Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams, the son of Grenadian immigrants, has scored a decisive win in the special election for New York City Public Advocate. As polls closed on Tuesday night, Williams had captured about 33 percent of the vote in the low-turnout, nonpartisan election among a crowded field that included other heavy hitters like former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Assemblyman and DNC Vice Chair Michael Blake. Coming in second was Queens GOP Council Member Eric Ulrich.
The public advocate, a citywide elected position that had been left vacant by the departure of Letitia James to become New York’s attorney general, is given a relatively small staff and a mandate to essentially keep watch over the city’s other elected officials and act as a champion for the electorate. It also gives the officeholder the power to introduce legislation to the City Council and is first in the line of succession line to the mayor.
Williams, who has long fashioned himself as a community activist and social justice seeker, has embraced the protection of immigrant communities around New York as a central tenet of his platform, which includes some of the same planks that it did when he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor last year. He is among the elected officials who have called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. He has also endorsed a slate of local initiatives geared towards the protection and advancement of immigrants, including the state DREAM Act and efforts to bar ICE agents from performing arrests in courthouses. In January 2018, he was famously arrested outside of the federal facility at 26 Federal Plaza while protesting the detention of immigrant rights leader and New Sanctuary Executive Director Ravi Ragbir.
One of the public advocate’s primary duties is having staff conduct investigations and produce reports on issues affecting New Yorkers on which they can put pressure on policymakers at the local and state levels. Williams, who has advocated and legislated over issues involving criminal justice in particular, will likely focus some of his efforts on the ways in which New York is or is not upholding its mantle as a supposed sanctuary jurisdiction.
The public advocate’s office is now seen as a springboard for other runs for public office. The last two people to hold the post have gone on to high-profile positions in local government; before James, the new state attorney general, the post was held by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Williams’ current term will last only until later this year. He will have to run again in June primaries, and if he makes it through, a November general election.