At Bill de Blasio’s inauguration, no one stole the new mayor’s spotlight—not Harry Belafonte’s unhistory, not “Imagine” unplugged, not even a former president. The only person who came close was Letitia James, who was sworn in as public advocate. Clad in a bright red coat, powerfully postured and—incredibly—with Dasani Coates in tow, her inaugural address was a frontal assault on the Bloomberg legacy.
In the forty-eight hours since the festivities on the City Hall patio, James has had to clarify remarks that seemed to suggest she was a source for the December New York Times series that profiled Coates, one of the city’s 20,000 homeless youth. And de Blasio has rebuffed suggestions that his swearing-in ceremony was over the top in its Bloomberg-hating.
What’s received less attention, but might be more interesting, was the warning James issued toward the end of her speech.
"All of us share a progressive vision for this city’s future,” she said as she congratulated de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer. She pledged to work with her two fellow city officials. Then she said, “Of course, if working people aren’t getting their fair share, if our government isn’t securing the reforms New Yorkers were promised, you better believe Dasani and I will stand up—that all of us will stand up—and call out anyone and anything that stands in the way of our progress.”
The question is, Who did the public advocate mean by “all of us” who are going to stand up, and who are the “anyone” who might stand in the path of progress? Could the new mayor himself get called out at some point?
In theory, at least, that’s James’s new job. The city’s number-two official, the public advocate takes over temporarily if the mayor cannot serve, presides over full City Council meetings, can gather information from city agencies, has the right to propose legislation and makes appointments to some city boards. Its role is sometimes defined as that of an ombudsman: someone to look out for the little guy and monitor the operation of city government. But in New York’s strong-mayor system, the advocate is also positioned as a check and balance on the mayor.
The office has little statutory power and a very modest budget, so when it has wielded influence it has done so through its media profile and largely through its adversarial role at City Hall. The first public advocate, former consumer affairs commissioner Mark Green, was the perfect progressive adversary to the conservative Giuliani administration from 1994 through 2001; he made ample use of the bully pulpit, generated a lot of headlines and was a reliable thorn in Rudy’s side.
Betsy Gotbaum, a former city parks commissioner, tried a more conciliatory approach during the first Bloomberg years and was not rewarded for the effort. Hobbled by her paltry budget, even the more aggressive Gotbaum of later years never got the ink that Green had enjoyed, although she was a consistent voice for enlightened policy. De Blasio succeeded Gotbaum in 2010. His office issued dozens of solid reports, but de Blasio’s well-known designs on the mayoralty cast all his actions in a campaign context.