New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Gotham Gazette Everything You Need to Know About the Special Election for Public Advocate by Samar Khurshid

Everything You Need to Know About the Special Election for Public Advocate

Next month, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to cast a ballot for a new public advocate in the first-ever special election for a citywide office. The current vacancy was created when the most recent officeholder, Letitia James, was officially sworn in as the state’s attorney general, a position she won in the November general election.

The public advocate is the people’s representative, a watchdog and ombudsperson, with a post that has little direct influence over city policy but a strong bully pulpit from which proposals can be made, grievances can be amplified, and the mayor and the rest of local government can be held to account. The office is charged with hearing complaints from New Yorkers about city services and can investigate the work of city agencies though with limited ability to enforce reforms. The office holder can also introduce legislation in the City Council but cannot cast a vote.

The special election to fill one of just three popularly-elected citywide positions has a crowded field and a short timeline. Here’s what you need to know.

When is the election?
Mayor Bill de Blasio officially proclaimed on Wednesday that the election would be held on Tuesday, February 26.

Who is running?
There are roughly 30 people who have said they are running for public advocate, but it is likely that not all of them will actually be on the February ballot. Once the mayor signed the city proclamation, the many candidates had 12 days to collect the 3,750 petition signatures they will need to get on the ballot. Signatures can come from any registered voter in the city, and candidates will likely pursue far more than the minimum required in order to protect themselves from challenges of invalid signatures.

Special elections in New York are nonpartisan -- no candidate can run on an existing party line like that of the Democratic or Republican Party -- and each candidate will have to create their own ballot line that cannot resemble another political party’s name. Another quirk in the system is that ballot position is decided by the order in which petition signatures are submitted, making the mad scramble to get on the ballot that much more frantic.  

The number of candidates, even in a narrowed field, could test the limits of modern ballot design since half a dozen sitting and former New York City Council members, several State Assembly members, and a number of activists and others outside of government are running. They include former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who submitted her petition signatures first and will likely be at the top of the ballot; sitting City Council Members Jumaane Williams, Rafael Espinal, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican office-holder in the race; Assemblymembers Michael Blake, Latrice Walker, Ron Kim, and Daniel O’Donnell; activist and journalist Nomiki Konst; Columbia University professor David Eisenbach, who ran against James in the 2017 Democratic primary for public advocate; attorney Dawn Smalls; entrepreneur Benjamin Yee; and consultant Ifeoma Ike; among many others.

The actual field will become much clearer once petitioning is over and the first campaign finance filings are due -- but as with any competitive election in the city, there could be several ballot petition challenges, whereby candidates can have their ballot access denied due to faulty petitions. Candidates often file suit to get other candidates kicked off on technicalities -- something as small as a missing cover sheet on a petition can ensure that a candidate does not qualify.

How much campaign cash can they raise and spend?
Along with his announcement of the date of the special election, the mayor also signed into law a bill sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos that immediately puts into effect new campaign finance regulations that were approved by voters through a ballot referendum in November.

The new rules allow candidates to choose between two tiers of participation in the city’s public matching funds program, administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which monitors campaign fundraising and spending. The program currently gives participating candidates a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of every campaign contribution. Those who choose to abide by these old rules would be limited to a maximum campaign donation of $2,550, and can receive a maximum of $2.5 million in public funds.

The second, new tier allows candidates to opt for a $1,000 contribution limit and receive an 8-to-1 match in public funds for the first $250 of each contribution, allowing them to receive up to $3.4 million in public funds. To receive public funds, a candidate would have to meet the dual threshold of raising a total of $62,500 from at least 500 individual contributors.

Those that choose to participate in the public funds program will have to abide by a $4.5 million spending limit, though any candidate is unlikely to reach that astronomical number in just seven weeks. They will also have to complete a mandatory campaign finance training at the CFB.

The first round of campaign finance disclosures are due by January 15, which is also the deadline for candidates to certify whether they will participate in the public funds program and which version.

Get involved to make your voice heard.

Get monthly updates with the information you need to make a difference.