attended City Council hearings over the deal — that Amazon will abuse its workers, not enough of the jobs will go to New Yorkers, and there aren't significant guarantees to ensure the corporation invests in the local transit system, public housing, and education.

But candidates became divided over who was the most anti-Amazon person on the debate stage and lambasted those who signed an earlier letter calling for the online giant to move to the city. Queens Assemblymen Ron Kim and Daniel O'Donnell characterized some of their foes as naive for signing the letter without explicit guarantees of community input while knowing the company's deleterious effect on small businesses.

Some of the candidates who signed the letter, such as former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, claimed they were betrayed by the mayor and governor and were originally told there would be community input. Other candidates, such as City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and Assemblyman Michael Blake, didn't call for the deal to be completely scrapped but wanted it to be significantly reformed to force Amazon to invest more in the city.


For his part, City Councilman Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican running in the non-partisan special election, gave the HQ2 deal and the tax incentives a thumbs up. He noted they are available to other companies and argued the expected 25,000 to 40,000 jobs the deal would generate outweigh concerns.


Mark-Viverito's record came under attack by her opponents throughout the night, including her handling of the crisis at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). For years, NYCHA tenants have complained about poor living conditions, such as lead, mold, rodents, and heat and hot water outages.

Assemblyman Michael Blake argued Mark-Viverito, who was council speaker from 2014 to 2017, failed to respond to the crisis.

Blake: The former council speaker said nothing has happened before. If her leadership were so great, we wouldn't be running for these seats and we wouldn't have to be working so hard. So the question has to be asked —

Mark-Viverito: Oh, give me a break, Blake.

Blake: — what were they doing on lead paint? What were they doing on lead paint investigations? What was happening when it comes to boiler repairs?

Mark-Viverito: What has the state done?

Mark-Viverito denied that NYCHA wasn't a priority, saying she helped get the city to invest more funding into public housnig. At the same time, however, she claimed the city has been limited because the state and federal government haven't invested enough — a similar argument Mayor Bill de Blasio has used to defend his handling of the crisis.


Looming over the NYCHA discussions was a recent deal to install a federal monitor and set requirements to fix chronic problems at the beleaguered housing authority. In part, that deal requires the city commit at least $2.2 billion in funding over the next 10 years to address issues at NYCHA buildings, such as lead paint, mold, and heating issues. NYCHA estimates it needs more than $30 billion. The city also is required to lead paint hazards, like chipped paint, in apartments with children under the age of six within the next few weeks.

Most candidates expressed reservations about the deal, particularly federal involvement, and demanded more federal funding. Activist Nomiki Konst argued the deal is the first step to the federal government privatizing the city's public housing stock, and City Councilman Jumaane Williams demanded tenants be involved in any plan. Ulrich and Blake, meanwhile, slammed NYCHA but both welcomed additional oversight, arguing falsified lead paint inspections are evidence the city has been unfit to be landlord to more than 400,000 New Yorkers.


Only Konst, Blake, and O'Donnell raised their hands when asked if they supported de Blasio's proposal to eliminate the Special High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), an exam required for eighth-graders to get into the city's eight specialized high schools. But all the candidates agreed with the broader goal of diversifying the elite schools, and said they want more funding for city schools.

O'Donnell and several of his opponents agreed with de Blasio's assessment that the exam shouldn't be the sole determiner for entry to the schools, with candidates like Williams noting that some students do not test well and high-stake exams aren't the only indicator of academic success.

Kim echoed sentiments by a group of Asian-American parents suing the city over the proposal, saying it is racially-motivated and would reduce the number of Asian-American students who attend the elite schools. Black and Hispanic students make up about 70 percent of the overall school system but represent just a fraction of the student body at the eight high schools. More than 60 percent of the students at the schools are Asian.

Ulrich and City Councilman Rafael Espinal, meanwhile, took a different path: They said they want reforms at the high schools themselves, calling for them to add more seats to match the demand and for the city to expand the number of specialized high schools.


If there was one candidate who separated himself from the field Wednesday night, it may have been Ulrich, if only because the lone Republican onstage took opposing stances from his opponents on everything from Amazon to Rikers Island, sometimes making waves in the process:



Williams also mixed it up when questioned about past statements that he was personally opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.

"I'm not as polished as you, so I get that, and I don't have the flowery titles that you do," Williams said to Blake, who is the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. "But I do tell the truth."

"How can I believe that you will stand on these issues that I feel so passionately about?" Mark-Viverito asked Williams later in the debate.

"I have been consistent in not only supporting a women's right to access safe and legal abortions, but fighting for them," the Brooklyn lawmaker responded.


Ultimately, however, none of the candidates will have much say on these issues if elected Public Advocate. While second-in-line to the mayor, should the mayor not be able to complete his or her term, it's a job with little real power and a vaguely defined mission. Essentially, the office functions as a city government watchdog and an ombudsperson for the public.

The Public Advocate investigates complaints and issues reports, and can also introduce legislation in the City Council, although he or she cannot vote on it.

Debate candidates

Michael Blake

Current job: Assemblyman for 79th District in the Bronx, and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Background: Worked for the Obama Administration.

One Thing to Know: Wants the Public Advocate to have a permanent seat on MTA Board​.


Rafael Espinal

Current job: City councilman for 37th District in Brooklyn.

Background: Assemblyman for 54th District in Brooklyn from 2011 to 2013.

One Thing to Know: Wants the Public Advocate to introduce legislation to create more housing​.


Ron Kim

Current job: Assemblyman for the 40th District in Queens.

Background: Worked for the City Council speaker and Spitzer and Paterson administrations.

One Thing to Know: Wants to transform the Public Advocate's office to cancel, monetize, or write down debt.


Nomiki Konst

Current job: Reporter for The Young Turks.

Background: Surrogate for Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign.

One Thing to Know: Wants New Yorkers to have a $30 minimum wage by 2020​.


Melissa Mark-Viverito

Current job: Senior advisor to the Latino Victory Fund.

Background: City Council Speaker from 2014 to 2017.

One Thing to Know: Says she would be willing to sue city agencies as Public Advocate.


Daniel O'Donnell

Current job: Assembly member for 69th District in Manhattan.

Background: Served as a public defender in New York City for seven years.

One Thing to Know: Wants multiple revenue streams to fund transit repairs.


Ydanis Rodriguez

Current job: City councilman for 10th District in Manhattan.

Background: Co-founded a Washington Heights school and taught there for 13 years.

One Thing to Know: Supports bringing e-bikes and e-scooters to New York City.


Dawn Smalls

Current job: Partner at Boies Schiller Flexner law firm.

Background: Worked in the Clinton and Obama Administrations.

One Thing to Know: Wants the Public Advocate's office to shine a spotlight on homeless women and kids.


Eric Ulrich

Current job: City councilman for 32nd District in Queens.

Background: Former member of Queens Community Board 9.

One Thing to Know: Member of the Republican Party.


Jumaane Williams

Current job: City councilman for 45th District in Brooklyn.

Background: Former executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors advocacy group.

One Thing to Know: Wants the Public Advocate to be able to subpoena city government and vote in the City Council.


Non-debate candidates on the ballot

Manny Alicandro

Current job: Attorney.

Background: Previously sought state attorney general position.

One Thing to Know: President Donald Trump supporter who has vowed to reform homelessness in the city, NYCHA, and the MTA.


David Eisenbach

Current job: Historian, author, and professor at Columbia University.

Background: Ran in the Democratic primary for Public Advocate in 2017.

One Thing to Know: Wants to use the Public Advocate office to push for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act to, in part, create an arbitration system to help small businesses struggling with high rents in the city.


Tony Herbert

Current job: CEO and chairman of the Multi-Cultural Restaurant & Night Life Chamber of Commerce.

Background: Former special assistant to former City Councilwoman Priscilla Wooten and Rep. Edolphus Towns.

One Thing to Know: Wants to use the Public Advocate's office to pressure the city to improve living conditions for NYCHA tenants.


Jared Rich

Current job: Attorney.

Background: Has practiced solo law in Brooklyn.

One Thing to Know: Wants revenue from potential marijuana legalization and congestion pricing to be given to city schools.


Helal Sheikh

Current job: School teacher and advocate.

Background: Former City Council candidate.

One Thing to Know: Supports helping homeowners pay any city liens and tax bills so they can keep their houses.


Latrice Walker

- NOTE: Latrice Walker will remain on the ballot despite ending her campaign and asking to be removed, the New York City Board of Elections ruled on January 29. Under law, the only way someone can be removed from the ballot is to die, be convicted of a felony, or move out of New York City.


Current job: Assemblywoman for 55th District in Brooklyn.

Background: Previously worked as counsel to New York Rep. Yvette Clarke.

One Thing to Know: Wants the Public Advocate to have subpoena and investigative powers, and be able to sue.


Benjamin Yee

Current job: Secretary for the Manhattan Democratic Party and State Committeeman of Assembly District 66.

Background: New York State digital director for Obama's 2008's presidential campaign in the general election.

One Thing to Know: Pushing for a citywide initiative to teach New Yorkers about civics.


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