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The captivating prospect of a public advocate named Tish James

Jonathan P Hicks | 9/26/2013, 11:08 a.m.
Jonathan P. Hicks

In 2008, when the controversy over term limits was reaching a citywide boil, there were passions raging on whether the will of New Yorkers, as expressed in two referendums, should be overturned. It pitted the forces of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his quest to seek a third term against those who stood up for the position for which New Yorkers had voted on two occasions.

There was no stronger advocate for the will of New Yorkers in that debate than Letitia James.

Long before the topic of stop-and-frisk became the signature issue of the 2013 mayoral campaign, Letitia James, widely known as “Tish,” was a leader in calling for reform in the way the police stopped and detained millions of young Black and Brown young New Yorkers. She was part of a group of elected officials who introduced a package of reform bills designed to bring greater accountability to the New York Police Department.

When havoc reigned over Medgar Evers College, one of the most prized institutions in New York City’s African-American landscape, she was one of the officials who spoke loudest and strongest about refocusing the school’s role as a vital bedrock of culture, education and service in central Brooklyn.

As the city prepares for the runoff election for public advocate on Oct. 1, it’s hard not to feel that all New Yorkers would be extremely well served by having Letitia James as the city’s watchdog and champion of the concerns of everyday people.

Since her election to the City Council in 2001, she has been a voice that speaks for average New Yorkers far beyond her district in Brooklyn. She has been a fervent advocate on behalf of finding ways of developing affordable housing and livable wages in an increasingly overpriced city. She has been at the forefront of taking on Bloomberg on some of his most tone-deaf initiatives aimed at usurping the democratic process and pleasing developers and upper-income residents.

She is locked in a tight runoff election against state Sen. Daniel Squadron. Squadron, too, has been a forceful voice in this city for the concerns of working-class New Yorkers, and he has taken on some important issues in Albany. But this is not the time for the 33-year-old state senator to become the city’s public advocate.

Instead, this is a time that New York needs to showcase the talent of the diversity in its leadership. To that end, James combines the skill of a seasoned public servant with a passion for the issues that confront women, African-American and Latino residents and people whose concerns and life experiences have been too frequently overlooked by City Hall in recent years. And there is also the tantalizing prospect of New York electing an incredibly capable and talented official to be the first African-American woman to hold citywide office.

The public advocate is also the official who succeeds the mayor in the event the city’s chief executive must leave office. Although James has been clear that she harbors no intentions whatsoever of becoming New York City’s mayor, the prospect—should it become necessary—is nonetheless an appealing one.

This is not an easy election for her. A runoff race is one that attracts the attention of very few New York City voters. And although she was the top vote getter in the primary and came within a few percentage points of winning that race outright, she must have strong, determined support to win this obscure election.

If there is any underside to this scenario, it is the fact that that the city is compelled by law to spend $13 million to conduct this runoff. Those are funds that that could be far better used for hiring teachers, adding personnel to the Police Department or building some housing units for working-class citizens.

Still, that is all the more reason for voters to go to the polls on Oct. 1 to support a candidate who will commit herself to working tirelessly to ensure that that these engaging possibilities—and many more—ultimately come to pass.