J. Murphy

Public Advocate Letitia James describes property taxes as the
'third rail' of city politics, and says it's a top priority if she wins a second term.

It took an upset victory to get Letitia James into public office in 2003, when she ran on the Working Families line against the brother of a slain councilmember who had the backing of the Democratic establishment and won by a landslide.

Now seeking re-election as the city’s public advocate, James won’t need an upset to win in 2017. Nominated on the Democratic and Working Families lines, she faces Republican JC Polanco, Green James Lane, Conservative Michael O’Reilly and independent Devin Balkind in the general election on November 7. James has the power of incumbency, the Democratic registration advantage, a big fundraising edge and history—in six elections, no Democrat has come close to losing the public advocate’s race—on her side.

In an interview with Ben Max of Gotham Gazette and me, James discussed her use of litigation and legislation (she has been the prime sponsor on 43 pieces of legislation, seven of which have been enacted) to achieve her agenda, which she said revolves around pursuit of social justice. She also discussed her role as a check on the mayor’s power:

When I’ve agreed with the mayor on issues, I have stood by his side. When I disagreed with the mayor we’ve criticized the mayor. We’ve criticized the mayor on the fact that he did not support initially support for the office of for veterans and we now have a mayoral agency for veterans in the city of New York. We criticized the mayor with regards to the Administration for Children’s Services and in fact we initiated litigation against the Administration for Children’s Services so not only the mayor but also the governor. There [are] reforms now. We’re beginning to see reforms in the child welfare system. We sued the mayor and the city of New York when he changed the SCRIE system and when some seniors unfortunately were not put on notice and lost their SCRIE benefits. We immediately contacted the administration, we threatened litigation and as a result of that those SCRIE benefits were restored. The Post, in fact, I believe it was in December, indicated that—in fact they applauded me for criticizing the mayor on using the phrase ‘agents of the city’ … We’ve criticized the mayor on the issue that we’re currently in court on and hopefully will win this case—we’ve won it at the lower level and the mayor appealed–and that’s the issue of disabled children on hot buses. … And so on a wide range of issues we’re sued the mayor and we’ve criticized the mayor and on some issues we’ve stood by his side. … So when he’s right, I’m with him. When he’s wrong, I will stand against him.

James said that if re-elected she’d focus on the homelessness crisis (she says better city-state relations will be key to solving it), property tax reforms and the rezonings, although she didn’t take a firm stand on whether the administration’s proposals posed a risk of displacement or not. She did call for a new housing bond act, decking over railyards and building middle income housing. “We need another Starrett City, another Coop City,” she said.

Hear our talk in full: