By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The public advocate’s office operates on a budget of $2.2 million a year, a paltry sum by city government standards. But Councilwoman Letitia “Tish” James said she isn’t daunted by that fact.
James, one of five candidates running in the Sept. 10 Democratic Primary for public advocate, said her decade-long tenure on the City Council puts her in a unique position to get more funding and resources for the office. “I am in a position to lobby for additional funding for that office. I know the council members. I have worked side by side with them. I have built personal relationships with them,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in an interview on Wednesday.
James is running against Cathy Guerriero, a college professor; state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn Heights), former deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani, and Sidque Wai, an official at the Police Department in charge of outreach to minority communities.
James (D-Fort Greene-Clinton Hill) is hoping that the combination of her political savvy and her work history will set her apart from her rivals in the eyes of voters when they cast their ballots in the primary. “I have been a public defender, a counsel to legislators, and I have been a member of the City Council for 10 years. I have a record of accomplishment; a record of looking out for the voiceless. That is why I have put my credentials on the table to present myself to the voters,” she said.
She sees the role of public advocate as that of “the voice of the everyday New Yorker” and as “someone who stands up against powerful interests.”
If she is elected, James said she would focus on education, assisting immigrants, affordable housing, fair pay for fast food workers, and women’s issues. The city educational system needs serious reform, she said. “We need to empower parents,” she said.
The public advocate largely serves as an ombudsman for average New Yorkers having trouble with city government. The person holding the office can also hold public hearings and conduct audits of city agencies.
In addition, the public advocate is entitled to appoint one member of the City Planning Commission, something James said is an important and overlooked responsibility. The commission makes important decisions on land use. James, who led the fight to ensure that the Atlantic Yards Project, which included the construction of the Barclays Center, didn’t cripple the surrounding neighborhood, said she would give careful consideration to that appointment.
James was first elected to the City Council in November of 2003. The district had been represented by Democrat James Davis. But in one of the most shocking incidents ever to take place in New York, Davis was shot to death on July 23, 2003 in the City Council chambers by a Othniel Askew, who had been a political rival. The New York Times reported at the time that Askew was then shot by a police officer assigned to City Hall. Askew later died.
“After Councilman Davis was assassinated, the community was devastated,” James recalled. “The community needed healing. The community needed leadership,” she said. James ran for the open seat and won.
During her years on the council, James has chaired several committees, including the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management. In the wake of the Blizzard of 2010, when the Department of Sanitation didn’t remove snow for days, leaving many New Yorkers stranded, James held public hearings and called officials on the carpet.
Prior to her election to the council, James served as an aide to elected officials, first as counsel to then-assemblyman Albert Vann and then as chief of staff to Assemblyman Roger Green.
Earlier, James had worked as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society. “I know intimately the criminal justice system,” she said. Her courtroom experience taught her the important role government can play in people’s lives, she said. “I saw many young people in trouble whose lives could have been helped by government programs,” she said. “I also represented a lot of victims of domestic violence. I saw how important the issue of affordable housing is. These women needed a place to go that was affordable,” she said.
She would remember these lessons when she got to the City Council, she said. With the city’s young people in mind, she fought for funding for early childhood education, after-school programs, and libraries, she said. As for housing, she successfully pushed for passage of the Safe Housing Act, a law ensuring that thousands of families in rental buildings receive prompt and full repairs to their apartments.
James was born and raised in Park Slope. She attended PS 39 and Intermediate School 88. “My parents didn’t want me to go to John Jay High School, so I went to Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge,” she said. Her council colleagues Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heigths-Bensonhurst) and Sara Gonzalez (D-Sunset Park-Red Hook) are also Fort Hamilton graduates. James jokingly referred to herself as “a proud member of the council’s Fort Hamilton caucus.”
Although she currently lives in the Northern Brooklyn district she serves, she feels a special connection to Park Slope, she said. “It’s where I grew up, where I jumped rope, where I had my first boyfriend,” she said.
“I want the voters to know that I don’t represent the well connected or the well heeled. I represent the everyday New Yorker,” James said.