Debate introduces Bronx voters to candidates for public advocate


Who will succeed new state attorney general Letitia James as New York City’s next public advocate is a question voters are set to decide in a special election Feb. 26 — but how to choose from a crowded field of 17 candidates is likely going to be a trick in of itself.

From former council Speakers like Melissa Mark-Viverito, to Assemblymen like Danny O’Donnell, to those who were both like Rafael Espinal, there are plenty of candidates to choose from next Tuesday. And that’s not even scratching the surface of community activists like Benjamin Yee and Anthony Herbert, lawyers like Dawn Smalls, and even former journalists like one-time “The Young Turks” news reporter Nomiki Konst.

Yet, only one is claiming Bronx credentials, and that’s Assemblyman Michael Blake, who admits getting noticed amongst so many candidates isn’t easy.

But he has a plan: “Be a handsome Jamaican.”

Joking aside, Blake told The Riverdale Press last week this is a race that comes down to not only credentials, but who can best represent those New Yorkers who are the least represented.

“I have 13-plus years of experience in public service,” he said. “I come from a union household. I come from a military family household. I know the walk.

“Others can talk about your causes, but who knows your journey?”

There are a number of stops that still need to be made on that journey, but foremost in Blake’s mind is the ongoing housing issues plaguing the city, from lack of affordability, to loss of basic services like gas and even elevators.

“I mean, housing is everywhere,” Blake said. “You have to have a home to feel secure. And people are very concerned about it.

“A lot of us are talking about housing, but how will you fix it?”

Blake has proposed a three-prong approach, beginning with a moratorium on third-party transfers for home ownership to address deed theft. For tenants, it’s about taking back tax credits from landlords who are not following rent stabilization laws.

And for the New York City Housing Authority, it’s simply ensuring tenants in those buildings have heat and hot water, and that they won’t be exposed to lead.

“All of those things are things that I would attack,” Blake said, “through legislation and through the bully pulpit. This is a moment where we’re not talking about a transition two months down the line, you’ve got to be ready immediately. And the work I have done on housing, I’d put up against anyone in this race.”

Some of those other candidates got a chance to compare resumes with Blake during a public advocate candidate debate last week at Lehman College, hosted by BronxNet’s Gary Axelbank.

Washington Heights Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez believes it’s time the city helps NYCHA residents lawyer up.

“The poorest New Yorker — the black, Latino and Asian, and those coming from the former Soviet Union — are the ones (being put) in those NYCHA complexes,” Rodriguez said. “The wealthy, they don’t care about NYCHA. It is time for us to bring more resources, and also it’s time for us to say, ‘Let’s join a class action lawsuit.’”

But others, like Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, feel that just won’t be enough.

“Anything that ends with the word ‘authority,’ whether it be the MTA or NYCHA — these quasi-government agencies — we actually strategically, by design, set them up to fail,” Kim said. “We’re just years away from trying to privatize everything. We need to restructure from the bottom up. We need transparency. We need the funds, but it’s also about revenue. Where are we going to get this revenue?”

Although the public advocate is more or less an ombudsman with no voting power in the city council, whoever holds the position can introduce bills to the council however, and speak out publicly about various issues affecting those in the city. And they also are the first in line to step into the mayor’s office if it were to be vacated prematurely.

The last two public advocates moved on to higher office, most recently with James moving on to statewide office in Albany, and her predecessor, Bill de Blasio, elected as mayor.

BronxNet will run last week’s debate several more times on its cable access channels right up through the Feb. 26 election.

BronxNet can be found on Channels 67-70 as well as 951 and 952 on Optimum, and on Channels 33-38 on Verizon FiOS in the Bronx.