V.I.D. backs local favorite Ben Yee for public advocate

Ben Yee making his pitch for endorsements at Sunday’s forum for public advocate candidates. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The Village Independent Democrats endorsed Ben Yee for public advocate on Sunday.

The special election for public advocate, set for Tues., Feb. 26, is jampacked with nearly two-dozen candidates who have tossed their names in the hat after former Public Advocate Letitia James was elected New York State attorney general. Not all will likely make it onto the ballot, though.

Yee — the secretary of the Manhattan Democrats and Democratic state committeeman for the 66th Assembly District — comes to the race as an activist, educator and entrepreneur. Though Yee nabbed support from V.I.D., he faces a tough race against several current and former politicians. Prominent among them are Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Cynthia Nixon last year, and former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

At a forum this past Sunday sponsored by several Downtown Manhattan Democratic clubs, 17 candidates made their case for the clubs’ endorsements.

Twenty-two V.I.D. members supported Yee, another 16 went for Williams and four voted for no endorsement.

“Ben is the reason I’m president of the club and the reason I’m even a member of this club,” said David Siffert, the club’s recently elected president. Siffert, among others at V.I.D., was inspired by Yee’s civics workshops that have rallied newly involved politicos to join Democratic clubs and activist groups.

The 34-year-old East Villager has developed a platform inspired, in part, by those workshops. If elected, Yee has proposed creating a citywide civics-education program, as well as a “311 Hotline” for the public to ask questions about government processes. He also advocates for helping forge community “grassroots coalitions,” starting with coordinating community boards, school committees and precinct councils to develop a citywide perspective.

“It came down to Ben and Jumaane, who are very, very different candidates,” Siffert said. “There’s definitely something to be said for someone who has been in legislation and been involved in actively shaping policy,” he said of Williams. “But there’s definitely something to be said for someone who’s been involved in education and been involved in getting people involved.”

More than a dozen other candidates showed up Sunday. Among them was Williams, who railed against the mandatory inclusionary-housing program — the city’s program to increase affordable units in new developments. He said the program must be re-evaluated. He leaned on his past experience as a councilmember and tenant organizer.

“There are landlords who need to be in jail and their buildings should be taken from them,” Williams said.

Other prominent candidates included former Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Councilmembers Rafael Espinal and Ydanis Rodriguez and Assemblymembers Latrice Walker, Michael Blake, Ron Kim and Danny O’Donnell.

Some Villagers slammed Rodriguez for his support of the hotly disputed Inwood rezoning, plus his campaigning for former state Senator Marisol Alcantara. Alcantara  formerly aligned herself with the Independent Democratic Conference, which was partly why former Councilmember Robert Jackson was able to defeat her in last September’s primary and win her seat.

Others pushed former and current councilmembers on why the Small Business Jobs Survival Act has been denied a vote for years in the Council. Mark-Viverito cited constitutional issues the bill may face. Rodriguez emphasized he was a co-sponsor of the bill, while Espinal voiced support for the bill, too.

High-profile activist Nomiki Konst also made her pitch. Saying her background as an investigative journalist gives her skill in tracking money, Konst proposed creating a “conflicts-of-interest grid” to show which corporations are contributing funds to lawmakers.

Other contenders included attorneys Jared Rich and Dawn Smalls; David Eisenbach, a Columbia professor and advocate for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act; John Jay College adjunct Sami Disu; Theo Chino, an activist and bitcoin entrepreneur who was detained after protesting the mayor’s Fair Fares press conference last week; and Daniel Christmann, a charismatic plumber who blasted the governor on his handling of the L-train shutdown and Amazon deal. Ifeoma Ike, another activist candidate and attorney, touted her work with the Innocence Project, which, through DNA testing, exonerates people wrongfully convicted.

After three hours of candidates’ pitches, V.I.D.’ers debated among themselves nearly an hour before voting.

Tiffany Hodges, a V.I.D. member who has taken Yee’s civics workshops, said, “He knows how to use the office for what it was created to do — to really create transparency between what the public knows and what government doesn’t want the public to know.”