It’s official: Jumaane Williams is the next New York City public advocate, at least until the end of this year.
Williams won Tuesday’s special election for public advocate with about 33 percent of the vote when 83 percent of polls were reporting, according to the Board of Elections — emerging as the winner out of 17 names that appeared on voters’ ballots.
Williams has served on the New York City Council representing the 45th District in Brooklyn since 2009, and previously ran for lieutenant governor of New York state as Cynthia Nixon’s running mate. Now, Williams takes over as public advocate, relieving City Council Speaker Corey Johnson of his interim duties handling both roles.
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Behind Williams was the lone Republican in the race, Eric Ulrich, with about 19 percent of the vote, and behind him was Melissa Mark-Viverito with more than 11 percent of the vote.
So what is the role of public advocate, anyway? It’s a political position that’s been around only since 1993 and is meant to serve as a watchdog for city government. The public advocate is the ombudsman for the five boroughs, investigating complaints of city services and agencies, and can introduce and co-sponsor legislation in the City Council, though cannot cast a vote on the Council. Public advocate is also first in line to succeed the mayor.
Williams ran on the “It’s Time Let’s Go” ballot line and said he would infuse the position with his history of activism to focus on safe and affordable public housing, criminal justice reform, standing up to ICE and more.
Breaking news right before election day brought an old arrest of Williams's to light. Though Williams has been arrested many times, often for his activism, this arrest concerned a 2009 incident involving a "verbal disagreement" between Williams and his then-girlfriend.
Public advocate candidates Mark-Viverito and Nomiki Konst held a joint press conference to call attention to the old arrest, but it didn't seem to slow down Williams's roll. He was called a frontrunner throughout the race and also outspent the other candidates on his race, according to Feb. 11 data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
NYC public advocate election saw low voter turnout
Voter turnout was expected to be among the lowest in city history for this special election, and that rang true at multiple polling places.
At one on Saint Marks Ave. in Brooklyn, poll workers said about 300 people voted by 6 p.m. which was low compared to previous elections. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told the New York Times that by the time she gets to the polls in the morning, about 100 people have usually voted before her. On Tuesday, it was only 28.
According to Board of Elections results, more than 340,000 New Yorkers cast their vote on Tuesday — a small fraction of the city's total of nearly 4.6 million voters.
Still, some New Yorkers made it to the polls, stressing their civic duty. When asked why he came out to vote, Mario Lopez, 34, of Brooklyn said that “we’re in a political space where it’s necessary for a lot of changes to happen right now, and in order to make that happen, voices need to be heard.”
“For people, especially who aren’t necessarily aware or engaged in politics, for some of the elections they may think [that] you know, it’s really not that important, as opposed to a presidential election that the whole world knows about,” he said. “But at the local level, this is still very important.”
Lopez was one to cast his vote for Williams, saying that he considers Williams “very sincere and genuine about the work that he does.”
This special election — which Mayor Bill de Blasio announced only at the end of December, right before former-Public Advocate Letitia James left the office to be sworn in as state attorney general on Jan. 1, 2019 — cost the city about $15 million. The public advocate office has an budget of $3.5 million.
And this election only ensures the winner holds the public advocate position until Dec. 31. Then, candidates will once again gear up to run for public advocate in the fall, this time with a primary ahead of the general election in November. Even then, that winner will only serve out the remainder of James’s term, which ends in 2021. The public advocate position has a four-year term.