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Tish James victory: history, important lessons

Jonathan P Hicks | 10/3/2013, 4:04 p.m.
Tuesday’s runoff election produced a history-making result. For the first time in New York City’s political history, an African-American woman ...
Jonathan P. Hicks

Tuesday’s runoff election produced a history-making result. For the first time in New York City’s political history, an African-American woman is positioned to hold citywide office with the victory of Letitia “Tish” James in the public advocate race. It is worth taking a moment to celebrate this incredible breakthrough, as well as to look at some of the lessons of this recent election.

For one thing, this is a landmark occasion in the political story of America’s largest city. Of course, New York City had an African-American mayor with the election of David N. Dinkins in 1989. Also, the city has seen a number of African-American borough presidents, including Hulan Jack’s election as Manhattan borough president in the 1950s and Constance Baker Motley becoming the first African-American woman to serve as Manhattan borough president in 1965.

James’ victory stands as another important landmark politically but it is a milestone in other ways, too. During the campaign, James, a City Council member from Brooklyn, would describe herself as “a thorn to bureaucracy and those who represent the elite throughout the city of New York.” Indeed, James has a track record of progressive politics that should cause New Yorkers to feel confident that they have in her a bold and determined champion for affordable housing, job creation and education reform.

That zeal came through in the campaign, including in the recent Democratic runoff election for public advocate. In that race she faced state Sen. Daniel Squadron, a progressive legislator who represents portions of Brooklyn and Manhattan. But in the final days of the campaign, Squadron unleashed a seemingly anonymous, slimy robocall to voters seeking to paint James as being less than honest.

The deeper trouble in this situation was Squadron’s reluctance to admit that it was his campaign that was behind the calls. In an interview with the masterful Errol Louis on NY1, Squadron offered a fascinating case study of how hard a politician will work to be evasive and avoid answering a direct question. After the show, he finally admitted his campaign’s responsibility, but the damage to him was done.

And therein lies an important lesson. Voters appreciate candidates whose integrity they believe in. It’s better not to engage in misdeeds. But when a candidate decides to lower his or her standards, it’s best to admit to it with a sense of contrition and keep it moving. It was an unnecessary campaign ploy on the part of Squadron, particularly since he would go on to lose the runoff by 20 percentage points. Alas, a sleazy attempt to malign a popular African-American official will now be a part of his political biography going forward. Not a good look.

But as the city celebrates the election of James as the first Black female citywide official in New York, this would also be a time to see some reforms and budgetary changes. For one, this would be a good time to increase the funding for the office of public advocate, which is designed to be a watchdog over the municipal government’s undertakings and a champion of the needs of everyday New Yorkers. The runoff election cost taxpayers $13 million for an office whose annual budget is slightly more than $2 million. It would be wonderful for James, as one of her first acts in office, to submit her plan under which the city could avoid these costly runoff elections for races below that of mayor.

Additionally, it would be a good time for Bill de Blasio, as one of his first acts as mayor, to increase the funding for the office of Public advocate. That would enable the citizens of New York to get the ultimate benefit of having this dynamic public servant in what would be an even more effective citywide office.