“In 1957, when the dodgers left, that was very traumatic for me – I never recovered,” said Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel in the midtown high rise that houses his law office on Madison Avenue. “I followed them everyday, went to the games and they left and then the world was all about money and business and it wasn’t about the game and the art, and I was crushed because I was naïve – I’m not about money and I’m not about business I’m about the game and the art.”
In light of his third attempt to win the citywide office of public advocate – an ombudsman or lawyer for the people with power to investigate city agencies and introduce legislation in the City Council – it’s obvious that Mr. Siegel, a Brooklynite born and raised, has a love for the game. He has spent four decades working as a civil rights attorney, beginning in the south upon graduating from law school at NYU where he was a classmate – later a courtroom foe – of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
From 1985 until 2000, Mr. Siegel ran the New York Civil Liberties Union, stepping down to run for public advocate in 2001, when he lost in a run-off to the well-funded Betsey Gotbaum. He lost again to Ms. Gotbaum in 2005.
This time, Mr. Siegel is running against Councilman Bill de Blasio, Councilman Eric Gioia and Mark Green, who previously held the office for eight years under Mayor Giuliani. Mr. Siegel has raised the least money in the field, a mere $298,448, compared to Mr. Green’s $508,175; Mr. Gioia’s $2,095,671; and Mr. de Blasio’s $1,513,439. The civil rights attorney has accused his opponents of running for the citywide post as a means to advance their political careers.
“I’m not a career politician and I don’t want to use this as a stepping stone,” he pledged. “And everyone else who’s running, I think that’s part of their agenda.”
Development and eminent domain have been big issues for Mr. Siegel in his personal crusade to protect the rights of citizens in recent years, and he believes that a community’s plans for development should reflect the wishes of it’s residents beyond an advisory capacity, as is now law.
“When I heard that Nathan’s would disappear and they had at most 9 acres of amusement stuff and you’re going to have all these big hotels rising up on Surf Avenue, that’s not the Coney that I know,” he said of the city’s plans to redevelop Coney Island.
The effect on citizens, he said, is “they get alienated, cynical they think money only counts – going back to the Dodgers – and the process is corrupt in the sense that developers give contributions to the politicians and the politicians smooth the way for them to develop.”
Adding, “I’ve always said to people I’m not anti development; I’m anti bad development; I’m anti-eminent domain for private gain.”
Mr. Green and Mr. de Blasio disagreed with Mr. Siegel’s position on eminent domain on the record in a recent debate, stating that as long as the community stands to benefit substantially, private business should be able to use the process to seize property.
On an average day, Mr. Siegel is most likely found yelling about one thing or another in front of throngs of angry citizens, over issues related to the Columbia Expansion, Atlantic Yards, healthcare for 9/11 first responders, and unlawful detention of protesters during the Republican National Convention in 2004. It’s his skill set, he insists, that is required of what he calls the people’s lawyer.
“My feeling is that the public advocate needs to be not a career politician, but someone who only wants to do that job, and transforms the position so it becomes validated,” adding, the office of public advocate “hasn’t been validated under Green or Gotbaum, and I think I could do that.”
In 1992, after 136 community meetings, Mr. Siegel and a coalition of civil rights activists were successful in winning the independence of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates NYPD misconduct. Two years ago, he said, Mr. de Blasio came to him to learn more about the CCRB, and points learned from Mr. Siegel have been touted in missives sent to the press from his campaign. Where the candidates differ on matters of policing is over stop and frisk policy, which all admit is ripe for racial profiling, but only Mr. Siegel and Mr. Gioia oppose the practice.
Though Mr. Siegel seems to embody the most progressive agenda among the candidates for public advocate, the progressive Working Families Party will carry Mr. de Blasio on their line in the September 15 primary. In our interview, Mr. Siegel questioned if Mr. de Blasio’s contribution of $10,000 to the party in advance of the endorsement, which provides infrastructure and campaign operatives on Election Day, “is consistent to the rules for the Campaign Finance Board.” Mr. de Blasio maintains that the contribution was for the party’s campaign against the term limits extension, which he opposed.
“What’s happened is the politicians today think it’s about them – even the people in journalism today think it’s about them,” Mr. Siegel explained. “That’s my role as a technician, a catalyst – but it’s not about me – and if I could run and get accepted by the people to be the public advocate, you’re there to serve; you got to keep your feet on the ground, and don’t get taken with all that stuff – I don’t want to schmooze.”
Schmooze, he hasn’t. The phethora of endorsements received, not by Mr. Siegel, but by Mr. Gioia, Mr. Green and Mr. de Blasio’s campaigns reflect that. An abundance of elected officials and union endorsements appear antithetical to the office, which was established to stand outside of the political power structure. “You have to be independent,” said Mr. Siegel, though he has received some elected official and union support, “My vision is you’re the outsider who could work the inside, but you don’t want to be an insider.”
“I don’t want to have dinner with [politicians], I just want them to respect the office and the clients,” he added. “And I think if you do that day after day after day, it’s like jurors, they figure out who’s real and who’s not, and I think I’m real – I really want this job.”