Upper West Side and Morningside Heights Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, a Democrat running on the Equality for All ticket, raised $99,530. Photo: O’Donnell campaign Twitter account.
They have street cred and progressive bona fides. Several boast of encounters with the NYPD. Some have even been arrested — repeatedly — during protests, sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience.
Their outrage is directed at all things Trump. And they have something else in common: Each ranks among the leading candidates vying in the Feb. 26 special election for the post of public advocate.
The cast is dizzying. The field is almost surreally oversized. There are 17 contenders on the ballot, including 15 Democrats, winnowed down from the 23 who originally submitted nominating petitions.
No frontrunner has yet surfaced. Political clubhouses haven’t coalesced around anyone. So liberal are the hopefuls, so fractured their support, that if no Democrats break out, an underdog Republican could squeak in.
At stake is a citywide office that is supposed to serve as a watchdog and ombudsman for New Yorkers — but that has traditionally functioned as a training ground and launching pad for ambitious pols on the make.
While the position has few official responsibilities, its occupants have proved adept at holding press conferences, issuing reports, hiring staff and generating press releases, often self-aggrandizing in nature.
Expect abysmally low turnout. Voters aren’t accustomed to dead-of-winter balloting in arctic conditions.
“You might see 12 to 15 percent,” said Democratic political strategist George Arzt, who served as Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary in the late 1980s.
Winning is not the sine qua non. Self-promotion plays a key role. “A lot of people are in this campaign to raise their profiles for future races,” Arzt said.
But if multiple Democrats, each trying to out-progressive the other, fall below, say, a 10 percent threshold, they could effectively cancel each other out, creating a path to victory for Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a moderate, anti-Trump Republican.
“I will be Bill de Blasio’s worst nightmare — the last person he’d ever want to see as public advocate,” Ulrich vowed in an interview. As of the Jan. 25 filing, he’d raised $100,462 for his campaign.
“If Ulrich turns out his Queens base and wins Staten Island in a low-turnout race, he’s a player who can emerge from this mess and win,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who has worked on the campaigns of Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and Mike Bloomberg.
The job, which is the first in line to succeed the mayor, is now vacant because, in typical fashion, the last public advocate, Letitia James, resigned on Jan. 1 after her election last year as state attorney general.
She succeeded another ambitious pol, de Blasio, who was elected as advocate in 2009 and parlayed the post into a successful mayoral run in 2013. Mark Green had no such luck. In 2001, he’d also weaponized the position in a bid for Gracie Mansion, but was bested by Mike Bloomberg.
Like all special elections, which are nonpartisan, the candidates cannot run on existing party lines. Instead, they have to mint their own unique party labels, which can be colorful, off-beat or attention-grabbing.
Whoever wins will only hold the post till Dec. 31 and will be a potential lame duck. Democratic and GOP primaries will be held in September, and on Nov. 5, the victors will square off in the general election to fill the rest of James’ unexpired term, which runs through 2021.
Despite the prospect of a short 10-month reign, aspirants are locked in a spirited, big-bucks free-for-all — perhaps the first citywide race in New York history in which rap sheets for low-grade offenses are being leveraged to score political points with liberal constituents.HANDCUFFS, FINGERPRINTS AND MUG SHOTS
Consider the questionnaire the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an influential Greenwich Village-based LGBT clubhouse, sent to candidates seeking its endorsement: “Have you ever been arrested?” it asked.
Twice, replied ex-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the East Harlem Democrat and senior adviser for the Latino Victory Fund who is running on the “Fix the MTA” ticket. She leads the pack in fundraising with $345,867 in contributions and would be the first Latina to hold citywide office.
“Please explain why and the outcome of arrest,” the club asked.
Turns out, Mark-Viverito was busted in Sept. 2017 for blocking traffic in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue during a protest over federal immigration policies. Then last October, she joined a Washington D.C. sit-in during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and was pinched a second time.
Her twin arrests, however, are dwarfed by Washington Heights City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council Transportation Committee, who is running on the “United for Immigrants” line and has raised $132,736 for his campaign as of Jan. 25.
By his own reckoning, Rodriguez has been locked up “around 10 times” over a 30-year period, starting six years after he came to the city as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic in 1983, he recalled in a Nov. 4 interview.
His signature moment came on the night of Nov. 15, 2011 when cops forcibly cleared Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street protesters. Knocked to the ground, roughed up and thrown into a police van, he was detained for three hours for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, charges that were later voided.
The ordeal gave Rodriguez a distinction no rival candidate can match: He was featured in Time Magazine’s coverage of its 2011 Person of the Year, “The Protester.”
“Listen, I’ve been in this fight as long as I can remember, and that will always be a part of my life,” he said. Win or lose, “I’ll continue to use the beautiful, peaceful means of civil disobedience to seek social justice and march for our rights,” Rodriguez added.
So who’s racked up the most arrests? It is a mantle claimed by three-term Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a former tenant activist who ran a strong, if ultimately unsuccessful, race for lieutenant governor last year and has collected $194,780 thus far in his current campaign.
Asked by activists at the Jim Owles Club if he had ever been arrested, Williams, whose ballot line is the “People’s Voice,” answered, “Yes, more than any other elected official in New York.”
And he linked to pictures depicting him handcuffed by police, his body pressed down against the hood of a car, and to accounts of his brushes with the law at Trump Tower, Occupy Wall Street, the West Indian Day Parade, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, and at multiple protests against stop-and-frisk, school closings, CUNY tuition hikes, federal deportation drives and immigration laws in Arizona.
Unsurprisingly, it was Williams who ultimately won the endorsement of Jim Owles. He also scored backing from the Four Freedoms Democratic Club on the Upper East Side.
But in a measure of how the public advocate’s race has so completely riven the city’s progressive clubhouses, two other influential East Side clubs voted to support two rival candidates:
While the East River Democratic Club endorsed attorney Dawn Smalls, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner who is vying on the “No More Delays” ticket, the Lexington Democratic Club backed Queens State Assembly Member Ron Kim, who created the “No Amazon” line.
Meanwhile, on the same week when Jim Owles threw its weight behind Williams, the city’s two other LGBT political strongholds also split their endorsements, with the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn rallying behind Mark-Viverito.
At the same time, the Stonewall Democratic Club said it was supporting Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, who represents the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights and is the only openly gay candidate in the race.
A self-proclaimed “opinionated loud mouth,” O’Donnell, the older brother of Rosie O’Donnell, is best known for a breakthrough piece of legislation, the Marriage Equality Act permitting same-sex unions, which he steered into law in 2011.
He lives on West 111th Street and had raised $99,530 for his “Equality for All” ticket as of the most recent campaign filing.
“I haven’t been arrested — I’m the guy they call to get out of jail when other people get arrested,” said O’Donnell, who is also an attorney who had worked as a public defender.