Letitia James, a City Council member representing Crown Heights, easily won the city's only runoff election yesterday to become the Democratic nominee for public advocate. With no Republican opponent and only minor opposition in November's election, she is likely to become the the first African American woman to hold citywide office.
James, 54, defeated Daniel Squadron,33, a state senator representing parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, with 60 percent of the vote, although Squadron had more money and endorsements from his former boss, Charles Schumer, and former public advocates Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum. James had substantial backing from labor unions and women's groups.
In the Sept. 10 four-way primary election, James won 36 percent of the vote.
James was elected to the Council in 2003 representing Crown Heights and other Brooklyn areas, filling a vacancy created by the murder of Councilman James Davis. Nominated by the Working Families Party, she won a rare third-party victory against Davis's brother Jeffrey as the Democrat, with backing from Crown Heights Jewish community's political action committee.
Although Crown Heights Jews continued to back her in subsequent elections, her relationship with some chasidic leaders deteriorated in recent years. She apponted a Jewish community laison, Jeffrey Wice, to her staff for about five years but did not replace him when he left. While James provided member item funding from the Council for social services provided by the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, that amount was greatly reduced this year, when she did not plan to run for re-election.
According to the City Council's database, James applied for and received $16,000 for the Council in 2012, $15,500 in the 2013 budget and $6,000 in the current FY 2014 budget.
"I'm happy she won" the public advocate race," said Hanina Sperlin, a board member of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. "We look forward to working with someone who has the district at heart. And we are hoping that in the public advocate's office she will have a Jewish [liaison] there as Bill de Blasio did and Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum did."
Wice, an attorney now with a Washington firm, says that while he was on James' staff "she had excellent relationships with the Jewish community and was heavily involved in visiting evrrything from yeshvas to food pantries and providing direct constituent sevices." He said that while no Jewish satff member was hired as a liaison afetr he left other aides took on his responsibilities.
In an interview just prior to the election, James, 54, told The Jewish Week she wants to focus on education and housing and reaching the New Yorkers who need the most help.
"I want to move past the Bloomberg era with a more progressive agenda and work with [Democratic mayoral nominee] Bill de Blasio to build more affordable housing and create more child care slots, which is a major issue in the Jewish community and African American community."
James added that she worked with Councilman David Greenfield, who represents Borough Park and Flatbush, to fight the cutting of voucher programs for child care for lower-income families.
She said her two role models as an elected official are the late, pioneering congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug, who served at a time when few women ran for office.
"They were both women who were unbought and un-bossed," James said. "Women who just stood up for the little guy and individuals who cared about issues that affect most New Yorkers, like the cost of living."
The public advocate presides over City Council meetings and serves as an ombudsman for public complaints about city services, but has also been a springboard for mayoral candidates, as in the case of Green and de Blasio, the incumbent.
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