Yesterday evening, The Optimist headed over to Marjorie Gersten's lovely Brooklyn Heights apartment for one of the first fundraisers of Norman Siegel's 2009 Public Advocate bid. For those of you who don't know, Siegel is the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and now a lawyer in private practice specializing in representing community activist organizations. He ran unsuccessfully in both 2000 and 2004 for Pubic Advocate, both times losing to the current, term-limited officeholder Betsy Gotbaum.
Though The Optimist did make a donation to the campaign, my attendance at the event in no way indicates that Siegel necessarily will get either my vote (as he did in the last two elections) or my endorsement. I went to learn more about Siegel's platform and to see what kind of a crowd would rally to support his candidacy this time around.
As it happens, though the turnout for the event was strong, I ended up engaged in a rather lengthy tete-a-tete with the candidate himself before his somewhat lawyerly, long-winded speech began. Since the Public Advocate presides over the City Council, I asked Siegel to evaluate the current Council as a whole - even though 35 of the body's current 51 members would be out of office after the 2009 elections in which he is competing. The word Siegel used was "unimpressive", which I took to mean "ineffective".
Siegel added that he felt the Public Advocate's parliamentary role in the Council was unnecessary pomp and that the Advocate's time could be better spent fighting for the City, then sitting in a stiff chair in Council chambers (my words). Were he elected, Siegel pledged either to renounce the Public Advocate's role of ceremonially presiding over the Council or to send an emissary in his place to fill the role. After having seen how lost Gotbaum looked in Council chambers, I imagine pretty much anyone could fit the bill. Really, isn't this a job for the Council Speaker anyway?
Although Siegel raised a number of worthy campaign positions, like battling to ban the death penalty in New York State, what most inspired The Optimist was Siegel's plan to use the Public Advocate's position to teach, create, and coordinate grassroots activism in the City on a block-by-block level. The Optimist firmly supports this intention and made a point of saying so during the event's Q&A.
It has become clear to me that though it is unquestionable that the American people must put a Democrat in the White House, regime change is far from enough to reverse the repugnant, regressive agenda enacted by the current Administration. It will not be enough for us to elect a Democrat, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleep for another four years. Thanks to Bush, the problems our country must grapple with are so severe that merely reversing his policies is inadequate to regain our standing at home and abroad. Every American will have to take the responsibility upon his or her own shoulders to work with the new President to change our nation's direction from the bottom up. If we do not unite to become an informed, active, and politically-minded nation, we will fall.
And that's coming from an optimist.
There's no question in my mind that Norman Siegel is well capable of being an effective ombudsman for New York City. Moreover, the idea of electing a non-politician to the office seems a sensible one, since the Public Advocate's position was created to serve as a check to the one-note rule that elected officials fall into clinging to safeguard their jobs. But 2009 is still a long way off and The Optimist is open to evaluating all of the candidates for Public Advocate as they emerge and unveil their own plans to make our borough and our City a better place.