Local primaries earlier this month drew a record voter turnout, and many of many far-left Democrats won, so it seems impossible to imagine a Republican being elected to citywide office in the near future. However, there is a path for a GOPer to become the next Public Advocate next year.
This path was created when the current public advocate, Letitia James, won the Democratic primary for New York State attorney general. If she wins in November, there will be a special non-partisan election to fill her old position in early 2019.
With Democratic candidates in the race likely to be in the double digits, a single Republican candidate with party support could prevail.
Since the creation of the Public Advocate’s position in 1993, when it replaced the President of the City Council, it has only been held by Democrats. The Advocate, who is first in line to succeed the mayor in an emergency, serves as an ombudsman between residents and city government as well as a watchdog over agencies. He or she can also introduce legislation and appoint members to some boards and commissions, including the city’s Planning Commission. And the seat has become a stepping stone to the mayor’s office, as Bill DeBlasio recently demonstrated.
Now, the question is which Republican is best able to unite the party. The two most-mentioned candidates are Councilmen Joe Borelli of Staten Island and Eric Ulrich in Queens.
Full disclosure: I have known Mr. Borelli since long before he was an elected official when I worked for Congressman Vito Fossella. Since then, Borelli has progressed to one of the most outspoken and respected Republicans in New York City.
Significantly, Borelli remains a defender of President Trump, was the co-chairman of Trump’s campaign during the 2016 New York GOP primary, and has even been a liaison between City Hall and the White House. And even as other city GOP electeds play it coy about their support of Trump, Borelli remains a loyalist — a plus in rallying grassroots Republicans around him.
Most of the GOP strength lies in Staten Island, and Borelli is obviously known and popular among these key Republican voters. That means he can spend more time cobbling up GOP and other support throughout the rest of the city.
On the other hand, Ulrich, the only Republican elected official in Queens, has been a central figure in the continued divisiveness among Republicans there.
Two events highlight this fracture. First, Ulrich orchestrated the ouster of respected former Congressman Bob Turner as Queens GOP chairman and replaced him with his hand-picked replacement. This upset Turner’s Republican supporters, who will never forget his momentous victory to replace disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner in September 2011.
More recently, insurgent Vickie Paladino defeated the establishment’s choice of Simon Minching in a landslide in their state Senate primary in northern Queens.
Finally, one can’t forget that Ulrich turned his back on Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican mayoral candidate against DeBlasio last year.
Clearly, if the GOP’s choice is between Borelli and Ulrich, Borelli is better positioned to unite Republicans since he doesn’t have the intra-party baggage.
The dilemma for any Republican is that if the stars aligned for a win in a special election, he or she would have to face the voters again a few months later in November, 2019 against a single Democrat. Without a crop of Democrats splitting the vote, it would be extremely difficult for a Republican to hold the seat.
But, if Democrats gain control of the state Senate in Albany, plus the continued domination of progressives in the Council, we could see an influx of far-left policies that could be too much for more city residents. This could create a pendulum swing to keep at least one Republican in power at City Hall in November, 2019. Even if one doesn’t buy into this theory, it may be worth it for one of these Republicans to run a citywide campaign to build more name recognition in preparation for a mayoral campaign in 2021, which will be an open seat because of term limits. If a Republican can be Public Advocate for only a few months, even better!
Bob Capano is Chairman of the Brooklyn Reform Party and has been an adjunct political science professor for over 15 years.