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January 18th, 2009


by Ed Gold

Dark horse Tony Avella.

More city Democrats will be seeking the unglamorous positions of Comptroller and Public Advocate than Mayor this year. The reason is fairly obvious. Democrats will fill the two non-mayoral offices. But standing in front of City Hall this fall will be Daddy Warbucks and his $60 million bankroll, his candidacy due to the dispensation granted him by the City Council.

As of this writing, only three Democrats appear ready to take on Modest Mike: Anthony Weiner, the congressman from Brooklyn and Queens; Bill Thompson, the current comptroller, and Tony Avella, a Queens councilman and a very dark horse.

Six candidates have shown interest in the Comptroller post but one of them, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr., is reportedly slated for a role in the Obama Administration.

Meanwhile, seven candidates have indicated interest in filling the seat being vacated by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

The surprising interest in the lesser citywide positions may be related to an increase in public matching funds this year. Your $100 contribution is actually worth $700 to the candidate since the law now provides for a six to one match up to $175. A check for $175 is worth $1050 to the candidate.

It’s probably true that several ambitious candidates might have preferred running for mayor if they didn’t have to contemplate a race against Bloomberg.

Because of the number of possible entries for the non-mayoral citywide races, we could wind up with runoffs for both Public Advocate and Comptroller.

In other elective contests, for city council or borough president, you only need a plurality to win. In the last election for Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer won handily in a field of ten, but only received 28 per cent of the vote.

The Democrats changed the rule for the three citywide positions 40 years ago to avert further embarrassment.

In 1969, five Democrats competed in the mayoral primary and the winner was Mario Procaccino. He had been Comptroller and ran as a law-and-order candidate, thus alienating most of the city’s liberal Democrats.

He won the Democratic nomination with 33 percent of the vote, followed by Bob Wagner, seeking a fourth term, who got 29 percent; Bronx Borough President Herman Badillo–before he turned Republican–28 percent. Councilman Jim Scheuer and author Norman Mailer each got five percent.

So John Lindsay, who had lost the Republican line, running on Liberal Party and independent lines, was re-elected mayor. Since then, a Democrat has needed 40 percent of the primary vote to become the party’s candidate. (Lindsay would shortly after become a Democrat.)

The Public Advocate position was created in 1993 with the demise of the Board of Estimate and the elimination of the City Council presidency. Since then, two have been elected to the Public Advocate office: Mark Green, who again seems in the running, and Gotbaum, who has retired.

The Public Advocate, also called ombudsman, is essentially a “watchdog” over the city administration’s activities, almost inevitably creating friction with the mayor’s office.

Green had the right instincts for the job, successfully suing Mayor Rudy Giuliani for racial profiling, showing a high public profile which helped him win his party’s mayoral nomination in 2001 to run against then Republican Mike Bloomberg.

If he is serious about running for his old job, he should be the favorite since he has had a lot of city-wide exposure. There is also a downside to his exposure. He has a conspicuous losing streak in running for public office. He has lost races for seats in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, as well as state Attorney General.

He was expected to win the mayoralty in 2001, but blundered on two occasions. Green said okay when Giuliani, after his two terms, asked to stay on as mayor after 9/11; this annoyed many Democrats, and it didn’t happen. Then, late in the primary campaign against Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, some of Green’s supporters were accused of distributing racist literature against his opponent. Green could not resolve the issue satisfactorily; he wound up with only 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in the general election, which is astoundingly low for a New York Democrat.

Aside from being known citywide, he has been active in public life, as president of the liberal Air America radio station, as a prolific author and as a frequent TV guest.

Only Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer, has citywide exposure among the other Public Advocate possibilities. Siegel sought the position in 2005, losing to Gotbaum despite her low-key use of the office.

Siegel has an aggressive style that some find abrasive, and that may have hurt him against his soft-spoken, diminutive female opponent.

Four members of the City Council also seek the Public Advocate seat, several well-known in their boroughs but with limited citywide exposure: Eric Gioia and John Liu of Queens; Bill DeBlasio, active in Hillary’s first Senate run, from Brooklyn; and Jessica Lappin, the only female candidate, from Manhattan.

DeBlasio, Gioia and Liu have been campaigning seriously for some time and all have demonstrated fund-raising skills. One other possibility in the race is Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Manhattan, who seems to have the ambitious genes that run in his family.

In the Comptroller race, councilmembers once more dominate the field: Melina Katz and David Weprin of Queens, and David Yassky and Simcha Felder of Brooklyn. Weprin, as chair of the Council’s finance committee, sees himself as best qualified. But another possibility, Martha Stark, may have the best credentials, according to Jerry Skurnik of Prime New York, the political mailing list specialists, who notes she’s Finance Commissioner for the city.

Meanwhile, on the mayoral front, Weiner and Thompson have stepped up their attacks on Bloomberg, Weiner charging the mayor with being a “prolific spender” and Thompson questioning whether Bloomberg has any serious support outside of Manhattan.

Avella’s candidacy is something of a mystery, even though he has been active in city politics for more than 20 years and has worked for mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins. His pitch against Bloomberg is “over-development,” which could be an effective claim to make, but he lags far behind the other candidates in fund-raising.

Of course, no one can match Bloomberg’s personal fortune, and the spending limit for those taking matching funds is something over $6 million. But since his Council coup, Bloomberg has slipped in the polls and his approval rating is now in the 50’s, so it may turn out to be a hotter fall than expected.

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