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Reshma makes a run for public advocate

TimesLedger Newspapers

The city public advocate race does not get as much attention as the mayoral contest does, and one candidate thinks the office needs a makeover.

“No one knows what the public advocate should do,” said Reshma Saujani, who is running for the office she previously worked in under the current public advocate and mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio.

“We’ve just seen Bill de Blasio and Mayor Bloomberg, you know what I mean? Mark Green, Giuliani. We’ve seen these kinds of relationships,” she said.

“That’s not written in the charter. I think that that’s how it’s evolved given that many times the public advocate wanted to be mayor. And I think that the public advocate should be the public advocate and advocate for the people,” she said. “It’s not just about having a press release on ‘Mayor Bloomberg shouldn’t be doing X.’”

The public advocate office was created in 1993 as a kind of watchdog over the city government, and he or she is also next in line for Gracie Mansion in the event the mayor dies. While the public advocate can introduce legislation and casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie in the City Council, the position is largely seen as ceremonial and its necessity has been called into question.

So far, the three public advocates have all been Democrats — two of whom either ran or are running for mayor — during the administrations of Republican mayors.

The office is one of three elected citywide and would provide a high-profile position for the city’s South Asians, 62 percent of whom live in Queens.

“I’m the first South Asian that will be elected in the entire city,” Saujani, who is not from Queens, said. “So it’s a historic race for the entire community.”

Saujani’s parents immigrated to Illinois from Uganda two years before she was born, and she earned a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a degree from Yale Law School before going to work at a white-shoe firm on Wall Street.

Her first big foray into the political world was in 2004 when she founded South Asians for Kerry, and in 2010 she unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) in the Democratic primary.

Following the defeat, Saujani went on to become the deputy public advocate where she worked on a study of how the city could replace inefficient air conditioners in New York City Housing Authority buildings while providing jobs for public housing residents. She also founded the nonprofit Girls Who Code, which teaches young women the language of the new tech economy.

She said this experience puts her ahead of two of the other candidates in the race: City Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Brooklyn) and state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Manhattan).

“I think I’m the only candidate with both Tish and Daniel that’s really offering a vision of what I want to do as the next public advocate,” she said. “You know I think that we need to have elected officials who are actually going to get things done, and I think what I’ve gotten done ... both as a deputy and as a private citizen is more than they’ve accomplished in their longterm careers as public officials.”

Cathy Guerriero, a teacher at Columbia and New York universities, and NYPD official Sidique Wai are also in the race.

Saujani has been tweeting that she would like to change the way the office has operated and sees it as a vehicle for innovation when it comes to city agencies. Her campaign’s four-point plan addresses women, education, jobs and affordable housing.

“It’s calling attention to the issues, and that may include being really mad at,” and she paused, “Mayor Bill de Blasio. But that shouldn’t be the full job. I shouldn’t be waking up every day and thinking ‘All right, what are the 10 things I’m going to hit de Blasio on today?’”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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