By Jake Pearson
Two Democrats vying to become New York City's next public advocate squared off Tuesday in a final debate exactly one week ahead of a citywide runoff election that is expected to cost $13 million to put on — but likely will draw very few voters to the polls.
City Councilwoman Letitia James and state Sen. Daniel Squadron sparred in an hour-long debate over their respective records, taking great pains to tout their independence and ability to stand up to City Hall.
The public advocate — which has a budget of about $2 million — is a watchdog, tasked with overseeing all aspects of city government and playing an ombudsman-like role equipped with the power to introduce legislation to the city council and make certain city appointments.
But the position is also largely defined by its officeholder and the debate's moderators, NY1's Errol Lewis and WNYC's Brian Lehrer, asked the candidates to define it in their own words.
James called the position the "checks and balances on the mayor of the city of New York." Squadron said the public advocate shouldn't be a thorn in the side of just the mayor but rather, "just the thorn."
The wide-ranging debate touched on how each candidate would advocate for a host of constituents — from public housing residents to parent groups to the homeless — but was dominated primarily by repeated boasts of past accomplishments coupled with sharp critiques.
James, who is serving her third term in the council, attacked Squadron for his involvement in the construction of a waterfront park in Brooklyn, saying he would build luxury housing there after opposing it before the campaign. Squadron denied James' claims.
For his part Squadron, who represents parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, tried to paint James as untrustworthy, saying she hadn't disclosed rental income from being a landlord until recently and took campaign contributions from large corporations. James rents to tenants who live in her Brooklyn brownstone.
"In an office that's all about transparency, don't you think those issues should raise real doubts?" he said.
Since neither candidate reached the 40 percent necessary to avoid the runoff after the Sept. 10 primary, state law requires a runoff despite the steep price tag and absence of a higher-profile race, like the mayoral, which might have attracted more voters.
The winner of the runoff will go on to the Nov. 5 general election. There is no Republican candidate for the office.
Each candidate was also asked if their political ambitions extended beyond the public advocate, who is first in the line of succession, should the mayor become unable to serve. James said definitively she had no desire to run for mayor. Squadron said currently his aspirations were only to be successful on Oct. 1.