By Jonathan Greig

Dozens of politicians, activists and lawyers have thrown their hat into the ring to become the next New York City public advocate since Letitia James vacated the position and took her seat as the state’s attorney general earlier this year. Mayor Bill de Blasio set the primary-less special election for February 26 but the winner will still have to run again in September and November to fill out the rest of James’ term.

The position is considered a high-powered launching pad for those with greater political ambitions, as both James and de Blasio can personally attest. De Blasio’s term limits have left the 2021 New York mayoral race wide open and this race is seen as a test run for the top candidates. Many of the frontrunners for public advocate are already looking ahead to the next race, but only one candidate — the odds-on favorite to win the spot — has said publicly they will not run for mayor in 2021: Jumaane Williams.

“I believe that a lot of the people running for public advocate don’t fully understand what the office is supposed to be,” he told Haitian Times in an exclusive interview.

“This is a job that I think is very important. The description of the job really describes to me the job that I’ve been trying to do as a Councilman. Even when I ran for Lieutenant Governor, I said I wanted to be the public advocate for the state so this only makes sense. I believe I can do the job as it was intended to be done.”

Williams has represented the 45th district — which has one of the largest Haitian communities outside of Haiti — in the City Council since he was elected in 2009. In September, he ran a hard fought campaign for Lieutenant Governor and only lost by 6 points — a gargantuan achievement considering his running mate lost by nearly 30. The 42-year-old is well known for his work in the City Council on police accountability and the “Ban the Box” initiative, which led to the passing of a law making it illegal for employers to ask about a candidate’s criminal history before offering a position to them.

“We have to have someone with the courage to do new things,” he said about his record as a Councilman. “I’m someone who has really shown an ability to raise an issue and get something done about it.”   

For this race, he has had to work hard explaining the position itself — which has a somewhat nebulous job description but generally ends up resembling a government watchdog and citizen mouthpiece. The public advocate is supposed to be a check on the city’s leadership and is actually second in line to replace the mayor in case of emergency or resignation.

“The position is supposed to be a go-between for the government and the people. You’re the person making sure the agencies are doing their job. You have a vote on the pension board, and you can get people on committees and commissions, like the City Planning Commission,” he said.

“So that, combined with the bully pulpit, can make it a pretty impactful position.”

In his interview with Haitian Times, Williams ran down a long list of priorities and issues he thought could be addressed by the public advocate including affordable housing, government accountability and transparency, criminal justice reform, fixes for the MTA and more.

“As a New Yorker, seeing a lot of this first hand has really helped me be able to connect with what people are dealing with and help provide policy solutions,” he told Haitian Times.

“Voters are very concerned about housing. They can’t afford to live in the city anymore. People who live in homes are foreclosing. They are getting evicted because can’t afford the rent, and these are folks that are working. There are people who are worried about transparency from the police department. People are worried about their wages and they’re worried about the trains being late all the time.”

One of his biggest priorities is expanding the public advocate role and democratizing it, creating deputy public advocates for each borough to “help free up the information that goes from the government to the community.”

“I’m unique in that I can be critical of people in power, be an activist and raise certain issues, and work with elected officials to actually get policy changes. This is what you need in a public advocate,” he added.

Even though Williams secured the endorsement of the Kings County Democratic County Committee last week and has increased name recognition due to his recent high-profile races, it will still be a heavily contested race with 17 highly-qualified candidates spending profusely. Former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bronx assemblyman Michael Blake are his main competition amidst a slew of hungry councilmembers, lawyers and community activists.  

“I’m a true activist politician. When I came in I was told I am too much of an activist. I was told I had to choose. I don’t have to choose. You can be productive in both,” he said.

“People are ready for this type of politics and people are ready for someone who genuinely wants to be a check on government on behalf of the people.”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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