Jumaane Williams, a thorn for Bill de Blasio?

The tenant activist turned Brooklyn councilman has become the public advocate - Bill de Blasio might be concerned.
The tenant activist turned Brooklyn councilman has become the public advocate – Bill de Blasio might be concerned. Photo Credit: Noelle Lilley

One person who may be feeling a little nervous about Jumaane Williams’ public advocate win on Tuesday is Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Williams is the progressive Brooklyn councilman who ran a spirited Cynthia Nixon-allied primary campaign for lieutenant governor last year.

In an emotional and fiery victory speech Tuesday night he promised to "hold the powerful accountable." And he said he knew there was a struggling "young black boy" somewhere who he wanted to be able to tell: "My name is Jumaane Williams and I’m the public advocate of New York City."

That’s the new elevated role for Williams, who has clashed with the mayor from the left on some policing issues and disagreed with de Blasio’s marquee affordable housing push  Williams felt that rezonings have had too much of an impact on communities of color.

Williams, who calls himself an activist-elected official, has sometimes walked a fine line between being an activist and the compromises of elected office. See his careful stance on the Amazon HQ2 deal, which he sharply criticized but also noted in a NY1 debate that “We must engage when people want to talk about 25,000 jobs.” 

But he now has a bully pulpit of a citywide office and a political rationale to use it: He has to immediately begin running in a June primary for the rest of the public advocate term vacated by Tish James, who was elected state attorney general in 2018. He said in his acceptance speech that he doesn’t want the mayor’s job, but if he wants to be part of city or statewide politics in the future beyond 2021 he’ll likely need to sharpen his differences with de Blasio. Continuity is rarely a big selling point. 

Meaning Williams may use the office to bash de Blasio more than James did. It took her until just before she left the public advocate office to put scandal-plagued, city-run NYCHA at the top of her annual worst landlord list.

In his new role, Williams will become a second in line to the mayor, and if de Blasio, a former public advocate himself, spends the next few months flying around the country chasing the presidency, the newest Brooklyn victor will have the city stage more to himself.

Other takeaways from the night’s results:

A tough jump

Once again, a city council speaker fails to jump to higher office. Melissa Mark-Viverito follows Christine Quinn and Gifford Miller in missing the chance at a new, bigger job.

That makes some sense as the speaker is only elected in his or her district, elevated to the speakership by council peers. And there’s plenty of compromising to be done with the mayor in the role, all of which can come back to haunt candidates in election season.

The upsides to the office include its prominence and ability to rack up favors. But the downsides are worth remembering if current Speaker Corey Johnson has 2021 ambitions.

A high cost

You don’t have to go far among the city’s political class to find someone who thinks the public advocate position should be abolished. One reason often raised: few demarcated powers and a budget between $3 million and $4 million, which is too small to do much more than shake one’s fist at the mayor, and thus good money spent for essentially a podium. 

With a special election, there are more costs this year. The Board of Elections costs are estimated in the $11-million-to-$15-million range, according to a spokeswoman.

And the Campaign Finance Board, which administers the city’s donor-matching program, has doled out more than $7 million in public funds. Some of that money could be clawed back through auditing, but safe to say that the whole exercise will set NYC back something like $20 million.

Do it all over again

Williams shouldn’t get too comfortable. The June primary is coming up soon, a lot closer than the usual September date thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s voter reform legislation signed in January.

That means that Tuesday  the same day as the special election  was also the first day to begin gathering petitions for that run.

Long way of saying: This isn’t over yet.