Norman Siegel and the Race for Public Advocate

Norman Siegel, wearing the headband of the Williamsburg Warriors, with Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping Choir at St. Marks Church, March 31, 2005. ©2005 Fred Askew Photography. All rights reserved.

It’s 6:00 on a Thursday night in late March, and Norman Siegel is speaking at a small campaign fund-raiser at the Bowery Poetry Club. The Dance Liberation Front organized the event, and the room is filled with a collection of activist types, who some might view as oddballs and misfits but who proudly call themselves “deviants for Norm,” as one speaker puts it. Though he’s the only one wearing a suit and tie, Siegel is nonetheless in his element. For everyone in the room, free speech is a way of life.

“Not a lot of people would use us—the artists—as a fund-raiser, or support us,” the performer Reverend Jen declares. Jacket off and sleeves rolled up, Siegel tells the cheering crowd that he wants to create a climate that promotes “cutting-edge free expression,” one in which “the next Lenny Bruces can grow up.” He promises to challenge the city’s archaic cabaret law, and, doing a hop-step, Siegel then vows to become the “dancing public advocate.”

Siegel’s campaign clearly is bringing together the disparate strains of the RNC protest coalition. Matthew Roth, former legal and media adviser for the activist group Time’s Up!, is his campaign manager. Siegel “came to us in our moment of need,” Roth says, adding that Siegel has approached Time’s Up!’s ongoing legal battle with the city as “a matter of both humanity and civil rights.” A member of the newly formed “Billionaires for Betsy and Bloomberg” looks on skeptically, however. “We like silent advocates,” a white-haired man in a tux says of Betsy Gotbaum, the current officeholder. Gotbaum’s “coziness with city commissioners” is what most impresses this Billionaire, Robin Eublind, whose button reads “Silence = Wealth.”

That same Thursday had not been all fun and games for Siegel, though. It started in Staten Island, where he defended parents’ rights to have input in local schools. Next, he went to a court hearing scheduled (but postponed) on whether the city should be held in contempt for its mass detentions of protesters during the RNC. In the late afternoon, Siegel held a press conference at his midtown office on behalf of the 9/11 families he represents; that afternoon, a court had ruled that the city must release at least some of the transcripts of 911 calls made during that fateful day.

Siegel has indeed been a private advocate for these and many other causes over the last four years. That a good portion of his work has taken place in Brooklyn should come as no surprise. Whether it’s civil rights and liberties or the borough where he grew up, Siegel is always ready to defend his home turf.

Born in 1943, Siegel grew up in a union household in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. For Siegel, Brooklyn in the 1950s was the land of stickball in the streets, doo-wop at the Paramount Theater, and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers symbolized the multiracial, multiethnic promise of postwar Brooklyn. When the team left town in 1957, Siegel recalls, “our innocence was crushed. We realized the game was just a business and that there were other powerful forces at work out there.” Such forces have indeed returned, and with a vengeance.

After graduating from Brooklyn College, Siegel entered NYU law school in the fall of 1965. Unlike his fellow law student at NYU, Rudy Giuliani, Siegel became active in the civil rights struggle as well as the antiwar movement. In 1985, he took over as executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. During the Giuliani years, Siegel emerged as Rudy’s most successful foe, winning 23 of 27 court cases the NYCLU brought against the city.

Siegel stepped down from the civil liberties union in early 2001 in order to run for public advocate in that fall’s campaign. In a field filled with a number of well-known local political figures, Siegel, a political novice, finished second in the primary and forced a runoff with the front-runner, Betsy Gotbaum. The well-funded Gotbaum, a veteran of three city administrations as well as the former president of the New York Historical Society, easily defeated Siegel. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a strong civil liberties record was not a good selling point for any political candidate.

Gotbaum’s approach to the position has been markedly different from that of her predecessor, Mark Green, who served as the city’s first public advocate from 1993 to 2001. Green recently told AM New York that the office was originally “designed to be an independent watchdog over city services, but unfortunately [it] has been far too invisible in the last three years.” Green sees the advocate’s role as one of both initiating new laws and bringing lawsuits when necessary and of exposing corruption in city government.

Soon after taking office, Gotbaum made it clear that she did not see the position as “adversarial.” She continues to see the advocate’s job primarily as one of “problem solving.” Whether by dint of temperament or philosophy, Gotbaum has been at best an infrequent critic — and never a legal foe — of the current administration and the City Council during the current developer-friendly era in city politics. It also should be noted that one of the first contributions she received for her 2001 campaign was from Michael Bloomberg, who gave Gotbaum the then-legal limit of $4,500.

When Bruce Ratner’s plan to build the Nets arena first became public in December 2003, it was immediately clear that the potential use of eminent domain to seize private property surrounding the Atlantic Yards site was a necessary component. Regardless of the extent to which it’s ultimately used, the threat of eminent domain has provided a powerful bargaining chip for Ratner in his dealings with local property owners. From the outset, the project has had the full support of the borough president, the mayor, and the governor. For her part, Gotbaum told the Rail recently that she “has been very clear” in her position that she “will not support any project that is dependent on the use of eminent domain for private use.”

In May 2004, Gotbaum testified before the City Council on the Downtown Brooklyn plan. In her testimony, she did say that “the forced removal of families from their homes is the major problem and the one that causes me the greatest concern with Forest City Ratner’s plan.” However, she immediately followed that statement with:

“Look, let’s be clear: there is a positive history associated with this builder and there are many positive components to his plan Forest City. Ratner has had success in downtown Brooklyn development. Ratner has a history of working with people in the communities he builds, his projects have attracted companies and created jobs, and most importantly, he has a track record of being the non-Moses in his use of eminent domain.

And the plan itself is a good plan.”

Gotbaum, contrary to her recent claims, thus essentially endorsed a plan dependent on eminent domain. Her office also missed an opportunity to support homeowners in Kelo v. New London, the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in February on whether local governments can seize property for private development. A wide spectrum of observers—from Jane Jacobs and the NAACP to the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation — voiced objections to the use of eminent domain for private ends, but Gotbaum did not join the effort.

Along with City Councilwoman Tish James, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and Congressman Major Owens, Siegel has been at the forefront of the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project. He has spoken at many rallies as well as organized meetings in the backroom at Freddy’s Bar. Siegel represents Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which also filed a "friend of the court" brief in the New London case. A private advocate, in other words, has thus taken a strong stand in the public interest, while to date the public advocate has raised no meaningful objection to a private developer getting what he wants from the city.

At the Bowery Poetry Club, Siegel has to leave in order to make his way to a meeting of the 504 Democratic Club, which is held in the basement of the College of Technology, across from Madison Square Garden. As Siegel arrives, candidate Anthony Weiner, a former city councilman and now a congressman, is explaining why the city needs “a true outsider” as its next mayor. Behind him the 504 Club’s banner, which sports a donkey overlaid with a wheelchair symbol, states that it is “The First Democratic Club in the Country Focusing on Disability Rights.”

When his turn comes, Siegel takes the microphone, steps away from the podium, and addresses the club members—many of whom are in wheelchairs — passionately. He explains that in order “to learn what local residents need,” he wants to station volunteer public advocates in every neighborhood. Eventually, he says, the public advocate’s office should be adopted in cities across the country. When he calls for a federal public advocate to monitor Congress, the president, and government agencies, many in the audience cheer. It’s the same talk he gave at the Bowery Poetry Club, but instead of citing Lenny Bruce, he now quotes Thurgood Marshall’s view that separate facilities for people with disabilities is another form of segregation.

The issues in the race ultimately center around how active the office should be, both in terms of responding to pressing issues and in seeking out public input. In the Pier 57 debacle during the RNC, Gotbaum merely expressed “concern” when protesters were held for more than 24 hours without an official charge, whereas Siegel went to court and helped free the detainees. As for methods of finding out what’s happening across the city, Gotbaum points to the little-known Ombuds unit, saying it “is the most visible department in my office and it is accessible to all New Yorkers.” Rather than send volunteer public advocates across the city, Gotbaum maintains that “her staff of highly trained professionals, owning decades of government experience, is best equipped to help my constituents.”

Gotbaum’s advantage, of course, is that she’s a great fund-raiser. Her roster of campaign donors reads like a Who’s Who of the New York City financial and real estate elite—full of names like Rohatyn, Tisch, Trump, Lefrak, and many, many more. There’s also at least one member of the Ratner family on the list: Michael, Bruce’s brother, who runs the Center for Constitutional Rights. He supported Siegel in 2001, but last July he gave Gotbaum’s campaign $2,500. In general, given the low profile of her office during her first term, Gotbaum may be getting support less for what she has done than for what she has not.

Siegel won’t get much funding from the elite, but he’ll no doubt keep inspiring the activists. It’s not clear whether the People’s Firehouse, Williamsburg Warriors, Develop Don’t Destroy, Critical Mass, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, the Dance Liberation Front, and many other activist groups can help build a winning coalition, but it definitely will be a spirited one. As Prospect Heights community activist Bill Batson, who managed Siegel’s campaign in 2001, says: “Without a budget, staff, or official title, Norman Siegel has selflessly protected the civil rights of all New Yorkers during an era when government has abdicated its responsibility, leaving communities unprotected from the cowards and sellouts and their corporate patrons. Electing Norman is the only way New Yorkers can even hope to protect the remaining rights and liberties we still enjoy.”

Contributor

Theodore Hamm

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