Young, angry, connected, disciplined, aggrieved: Your candidates for public advocate

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Five Democratic candidates for public advocate got together for the first time at an event last week in Queens, at a forum held in a room above a funeral parlor.

It was hosted by the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City and four other local clubs, and held inside the offices of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, located on the fourth floor of a funeral parlor in Astoria.

Much of the talk focused on education policy, and the affair was described as "genial," with only one instance of a candidate taking a direct shot at a rival. But the event usefully illustrated the contrast in styles and strategies between the candidates in this little-watched downballot primary. 

The first to speak was Noah Gotbaum, son of former labor leader Victor Gotbaum and step-son of a former public advocate Betsy Gotbaum (who has not endorsed him in this primary).

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He's a member of a Community Education Council on Manhattan's West Side and touts the support of a handful of other C.E.C. officials throughout the city.

He argued, authoritatively, that there needs to be an "education advocate" monitoring public schools.

"One out of every three dollars that we spend, [that] the Council approves, the mayor does, is in public education," he said. "One out of every three New Yorkers, two and a half million New Yorkers is either a parent, a teacher, a student or an administrator in our public school system. And yet…65 percent of the kids graduate and yet only 20 percent are ready for college. We have a system in which only one out of nine black and Latino kids who graduates from high school is ready for college, is college-ready. We have 60 percent of our fourth graders who are not up to grade level. And this is after 12 years of mayoral control. That's not good enough."

Other times, though, he sounded green. He spoke in vague terms about connecting with all 8 million New Yorkers in order to fix the city's problems, and was generally long-winded, as if overwhelmed by the effort of expressing how much he knows about public education. 

Next up was Cathy Guerriero, who is running as an angry outsider and sounds, by design I think, a little crazy.

She's a professor at Columbia University's Teacher College, a former standout basketball and softball player at Wagner College and the mother of a three-year-old. She's enlisted the help of Mark Benoit, an operative who worked on Anthony Weiner's 2005 campaign and worked for Betsy Gotbaum in the public advocate's office too.

She's almost certainly the most energetic speaker running citywide, for anything.

She said she wanted to run for mayor 20 years ago as a college student ("I could have run then and early and often and won. And I didn't.") but went into academia instead. She said she's from a long line of Italian Catholic, blue-collar workers, and that keeps her connected to ordinary New Yorkers, as does being a mother.

"I lead with my motherhood," she said.

She is particularly assertive on the topic of her credentials.

"I have a PhD in schools policy," she said. "I know more than anybody about children in and outside of the classroom than anybody in this race or any race citywide. Period."

Referring to the three Democrats who have previously been public advocate, she said no one has combined Mark Green's political savvy, Betsy Gotbaum's wonkiness and Bill de Blasio's ability to marshall a ground game.

"We haven't seen this job in its fullest muscularity," she said. "We just haven't."

Guerrerio is claiming to be the labor candidate.

"The great lie of this century, the great lie of this great American century, is that the union rank and file and those pensions and these short orders are breaking the back of the municipalities," she told the audience. "It's not true. It's a lie."

Next up to speak was Reshma Saujani, a former Wall Street executive and Democratic fund-raiser who has never held elected office--she ran a well-funded, very unsuccessful primary against Rep. Carolyn Maloney in 2010--but who is essentially running as the establishment candidate for public advocate. After the race against Maloney, she got a job in the public advocate's office working for Bill de Blasio, which she quit last year to run for public advocate.

And in her opening remarks, which sounded almost whispered in immediate contrast to Guerriero's, Saujani said, "Right now, we need one thing from elected officials. We need elected officials who can get the job done. And as the deputy public advocate, that is exactly what I did."

She bemoaned that the tenor of the conversation on education, saying it was "so negative."

The next speaker was State Senator Daniel Squadron, the former Schumer aide who won his seat, with help from his former boss and with the blessing of Michael Bloomberg, by ousting a 30-year-incumbent. 

Related, perhaps: Squadron spoke of challenges that needed to be met in order to improve the state of the city's public schools, but carefully avoided blaming the mayor, or anyone else, for any of the system's problems.

"There are parents across this city that are facing sort of this new crisis," he said, in his opening remarks. "Their oldest child gets to middle school and there just isn't a middle school that feels OK, and they're faced with this question. They're either forced to leave the city they love or send their child to a school that just [doesn't] make sense. No one in this city, no parent, should have to leave this city if they want to stay here because there is no middle school that they think is appropriate for their child."

Squadron stressed his refusal to take money from "special interests": he accepts no money from political action committees or unions.

He found a way to speak about this in response to one audience member's question about overdevelopment.

(I suggested that everyone following the forum on Twitter take a drink whenever Squadron said "special interest." An aide replied, sportingly, that he was exhibiting message discipline.)

Squadron's emphasis on "special interests" in this context was a shot at Saujani, whose connections to Wall Street will enable her, once again, to raise lots of money. 

Last up to speak was City Councilwoman Letitia James. She arrived late, explaining that she was in a meeting with union officials discussing what to do about several Cablevision workers who were terminated and want their jobs back.

She was the first candidate to talk about stop-and-frisk, and took credit for uncovering the CityTime scandal, the biggest boondoggle in Bloomberg's administration.

James is a lawyer, outspoken about the challenges facing her rough but gentrifying section of Brooklyn. And she talked of a wrongheaded diversion of resources away from public schools.

"This is not about education," she said, referring to the city's strategy of shutting down failing schools and opening up new, smaller schools in their place. "This is about real estate."