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]