MTK: I am starting with the Office of Public Advocate itself which I think is a truly unique political position. Why are you interested in the position of public advocate, coming from where you’re coming. Why is it attractive to you?
SCOTT STRINGER: I happen to agree with you. There is no other office that I can see like it in the United States. It’s an innovative position. It’s a creative position. It’s a new position. And in light of the fact that the government of New York is going to go through a wholesale change – a new mayor, a new comptroller, a new public advocate, 37 new city council members, four out of five borough presidents, the whole city government will be brand new. There’s going to be a tremendous generational change, a more diverse city council. I think the public advocate can play a meaningful role in the government of New York. That’s why I decided to run.
MTK: What do you think of the job Mark Green has done – specifically – since he was the first elected public advocate? What kind of public advocate would you be by comparison?
SS: I think Mark’s done a good job. I mean when you’re the first it’s the most difficult position to go in – plus he did not have a cooperative mayor. But he carved out a niche on consumer issues, on police brutality issues. I think he was a good watchdog and I think he molded the office into something very important.
When Rudy Giuliani tried to convene the Charter Revision Commission to do away with the position, the public reacted. In fact, they reacted to the job Mark had done, because the editorials and a lot of folks said, ‘we shouldn’t have a public advocate.’ So I’d give him, you know – I think he’s done a very good job in the position. The question is, though, “Where do you take it?” and that’s the challenge and that’s going to take some work and some creativity. I think a lot of us who are running would say that Mark has done a good job but we want to now elevate it.
I would like to see some of the Charter mandated powers. With those charter mandated powers, I would like to see us work on those issue and use them – I think that the role of Mark’s appointment – the public advocate’s appointment – to the City Planning Commission can be a very exciting one, in terms of being involved in urban planning and land usages and building communities, preserving neighborhoods, protecting our diversity. You can do that, I mean, having an appointment to the City Planning Commission allows you to have a seat at the table on some major development issues – whether it’s rational development or – real planning issues. So I would like to see the public advocate’s office have a land use unit, have a way to deal with those kind of– those communities throughout the city.
You know, you sit on the employee pension system, you decide where investments go and who invests. And that’s powerful. You’re there with the mayor and comptroller and labor unions who have a vote and borough presidents. I mean you can really shape economic policy and that puts you at that table. How are we going to deal with pension investments almost like part of a comptroller’s office to a certain extent.
You are also a legislator in the city council. You vote when there’s ties, but you can debate, you can legislate. You can serve ex-officio. You are to serve ex-officio on city council committees. What better place for a legislator who in 8 years has cast 18, 16,000 votes in Albany to come down in a new council and be able to legislate while you have a vote on the city planning commission, while you sit on the pension fund and while you serve as the chief ombudsperson for the entire city? I mean, the ombudsman’s position has been around for a long time, Paul O’Dwyer advocated it way before Mark Green, part of the city council president’s office.
But what I have tried to do in my office – I do tremendous constituent service – where we’ve been successful is analyzing where those complaints are coming from and then look at it from a larger issue. So when MCI was doing those 10-10 false – you know that faulty advertising with the movie stars telling you that if you call the 10-10 numbers you’re going to save money. We got complaints in our office from our constituents and then we did our own survey and found out that wait a minute, those ads aren’t telling the truth. They’re wrong. MCI got fined a 100,000 dollars, federally, based on our study – when it was on Dateline and that’s energy and excitement because you deal with your constituent unit in the public advocate’s office.
But then if you’re smart you can monitor for major issues. You can monitor city agencies. You can track them through constituent complaints. You can look at studies. I used to chair the task force on people with disabilities in Albany. We got complaints about federal, state, city buildings having barriers to access for our constituents. We did a report on it – found a hundred barriers to access in 14 government buildings. Let’s legislate, let’s call in the mayor to do something about it. That’s what we did as an Assembly member. But as the Ombudsman you can do it with a whole staff, with energetic people who can scour the borough, monitoring things, getting out into the street, and as ombudsman you can be out in the neighborhood.
MTK: I think that’s what separates the people who want to eliminate the position from those who want to keep it – a real ombudsman – Paul O’Dwyer’s vision of the position.
SS: The role of the ombudsman has been sort of evolving. And the way I look at it is you know, you get constituent complaints and you send people out into the streets. We’re going to figure out a way to pay for a Winnebago and we’re going to get people out in the boroughs and around the city, learning about what’s going on and then use our investigative unit, our investigative powers to check things out. I have just used that as a model as a member of the Assembly for many years and I think it works. So I’d like to expand the ombudsman’s office. When you put all that together – all these different roles, it’s a special office. I’m an Assemblyman. I vote on the budget and I legislate and I do my constituent service. That’s what I do. As public advocate, you can do it all. You can do things.
And then you have to use other experiences. You are a city-wide elected official in a diverse city, a changing city. So who you work with and how you build coalitions – I mean in our campaign we are very proud of the fact that we are building a multi-racial, intergenerational campaign. That’s good politics, but then that’s going to be good government. So to try to build a network to rally around issues could be very exciting.
MTK: Many issues that will come under your purvey have demographic or even racial overtones – housing, education, police, welfare issues to some degree. And I think also the new census is going to show a very diverse New York. Now, you’re background strikes me as from this area. Can you tell me about your relationship with the rest of the city?
SS: Well, I didn’t grow up on the Upper West Side, I grew up in Washington Heights. Went to CUNY, went to public schools. Got interested in politics when a relative of mine ran for Congress, Bella Abzug, back in the 70’s, my mother followed as a member of the City Council. So I was one of these kids –
MTK: What relation was Bella Abzug to you?
SS: She was my mother’s cousin. So Bella ran the district, we got involved and learned a lot and so I always had an interest. I moved to the west side and got involved with Congressman Jerry Nadler, worked for him, got elected a District Leader. When he went to Congress, I ran successfully for the Assembly and have been there ever since – 1992. So my relationship with the rest of the city is … not just representing this community but I’ve had life experience where we’ve interacted with different people from all different backgrounds. I’ve tried to work on diversity issues because I have a genuine interest in them all my life – even before I was in the Assembly. I worked to preserve the Mitchell-Loma Housing Program, got involved in a lot of tenant organizing before the Assembly.
MTK: Do you speak any other languages?
SS: No. I can barely speak English (laughs). No, I don’t. But I have worked in communities where different languages are spoken and with people from different backgrounds. And in the Assembly I have worked on issues that impact poor people or communities of color. I was the only Democrat in the Assembly to take the most “no” votes in the Pataki budgets in the mid-90’s. I stood up alone. I stood up alone on the commuter tax – that we shouldn’t eliminate the commuter tax. I was the only Democrat to vote against the rent-regulation compromise – the only Democrat. I am very independent.
MTK: That’s huge.
SS: Yeah. I was the only person to do it. It was very huge in a legislature that’s dominated by the speaker. I have taken him on and the Assembly. I mean, you don’t vote no on compromise budgets. You don’t vote no when everybody else is going along and I have chosen to do that. That was the role.
I was one of the first Jewish, if not the first Jewish legislator, to get arrested at One Police Plaza and went to jail because I thought it was the right thing to do and then people followed. And I have marched and protested and organized because I believe in the diversity of the city, I really do. When the KKK came to New York, it was my office and my office alone that worked with the clergy, religious groups of all different persuasions and we had the biggest peacetime rally at (TK site name and RES: event), I don’t know if you remember it.
MTK: I do.
SS: That was my rally. We did it. And that’s the kind of stuff I want to do as public advocate with a larger staff and a bigger budget. I think those kinds of things will enhance things in the city for people. People loved that debate.
The best thing was The New York Times did a story on the rally – didn’t mention me – but talked about how parents brought their children to see the Klan. To me – you know usually politicians are like, “where do they mention me?” – it’s an article that I’ve wanted to frame because it was such a – the spirit of it, you know – to have parents bring their kids …
So these are some of the issues I’ve worked on. And in Albany I have been effective. I’ve worked on police brutality legislation in Albany with the Black and Puerto Rican caucus. I’ve been effective dealing with the Republicans in the Senate. You know, to be independent, you can be liberal, you can be progressive, but if you’re not effective, you know … then how are you going to deal with a diverse city council? I have passed a lot of laws – seven years to pass the New York stalking law, four years to pass the auto-protection bill that allowed women to get – especially poor women – to get police officers to serve auto-protection on their abusers. That was a bill that got vetoed by Governor Pataki that I got signed into law. (TK – RES: what is this all about?)
MTK: You mentioned the relationship between Mark Green and the Mayor and have said you’d like to evolve the position. Well, evolving the position requires a mayor who is warm to that. Which of the candidates for Mayor do you get along with best and do you think there is a specific problem between the mayor and the public advocate that could be ameliorated some other way, from your experience.
SS: If you’re going to run for public advocate you’re going to have to be prepared to knock heads with the mayor. There’s an inevitable conflict. You monitor their city agencies. You speak out when you think there’s an injustice. You’re going to issue critical reports. You’re going to organize coalitions. You are going to be out in the streets where the mayor is going to be in city hall. Sure, there is going to be a conflict. The creativity of the individual is what’s going to come into play here. Can you maintain your independence? Can you do the coalition building and organizing on issues that sometimes may not be popular? But at the same time both in the city council and in negotiations with the mayor, can you accomplish things? Can you see your ideas and your criticisms come to a point of being successful in the end. That’s what makes this office so interesting. On the one hand, there’s that natural antagonism, on the other hand, you’re a working council member, trying to introduce legislation, you want to get bills passed. You’re the ombudsman. You need cooperation with city agencies. It’s better than not having it. It’s a challenging job to do that.
I think what I bring to the table is that ability. I think I have proven it in Albany in a place where you have live Republicans running around that control things, a Governor in Pataki, and the Senator, Joe Bruno. I’ve been able to do both. I’ve been one of the more independent Assembly members but I’ve been effective. I took committees like the task force for people with disabilities that was just given to me because I didn’t have enough seniority to get a lu-lu, and we made it into something. Started holding hearings, we issued reports and we made the mayor come out and say, “Hey you know …” made his office say, “You know, you’re right.” We’ve protected people with disabilities and we’ve made that task force something. I’m proud of the fact that I was appointed chair of the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation committee of the Assembly, in part because people recognized what …
MTK: and the candidates for mayor?
SS: I like them all. I haven’t taken a position. I want to hear what they have to say.
MTK: You are not an attorney.
MTK: Yet much of the power of the Office of Public Advocate is reliant on legal procedure, subpoenas, lawsuits. You’ve even said it will require creativity. Don’t you think it will require creative legal work to empower the position? And if you are not an attorney, isn’t that a problem?
SS: Part of government is having people of different experiences in government. I think there is certainly a role for attorneys in politics. We certainly have a lot of attorneys. I’ve been an Assembly member for over eight years. I haven’t been an Attorney but I’ve introduced and passed a whole lot of pieces of legislation. I’ve been effective in terms of dealing with the rules of Albany and understanding the legal ramifications of legislation and probably have – certainly the council members who are running for public advocate and I obviously have the most legislative experience. I certainly would match my legislative record with the attorneys. I know where to find a good lawyer if we have to file a lawsuit because that person will be called the Counsel to the Public Advocate. We’ll have a Deputy Public Advocate and when I say we have to bring a lawsuit, we’ll bring a lawsuit. When I say … But I can read my own bills. I can introduce my own legislation. I can write my own legislation. And I’ve been doing it effectively for eight years.
Maybe one of the things we have to encourage is – and I think this is going to play out in the city council – certainly having a legal background is good, but we need teachers, we need union leaders in the council, we need younger people in the council, maybe we need people who work in day care in the council, we need parents in the council, maybe we even need a college student or so to come into this new government. I think it’s not just ethnic diversity, but it’s life experience diversity. I’ll know where to find a good lawyer.
MTK: It’s an interesting point, I mean, a 22 year old kid from the Bronx has just been elected.
SS: OK, yeah, I wouldn’t want to have a bunch of 22 year olds, but you know what? We have to create this balance so that we hear a young person’s agenda in the city. Because after all we do this for younger people. We certainly need to have some experienced people. But I think we have to recognize that the government is going to change. We need to elect a new generation of candidates. I am hoping that will inspire a new generation of ideas. We cannot continue to go the way we go. I think I offer that. We need some energy here. We need some people who do things differently. That’s why I decided to spend a year out of my life doing this thing?
MTK: In reading some background on you, I understand you were involved in saving the New York Historical Society in 1993. Did you meet Betsy Gotbaum then?
SS: Betsy and I are good friends. I played a major role in my first year in Albany in helping to rescue the Historical Society before Betsy was there. I was able to obtain 6 million dollars in State funding to get the Historical Society on its feet and I was very proud of that.
MTK: Is it odd though to be running against her?
SS: I think it’s funny. (laughing) Betsy has done a good job at the Historical Society. But I’m going to ask her though that she’s got to mention my small role in getting the ball rolling but we’re good friends and I like her very much.
MTK: Do you have specific issues in mind for the Office of Public Advocate?
SS: I want to build affordable housing. I wrote a housing plan based on how we built Mitchell-Loma housing after World War II during the 1950’s. We’ve got to build housing for middle income and working poor. I want to concentrate on developing a real plan. Not a Giuliani-600-million-dollar-out-the-door plan, “as I’m leaving we should build affordable housing.” Every mayoral candidate has got to come up with that plan. I think I have done a lot of research on what I think is a direction we should go, from a state point of view. I care very much about this economy and I am fascinated and interested in how we can expand e-commerce and deal with the digital divide and make sure that our kids can be competitive. I don’t think the answer is to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at large corporations, convincing them to stay here, when all they want is affordable housing and a trained workforce. This is no longer when I went to school and we had to compete with the kids in New York City. Now it’s, ‘We’ve got to compete globally.’ We’ve got to recognize that in this town real fast. I want to prod people who do have the power to make those changes. I think we do our kids a disservice. My office has worked on these issues. I serve on the education committee and the higher ed committee. We try to hold them to higher standards then we don’t give them the tools in the classroom to succeed. Over the summer we did a study after getting constituent complaints about the fact that 8th graders would be mandated to take 8th grade exams on how to use a microscope and a weight scale. So we surveyed half the school districts around the city to find out how many microscopes and weight scales were there. Well I don’t have to tell you the end of that story. We setup our kids for failure. So those kids would fail that exam and have to do summer school. This is after the state gave the highest educational dollars into the school system. I want to organize on the city level to deal with the issue of the inequity in school aid for our kids, for our kids in New York City. We just held a meeting, a kickoff meeting on the west side last week. But we gotta tell Pataki and the Republicans and those Democrats who won’t take a stand in upstate and suburban New York – we gotta make them understand that failing to give our kids proper education aid has meant dilapidated school buildings, poor school books, lack of computers. This is the struggle and I’m going to bring my Albany experience to the job of public advocate, because I’m going to know how to organize when these folks, colleagues, from upstate and suburban New York talk about how unreasonable we’re being. It’s not just about adjusting the school aid formula, it’s about doing needs assessment to make sure that the kids in poorer districts get more money and if you want to call it reparations that’s fine with me ‘cause that’s what we’re owed for our kids.
MTK: The CCRB and COPIC are both the responsibilities of the Public Advocate. Have you thought about how you might change either of these responsibilities, technologize them, (laughter) perhaps?
SS: I think that especially from a technological point of view there’s a lot– that the Internet and the entrepreneurial spirit of New York is tied into computerization and new technology that can deliver services. I’ve read some of Mark Green’s work in that area. I would like to expand on it.
We just convened under my sponsorship an Internet roundtable of Internet companies in New York City to try to begin at least from my thinking that kind of thinking. I hope to allow some specific proposals during the campaign.
MTK: How do you think the Office of the Public Advocate can be effective or can intercede into the negotiation space with regard to complaints of police brutality?
SS: I think Mark Green has done a wonderful job of documenting those complaints and suing the mayor and I think that he showed how effective the public advocate can be in relation to the CCRB and police brutality. The role that I think I can play – and I think we have to do this in terms of connecting the police to the community is one to deal with the fact that …. we need real recruitment in the NYPD. Not just Safir saying, “Oh yeah, let’s get the CUNY kids to do it.” We gotta make a case to people – not just to attract teachers, because we’re going to need 54,000 new teachers – but we’ve gotta go to the campuses in a meaningful way in a serious way to convince people who want to work in public service that this police department is worth being involved with. People did it backwards, once the s** hit the fan – please don’t put that in when you do this article –
MTK: Don’t worry.
SS: What we said was, OK go to CUNY and go get minority kids to be the cops, Go .. Go, go. What would you sell to them? What would be the benefit of that? Do they believe that they could have a-
MTK: Worse, the PBA’s running ads of cops shot dead in the streets while only getting paid $30,000 a year.
SS: Right. As if suddenly … African-American, Latino kids … that would appeal to them.
This has to happen internally. There has to be a commitment to open up the process. There has to be a commitment so that people who want to go back to their communities and protect those communities – which is a very worthwhile profession, and I think there’s a lot of interest to do it – that they can have career advancement; that there isn’t this tension with the police department. I’m going to work as public advocate to make sure that we do that kind of recruitment – not just on the campuses but in communities – and force the NYPD and the new mayor to make sure that there are in fact career opportunities and understand that the police is not the enemy of the people. I’m tired of hearing parents say to me, “I don’t worry about the criminal anymore, I worry about the cop.” If we’re going to do improvements, we’ve got to tone that down and that comes from the police department and then the mayor. And I hope to play that role.
MTK: And what about in specific instances of brutality. I think many people feel that the police are protected very much by the mayor. If you look at the instance of the Diallo shooting all four police officers were cleared of wrong-doing, found not-guilty on charges even of reckless endangerment.
SS: I support the following: I support – and a lot of this has to come from Albany but we’ve got to organize for this eventuality – police officers should live in New York, new police officers should definitely live in New York; if you’re going to shoot someone 41 times, you shouldn’t have 48 hours to get your story together – I don’t know of another jurisdiction where – you and I would not be accorded that benefit should that happen. I think when a gun is fired, he should be drug tested, and you should be drug and alcohol tested immediately. It’s like DWI. Cops pull you over, you may not have been drinking, but you should do a check. And I think we have to hold those officers to a higher standard. I also think that part of the failure of that TK, one city hall and the police department driving these kids – these inexperienced police officers – to make the arrest, make the arrest, by any means, shake people down, you know, by any cost. We need to have a supervisory effort here and restructure the department. You cannot sned young people out in plain clothes, give them a mandate that’s impossible to fill, without understanding the ramifications of it. I think New Yorkers understand, what every African-American and Latino parent understands that their children are in danger when they walk the streets in some quarters. Now having said that, we have wonderful police officers and one of the things that struck me during when I was arrested and things like that and talking to other cops: they were horrified by that. A lot of police officers don’t want to work under these conditions and I think those police officers should be elevated and we should search them out … they can be mentors – a lot of good cops, let’s not denigrate a whole department, you know there are bad politicians, there are bad teachers, every one of us – you know, there are bad journalists … believe it or not … no, you know-
MTK: Of that I’m a firm believer, are you kidding me? Look at the year we’re having … look at last year.
SS: So there’s a lot that we can do to work on these issues and I hope to be part of it – I have been part of it, both in Albany and on the streets of New York.
MTK: Do you think there is institutional racism in the police department or any other citywide agency?
SS: I think sure there have been a lot of instances where people’s racism comes out. I wouldn’t say it’s true in all instances. I wouldn’t want to label a whole city like that. I think there’s a lot of good people, too, who believe as I believe that we are a diverse city and that’s what attracts us to stay here and work here. The job of any elected official from the mayor to the public advocate is to look at that from a positive point of view and then root out racism and teach our kids that we do live in a diverse city – there’s a lot of things we should do on these issues. Part of the excitement of my campaign is we’re building a multiracial, intergenerational campaign. We’re young people, old people, african-american, latino, asian-american, gay, straight, and trans-gendered. It’s good politics, but I really believe this: imagine governing having gotten elected that way?
MTK: Especially now.
SS: It’s a great opportunity. And I’ll tell you this I’m learning – I tell you I’ve lived here all my life, grew up in Washington Heights, grew up in a multiracial community. This city is great. You’ve got neighborhoods upon neighborhoods, 5 blocks later you’re in another neighborhood. People live together and that’s the best part of this town. That’s why we live here and not in the suburbs.
MTK: Well … I guess I was thinking how as public advocate, how more aggressive you could be since as you pointed out you have this range of topics now available to you in a rather local context, as opposed to having to deal with other assembly people to make decisions or implement change. You said that you have the idea of evolving the position of Public Advocate. But I think a lot of the 60% or two thirds of the community that will show up in the census as non-white are going to want to know how it’s going to change. I want to know how progressive are you? Would you, for example suggest changes to the Charter with regard to empowering the position of public advocate?
SS: I mean I would argue that to do the job right, to have direct subpeona power – instead of just requesting through the city council for subpoenas – to have your own subpoena power would certainly enhance the office and would do a lot in terms of investigative powers.
MTK: Would you try to institutionalize that?
SS: Well, I mean … is it going to happen? No.
MTK: Well, why not, I mean, TK seats up on the city council maybe everyone’s going to be incredibly radically minded about how they want to change the office.
SS: I don’t think the new mayor’s going to – one of them said it’s not happening to me already. But to start with, I’m convinced that with the powers that exist right now, I can have a profound effect on the debate over the various issues that are going to face New York over the next four years. I would work within what the Charter mandated functions today. Obviously as we build coalitions and we get a sense of what the council’s like, probably, hopefully if people think that– going in if I can create a sense that this office is important, rather than just going in and saying in order to be effective guys I’m need this, this, this and this to happen, especially with a mayor and editorial boards that would argue-
SS: It’s easy to say that you can do these things but one thing I have learned in Albany is that certain change comes slowly and you have to be political in how you get to where you want to be and where you want to end up as part of this negotiation as part of this compromise. As long as you don’t sacrifice your principal belief system. And I do not believe I have done that in my years in Albany. Last year Pataki vetoed a very important bill that would allow early release of women prisoners to work-release programs, not to be freed because we ended parole but we left these hundred women –
MTK: to A.T.I. [alternatives to incarceration]
SS: Right. It was my bill. Very controversial bill. Probably come up in the campaign. And Pataki vetoed it because he wanted the D.A.’s to have input even though the corrections commissioners could call the DA. But it meant that Pataki – even though it passed the democratic assembly and the republican senate. I had the bill. Done. Not bad. Pataki vetoed it and he wanted to amend it and I said, “No, let it go, we’ll do it this year.” Sometimes you’ve just gotta say, “OK, you lose the bill” but sometimes you say, “Ok this is the best I can get.” That’s being a good legislator.
Sometimes you hit the streets, as we did when the Klan came here or when the police brutality issues came up. I recognized that it was important for someone who looked like me to be out there because we had to show that it was not just the minority community that was concerned but we had to show that the white community was concerned and some people had to step out there.
Sometimes you have to do that, but then you’ve also got to go to Albany, and you’ve got to pass the 48 hour rule and you have to keep fighting for the ban bill on residency. This role here is not just being
an advocate out on the streets or doing a Sunday press conference – which I’m good at also – it’s multifaceted.
Then you use the power. You want to talk about how we build communities, especially in minority neighborhoods – city planning commission. What kind of infrastructure planning do we have in the Harlem community when all the development after 96th street, we don’t have enough sewage treatment and toilet hookups and things like that so residents in Harlem will want to develop – who have their own community plans are being told, “but you can’t do it because the treatment facilities can’t handle it.” Or parts of East New York that cry out for economic development attention. And what about subsidies for those communities and community based organizations. That’s the hidden secret of the public advocate’s office to me.
SS: You roll up your sleeves and you get involved in zoning and you become an expert on how things are built in this town and you work with the unions and the construction trades and you talk about how we collectively build affordable housing. Now that in addition to police brutality and other issues will impact the two-thirds, the diverse parts of this city that cries out for some of those services and that piece of the pie. And I think I understand that – and it’s not the issues that are going to get you on New York 1 in the morning …. it’s not the issues that you are going to come saying I want to do a profile on you for … but at the end of four years if that’s what builds up neighborhoods and toned down the violence and toned down the tension. And then we got to deal with other issues, you know it’s not just job creation for communities. It’s not just opening up the store anymore and saying I’m going to give the poor community jobs. It’s also about ownership and how are we going to give people ownership of this town? The best way you do that is by giving ownership of small businesses and what are the programs of this new e-commerce, new technology that allows people of color to have the same advantages as other folks who have been here, you know, people who have had those advantages in other ethnic groups. Let’s do it all.
And that’s the hidden power of the public advocate’s office. How to use those powers for leverage, to leverage that stuff. That’s reasonable. That’s what I’m going to concentrate on. We’re going to have a unit on land use. We’re going to talk about economic development and job use. Some people want to sue a lot. And I’ll have lawyers to sue, but I also want to build real programs that can last way beyond you know my term as public advocate.
MTK: [philosophical question, open ended]
SS: I think this job is exciting, innovative, creative. I’m more motivated about running because of the whole change in city government. I believe that we need a generational change here. Of the good candidates who are running for public advocate – I respect each and every one of them and I think each one will do a good job. I just bring something different for this time right now which is real change and something new. But it’s a stepping stone like anything. I may decide to get reelected. I really want to do this job. But I enjoy what I do now. I like to serve. I think it’s exciting to have a larger constituency, to do more. Not having a speaker. To go into city council even though your presiding with no power. You can look in issues not just micro but macro issues.
Mark handles 30,000 complaints a year … try to do more of that. I want to ask: Why is everyone complaining about HPD? Why are we seeing trends in this agency? Then we’ll go to town. That’s what’s exciting about this job. If you do a good job well, …
MTK: Real change could happen.
[but seven months later, two planes flew into the World Trade Centers, contravening democracy at the most basic level]
An Interview with Norman Siegel, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Sunday, February 11, 2001. At an “Open House” for an office on 72nd street on the upper west side of Manhattan run by an organization called, Friends of Norman Siegel, where there are documents that read, in part, “Norman Siegel for Public Advocate 2001” and a petition for the same at the door.
NORMAN SIEGEL: … it’s exciting. I’ve never done this before. You read about people running for office. You see films about it … and the balloons, and the people, and here it is. I’m in the middle of it. So often I think, “How did I get here?” But I’m excited.
MTK: But this shouldn’t seem foreign to you insomuch as you deal with politicians all the time.
NS: I deal with politicians all the time but the implication here is now I’m becoming one and that kind of concerns me on one level because I’ve always been critical of politicians myself. The main thing is politicians generally don’t answer questions. They’re disingenuous. They’re delusional at times, and I just have to make sure that I remember who I am; what my roots are, what my principles are, and try to answer the questions even when they are difficult ones. Generally speaking I’ve done that all my life as an advocate and in fact I think I’ve been the private advocate and now I want to be the public advocate.
MTK: But couldn’t you be losing power in a way (given that the position is weak)? If not, do you think of yourself as a progressive candidate, and if so, how do you think you will evolve the office if elected Public Advocate?
NS: Well the first thing .. I don’t think I’m, quote, “losing any power.” I mean, I think that I had these yearnings to take what I did at the Civil Liberties Union in Legal Services for the last 23 years in New York and apply it in a larger setting. Perhaps a less supportive ideological setting and test to see whether or not what I’ve been successful at with the Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services can be applied in a larger setting. What that means is I can now take on issues like education, immigrant rights, health issues, housing issues. The number of issues is going to expand substantially. I mean at the Civil Liberties Union we always had to deal with constitutional rights and, “Is it a test case.” Here, any issue is up for grabs. Which is the transition to the second part. I think Mark [Green, current and first elected public advocate] did a relatively good job. I think I would like to continue what he did but expand it. I’ve never been an “in the box” personality. And I don’t think I’ll be an “in the box” personality here–I’ll stretch it. I’m an activist. I am a progressive. I better be able to continue my activism and my progressive views. I’m assuming that that will happen. If it turns out that that doesn’t happen then I better take stock because that’s part of my assumption. I’m 57 years old now. I’m kind of silently proud of who I am, what I’ve done, the people I’ve represented. I’ve been tested a lot of times, and I’ve generally done OK. And that’s in a private way, when I go home at 11, 12 at night and I gotta look in the mirror, I gotta be OK with me and, generally speaking, I am. So knowing that, I want to enter this other arena which has a lot, a lot, of problems. When I watched what was happening in Florida and the betrayal of democracy in America, watching young people becoming more and more cynical, more and more alienated, it occurred to me that maybe I have to step into this arena and try to inspire and motivate young people. That it’s not all that way. In a lot of speeches I’ve been giving I’ve been telling people, “We need to dare to continue to dream about how it should be rather than how it is.”
MTK: I’m very fearful that this kind of a message is fading in importance. When you are out talking to people do you think there is a renewed feeling for public service there?
NS: Not yet. Not yet. And what I am hoping is that I can succeed in doing it in a nontraditional way–putting together the multiracial coalition of New Yorkers that I’m convinced want to come together across racial lines, but haven’t had the opportunity yet to do that because the failure of leadership to provide the climate, the atmosphere, the opportunity so that people from the black, the brown, the red, the yellow the white community can begin to learn about each other. We all stereotype each other because we don’t know each other. And we continue to do that because no one is prepared to take on this radioactive issue. One of the reasons I run? I want to begin a citywide dialogue on race. I want to begin to talk about it frankly. Racism in New York is not like it was in the deep South when I went there in the sixties. Racism in New York is subtle. It’s sophisticated. But it exists.
MTK: Do you think it’s institutional?
NS: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. There’s a legacy of racism in many of the…just take the NYPD, who I’ve been battling for years. That’s an institutional problem, it’s not just an individual problem. It’s systemic.
MTK: So don’t you think there’ll be a great deal of resistance to what you’re saying?
NS: Of course, but you see, I think post-Louima, -Diallo, and -Dorismond … and Bush. I’ve been at many, many community meetings … Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx. I think there’s a majority of New Yorkers, across racial and geographical lines, that want to come together on racial lines to develop a common agenda to take on certain issues like at the Police Department, at the Board of Education, Housing … I mean, all of these–Housing, Education, Police–they all have enormous racial overtones. A lot of it stems from stereotyping. So if you begin to talk about it, if you begin to address it and identify people across racial lines who want to talk about it and want to realistically ameliorate it, I think we can do it. We haven’t had our civil rights movement here in New York, we had a southern civil rights movement but we haven’t had one here. So if I become the public advocate, I have an enormous bully pulpit, and as a white guy, I can be talking about race issues. It shouldn’t only be blacks or Latinos talking about race. White folks, it’s our problem too. So I want to use the position as a vehicle, to kind of shake it up. I was kidding when we just cut the ribbon out there that I got the “Shake it Up” party endorsement this afternoon. We want to try to excite young people, yet we also want to reach everybody so that people begin to realize that we don’t have to accept the status quo. Even on the most transient issue, which is race, in my opinion. I think we can make progress. And I think there are so many people in New York who want to come together, but when you’ve got a mayor like Rudy Giuliani, you can’t come together. In fact, he divides people. Here’s a guy who doesn’t even feel comfortable with blacks and Latinos in the room. Well, I’ve had many African-American, Latino, and Asian clients and I have become educated and sensitized for 35 years of being with people of color and white folks. And I like when there’s a mix. If it’s all homogenous, I’m not comfortable. New York is not homogenous. It has diversity and we should build upon that and realize the pluses out of that. Now, is it hard? You bet, it’s hard. It’s hard, first, because people have already given up. But I’m young, I’m energetic. There’s a lot of other people. I’ve got the black and Latino police officers with me. I’ve got the cab drivers who are with me. Those are powerful people.
MTK: I think the census results in April are going to show us remarkable numbers in the electorate.
NS: Sixty percent are people of color, at a minimum, maybe a third. Well, on the police, two thirds of the cops are white. And I’ve got statistics from a couple of years ago: 5.7% of the captains were people of color. And that says it in a nutshell. Three percent of the fire department is African-American. People don’t even know this kind of stuff. It’s gotten to the point in New York where people don’t even know what to do about race. I think the reality is we’re all prejudiced. We have to acknowledge that and then begin to deal with it. What equality is about is that you treat people equally. And we don’t know how to do that in New York. And so I want to try to do that. How are we going to do it? We’re going to try to create independent neighborhood councils where people will come together and they will begin to talk to each other, learn from each other. What their cultures are, what their mores are. We have cab drivers who are Sikhs, and people don’t know why they wear a turban. If you explain to people why they wear a turban, then they will understand what that is. If people understand what people’s customs and religious practices are, they might be more tolerant and respectful of that. But if there’s no one who’s trying to create that dialogue, is it any wonder that we continue to stereotype each other? So one of the most important things I want to do is exactly that. I can’t do that from the ACLU. So I take the risk. I leave something that I love, that I do very well at and take this plunge to kind of see whether or not this can work. What I think–and so far it’s only been five weeks that I’ve been doing this–but people are receptive to it. But I don’t want to be delusional or misleading myself. This is hard. This is a cynical town. This is a tough town. But being the public advocate, in my mind, is being the people’s lawyer. I’ve been doing that all my life. A lot of people—thank God–trust me, and I think if I can take that and parlay it into this new arena, it could be special and it could be exciting and, most important, we might make a difference. If I can do it, then maybe other people will step up to the plate and do it as well. You shouldn’t have to be rich to run for office and you shouldn’t have to know all the people in power to run for office. I’m still the outsider. I’m running against five people, four of whom are kind of insiders. Three who are career politicians. But the Office of Public Advocate, it seems to me, is unique, and it seems to me I’m a perfect fit for it. So I try it, and if we win it’s great. We’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna be witty, we’re gonna be irreverent. We’re gonna be very activist, and if we raise enough money we’ll be able to get our message out and if we get our message out I think we’ll win.
MTK: And what about the mayor’s office? A progressively minded candidate relies on a person being in the mayor’s seat that is at least not opposed to that and, at best, welcomes it. Who among the candidates do you think you’d work well with and, conversely, who would you say might create a problem like the one we’ve had, if we do have a problem between the offices of Mayor and Public Advocate?
NS: Well, it’s a no-brainer: Any one of the four Democrats–Ferrer, Hevesi, Green, and Vallone. No one will be as bad as Giuliani was. So that’s a no-brainer. I think that any one of those four could win and–in an ironic way–I’ve gone after a lot of politicians, been very critical of them, and for whatever reason, all these four, I get along well with. So from my perspective I can work with any one of them. Assuming they want to work with the public advocate. And obviously that would be the ideal situation. But I also think the public advocate should be independent of the mayor. For example, I will not endorse any of them. Because I think the public advocate should be the monitor of the mayor. If you have a cozy relationship, and you endorse one of them to win, I’m not sure you can have that independence. If you know the person and you’re friendly with the person and you work with the person, generally it’s hard to be critical of the person. And I think the public advocate has to have good working relationships but has to be separate and independent. I believe independence is the key issue in this. So I will not endorse any of them. I will be friendly with all of them. I will encourage them to do progressive, inclusionary things, but I won’t endorse any one of them at this point.
MTK: It’s very early.
NS: It’s very early. I haven’t even declared yet.
MTK: When I rang, I was calling to find out if you were going to.
NS: We opened this storefront because we want a visible place. We want it accessible; people have been coming in all week. And then, I have to figure out … I’m on leave from the Civil Liberties Union so between now and March I’ll have to decide whether or not I’m going to resign and then, if I do that, then I’ll declare and then I’ll get out there and start the campaigning and I’m looking forward to the campaigning because it’s basically interacting with people and that could be fun. I’m aware that some people see me as someone who could be different than any other politician. And I like that perception, but being realistic and thoughtful about this, I gotta make sure that I can be different. I don’t know exactly what that means. I’ve been at a few events so far and, for example, a lot of the candidates get up and they talk about, “I did this, I did this. I’m on this committee, I’m on that committee.” I get up and I just talk about the issues, and the message I’ve been mainly telling people is that no one, no one should ever accept anything short of full and complete equality, justice, and freedom. And this is a town that hasn’t done that for a lot of people: racial, gender, sexual-orientation, economics. So I can be a vehicle and a symbol and a catalyst to try to address the inequalities that exist in the city and not just, you know, about a pothole or a streetlight, although that’s important to people, but we’re talking about institutional racism. We’re talking about institutional discrimination based on socioeconomic status. And I want to take that on.
MTK: With term limits there are lots of seats available; something like 46 seats are coming up. Are you encouraging other people who are, as you say, outsiders, to participate?
NS: I am doing that. There’s a guy, Hiram Montserrat, who is the first elected Latino official in Queens. And he got elected as a district leader recently and he is running for city council. I have personally given him a check, and I’ve gone to a couple of events, and I’ve endorsed him. Friday night, Adonis Rodriguez, who is from the Dominican Students Union, whom I represented. He’s decided to run for city council. I went up there, gave him a check, and made a speech for him. There were 300 people Friday night in a church in Washington Heights. I bet you two-thirds of those folks have never participated in electoral politics. And we were talking about a progressive coalition of people who are going to run and are going to try to make history in New York. So that’s starting to happen right now. My criteria is: Are people social justice people? Are they people that I’ve worked with before and can I trust them? And finally, are they the only one in the race that meet those criteria? If there are two people I won’t choose one over the other. But I will try to help and encourage people not only to run but to help some of the people win. And finally, in the Democratic party–there’s no reason why a Democratic party where the registration is like five to one, should ever have someone like a Rudy Giuliani ever get elected in the city of New York again. So what happened to the Democratic party? I would like if it all works with new people, new blood, new vision … rejuvenate the Democratic party. On the other hand, as I say, I have to be respectful of my elders, people who are experienced, to make sure they don’t think I’ve been disrespecting them. Now it seems to me and I’ve said to some of the Democratic leaders, “You should open the doors and welcome us in.” Now if they don’t open the doors and welcome us in, then you have to figure out alternative structures. But I would like to work with people rather than have to create alternative structures, but if you have to create alternative structures in order to deal with social justice issues, as we’ve done before in movements, we’ll do that within electoral politics as well. And the last thing, as I mentioned before, is the young people. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t lose because of cynicism.
With this storefront, on Sundays at 3 o’clock we’re going to have speakers come in. And we’re going to try to attract young people so that they learn about issues–and that they can make a difference. Young people have made a difference historically. We’re going to have a lot of young people–high school students, college students–working with us, and trying to encourage them to be involved, and then maybe there’s a new generation of leaders to come … And–we gotta make sure–black, brown, red, yellow, and white, together. That’s my battle cry. We gotta include everybody. This has to be inclusionary. New York is great, but there are a lot of people who have been left out. And what we have to do, the people of my generation, now, is to make sure that we can assure people that they will be included more and that this city–it’s theirs as well as other people’s city. We don’t want to be excluding anyone, we want to include everybody.
MTK: That’s really exciting to me. That’s really exciting, what you’re saying, but—
NS: Well, we hope we can pull it off!
MTK: –I fear you’re being idealistic, but I think it’s really exciting..
NS: There’s nothing wrong with being idealistic.
MTK: There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think you need to be careful.
NS: This is the people’s arena. What politics is about is interacting with people, all kinds of people. Everyone has a vote. So if you’re a skilled pol, you make sure that in fact you listen to everyone, you touch everybody. That hasn’t happened a lot. Too much of politics today is on the TV ads and there’s no direct contact, there’s no street contact, there’s no grassroots development. We’re gonna do that. We’re gonna do it with passion, we’re gonna do it with excitement, and I think that by the time the primary rolls around on September 11, if we succeed, this could be the start of something very exciting.
MTK: Last question. If you don’t succeed, would you run as an independent?
NS: Oh, I haven’t even thought about that yet. I think that since this is all new to me, I’ll just take one step at a time and see what happens. And obviously the answer will be: Hopefully, I won’t have to get to that hypothetical because we’ll win. This is not quixotic. This is to win.
[in 2001, during the primaries, I began interviewing all the candidates for Public Attorney because it was a historic shift in power for the position, but, exactly seven months after this interview, on September 11th, election day was cancelled because two planes were flown into the two tallest buildings in NYC, contravening democracy at its most basic level.
In the aftermath, Norman Siegel and Scott Stringer was crushed by Betsy Gotbaum for the position of PA and Michael Bloomberg became Mayor, stealing the election from either Fernando Ferrer or Mark Green]