During the 2019 polar vortex, three Public Advocate candidates braved the cold to meet with Bay Ridge residents. Nomiki Konst, Ben Yee, and Dawn Smalls were joined by moderator Ross Barkan at Solidarity Space. The candidates outlined their platform, traded some barbs early on, and answered numerous questions from residents.
In our estimation, this was one of the most entertaining of the Public Advocate’s events hosted by Solidarity Space, and the three-person format kept things lively, if a little unweildly. The event went over-time, clocking in at an hour and twenty minutes, but covered a wide range of issues. Topics included decriminalizing sex work, climate change, congestion pricing, and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Have a listen, check out our analysis below, or watch Solidarity Space’s full live stream of the event!
To start off the forum, Nomiki Konst discussed her history as an activist and a journalist. She excited by the fire that has been lit under young activists today. Much of her ire was reserved for real estate developers and lobbyists who have been deregulating oversight into their activities. She accused them of contributing to evictions, rising rents and property taxes, and bribery.
[They have] sucked our city of the resources needed to keep it alive.Nomiki Konst, on the millionaire and billionaire class in NYC
Konst also detailed her investigation into the DNC’s spending while a member of the Unity Reform Commission. Her focus was on investigating misspending by the Democratic Party during the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Next to speak was Ben Yee, who emphasized his background in technology and education. He placed particular emphasis (which he would return to throughout the night) on leading civic workshops that educate attendees on how to get involved in local government. The classes discussed how to shape politics through county committees, community boards, judgeships, and more.
My friend convinced me to stay here in New York, basically because it was super corrupt, and he said we could make an impact here. And he told me about this thing called County Committee.Ben Yee on his activism since working for the Obama campaign in 2008.
Yee’s stump speech focused on how his family influenced his life. His parents were refugees and activists who imparted him with a love of engineering and science. This led him to non-profit and entrepreneurial work to push for government transparency while working within the NYC Democratic Party to grow its digital presence.
Finally, Dawn Smalls took the mic. As an attorney who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations, she saw her experience working in complicated bureaucracies as unmatched in the race. That experience has led her to major fair pay settlements, clemency from President Obama for a non-violent drug offender who had been in jail for a decade, and an injunction against Roger Stone for voter suppression.
I think I’m the most qualified person in this race. I’m also coming to this race as someone who is truly independent of the political infrastructure here in the city.Dawn Smalls, on her experience and independence from existing city politics
The key issues Smalls intends to focus on are MTA oversight, affordable housing legislation, homelessness, and voting reform.
Konst Seeking a DSA Endorsement
Local resident and DSA member Alex asked about Konst seeking the DSA’s endorsement in the race. Konst identifies as a Democratic Socialist herself. The questioner highlighted Konst’s past endorsement of Joe Biden in 2015 as something antithetical to the DSA’s platform of being against Wall Street.
Nomiki clarified that, after the Draft Biden campaign, she immediately distanced herself from Biden and moved toward the Sanders campaign. She also admitted that she’s learned more about him since then, and does not support him today.
Early Fireworks Between Konst and Smalls
In response to the above question about Biden, Konst lobbed a shot against the other candidates in the room. She emphasized that she’s the only one who funds her campaign “with no tricks and no loopholes”, specifically accusing Dawn Smalls, stating “it’s really interesting and revealing… look at the filings.”
She was referring to contributions made to Smalls’ campaign by members of her law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner, John Podesta, and other national figures for whom she worked. There were no loopholes or tricks, however, in Smalls’ acceptance of these specific donations. The NY Post reported that Smalls may have exercised her national connections to gain the 500 local donations needed to qualify for matching funds, more than 100 of which were from Boies Schiller Flexner, which Konst seemed to consider not within the spirit of the matching funds program and disingenuous when candidates claimed to be free of corporate influence.
These people have known me for nineteen years. I have worked personally with most of the people who have gave me donations.Dawn Smalls, responding to Nomiki Konst’s accusations of relying on donations from her old law firm to qualify for matching funds.
Ben Yee took both sides, seeing it as reasonable to take money from more well-off networks like lawyers, but that the matching funds program wasn’t intended to benefit candidates that relied on such donors.
The debate got very heated, with candidates interrupting and attempting to defend themselves, with most of the accusations coming from Konst. The audience seemed to tire of the subject quickly. The next audience question asked that the candidates switch topics since the argument had gone on for about ten minutes.
Clarifying Yee’s policy platform
The next questioner asked Yee to clarify his three main policy proposals. Yee spend the next ten minutes explaining Civics for All (a continuation of his civic education workshops), Power for Communities (reforming and organizing nonprofits, community boards, etc. to do more bottom-up planning work), and Justice For New Yorkers (expanding the litigation powers of the Public Advocate, a common goal for many PA candidates.)
Congestion Pricing Lighting Round
The next question asked for each candidate to explain their position on congestion pricing. Dawn Smalls was supportive, throwing support for park-and-ride programs into the mix. Ben Yee was in favor as well. He also supports increasing parking fees in high-traffic areas and incentivizing electric vehicles and eBikes. Nomiki Konst also agreed with congestion pricing but added that ride-sharing companies like Uber are harming taxi companies, exploiting workers, and need to pay most of the cost.
Questions from Staffers
The forum was held during the worst of the 2019 polar vortex. Due to the cold, turnout was less than it had been in previous forums. As such, there was a higher concentration of staffers and volunteers from each campaign that asked some loaded questions.
The first, a Nomiki Konst volunteer (who identified himself after being called out by the moderator), was confused by Dawn Smalls’ “contradiction” that she’s presented herself as both an outsider to NYC politics and a political insider nationally. Smalls clarified that she “sees no contradiction” and that the distinction was between being nationally active, but not having any favors to owe locally.
Cutting Through Red Tape
A staffer with Dawn Smalls, who identified himself, asked each candidate how they proposed to cut through red tape if they were elected.
Nomiki Konst detailed a sweeping plan to decentralize the Public Advocates office, adding fifty-one deputy public advocates. These public advocates would serve each City Council district, and be independent of other city agencies in order to better serve as local investigators into government corruption and inaction.
If you’re an immigrant, if you don’t trust the government (which most New Yorker’s don’t), who do you go to when you’re needs are not being heard?Nomiki Konst on the importance of the Public Advocate’s independence
Ben Yee did not push for an expansion to the Public Advocate’s existing power or structure. He instead said his policy of community engagement and education were already doable and didn’t need new legislation or charter revisions. For example, he said expanding translation services at voting sites was already achievable in this manner.
I am not asking the Mayor to do something. I do not need the City Council to do anything. Everything I am doing is within the office of the Public Advocate… which will engage people in their own government. When you empower them… then you build political leverage.Ben Yee on expanding the role of the Public Advocate
Dawn Smalls reiterated that the Public Advocate’s litigation powers and investigative potential would cut through red tape. She used the botched rollout of Fair Fares as an example of where the PA should “stay on top” of the Mayor, but it was unclear if she intended to litigate or use the bully pulpit to do so.
Ralph Perfetto Disagrees
District Leader for the 64th Assembly District Ralph Perfetto interrupted the proceedings to mention that he personally disagrees with congestion pricing. An issue of concern for him was that he’d seen turnstile jumpers on the way to the event, and this should be addressed instead. He didn’t have a question for the candidates beyond his contention that congestion pricing would increase the cost of goods and services for consumers.
Nomiki Konst countered that further increasing the minimum wage to $30 per hour for businesses over 75 employees. This would primarily affect larger businesses while reducing the wealth gap, alleviating any minor markups in prices experienced by working-class families.
Co-host Rachel Brody asked a question about how the candidates would define a quality school. Dawn Smalls went first, saying that aftercare is a good indicator of school quality that needs to be improved: providing programs for kids who have parents who cannot pick up their kids after school due to work constraints. She also said supporting children who are homeless or in transitional housing will be a focus for her, to ensure they have a level playing field.
Ben Yee views school quality through a lens of inclusion, seeing other metrics like funding as being defined by school segregation. He said he’d address this by pushing for more awareness and planning by local stakeholders. It would be “the very first thing I would do as Public Advocate.”
Nomiki Konst agreed that funding was unequal, but disagreed with Ben that organizing stakeholders could alleviate the issue. She identified Cuomo and the State government as hurdles that grassroots organizers haven’t been able to overcome. The Charter School lobby, specifically, was identified as a target.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
Ross Barkan, the moderator, posed a nuanced two-part question. Firstly, he asked whether the candidates opposed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel personally. Secondly, he asked whether the candidates supported or opposed legislation making BDS illegal, versions of which have passed the NY State Senate and Congress.
Dawn Smalls said she’d need to take a look at the legislation and couldn’t provide an answer, but she was personally against BDS.
I’d want to take a look at the legislation, and with respect, I have never personally supported BDS.Ben Yee on legislation to outlaw Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)
Nomiki Konst agreed that legislation aimed at limiting the right to boycott was unacceptable, and was sympathetic with protestors, saying that Netanyahu is a close ally of Donald Trump. However, she stopped short of personally supporting the movement. When explicitly asked again by Barkan, Nomiki equivocated, saying the issue is being used to “divide the left.”
We need to stop weaponizing the debate over BDS and have a real conversation about how we solve the human rights crisis in Palestine.Nomiki Konst on legislation to outlaw Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)
First Piece of Legislation
Nomiki Konst said that she’d first work to separate the Public Advocate from the Mayoral line of succession. Only when this is done, she contends, will the Public Advocate be truly neutral and possibly no longer be a stepping stone for candidates merely seeking higher office.
Ben Yee said he’d work first to make the Public Advocate’s budget independent. Strong Public Advocates often see their budgets slashed, limiting their effectiveness, especially if they run counter to the Mayor’s wishes. He also said he is looking forward to introducing legislation to fund civics education in public schools.
Dawn Smalls spoke briefly, saying she’d introduce a bill prioritizing women and children in the public housing lottery.
Dawn Smalls said she’d use the advocacy powers of the office to investigate whether all energy coming into New York City meets with “federal guidelines.” While not stated by Smalls, this would likely involve looking into whether power generated for the city complied with EPA guidelines for greenhouse emissions, though many federal standards have since been revoked by the Trump White House.
Ben Yee again referenced his three policy points. Firstly, he’d use the bully pulpit of the Public Advocate to push for more resiliency efforts. Secondly, he’d organize communities to push for more investment in public transit and alternative transit modes like bikes and eBikes in order to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Thirdly, he’d catalog and highlight buildings that weren’t in compliance with emission standards.
I understand people are very concerned about the speed at which bicycles travel, and they’re like “They’re dangerous.” You know what’s dangerous? Cars are dangerous. We let them on the street. If we can figure it out for two tons of steel moving at… 25 miles an hour… we can do it for 25 pounds of aluminum.Ben Yee on cycling regulations and safety
Nomiki Konst focused entirely on fracking during her response. She called out natural gas extraction as primarily responsible for stifling solar, geothermal, green roofs, and other alternative energy technologies. She said the only way to make headway with climate change solutions is to take on the real estate and natural gas lobbies nationwide.
We’re in survival mode now, let’s just be real. This isn’t climate change anymore. It’s survival.Nomiki Konst on the role fracked gas has played in climate change
Legalizing Sex Work
Nomiki Konst took no time to announce her support and mentioned that existing laws are often used “as a weapon” by law enforcement, especially against the trans community. Further, she was supportive of unionizing sex workers.
Sex work is work is work and I think it should be legalized. I think that we need to decriminalize sex work altogether.Nomiki Konst on legalizing sex work
Ben Yee’s argument for legalization was contingent on whether such legalization was safe and didn’t impact communities in a way that was “a hindrance or a harm to them.” That said, he was supportive of full decriminalization, partly because the current laws make those who are victims of sex trafficking much less likely to come forward and report it to law enforcement.
Whatever happens between two consenting adults… or, in some cases, many more… (hey, it’s New York!)… that should be there business.Ben Yee on legalizing sex work
Dawn Smalls stopped short, saying only that she was in favor of “comprehensive criminal justice reform”. She interpreted Yee’s comments to imply that legalizing sex work might increase human trafficking instead, and instead called for more research on the topic.
I would want to make sure that some of the other aspects of concern, such as human trafficking, would actually decrease, before I publically stated my support for legalizing [sex work].Dawn Smalls on legalizing sex work
Dawn Smalls defends Kristen Gillibrand
Alex, a local activist, questioned Smalls on her support of Kristen Gillibrand. He said the Senator was “basically a Republican” who called for more funding to ICE and used the phrase “illegal” rather than “undocumented” while arguing that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed drivers licenses.
Smalls was vociferous in her defense, saying that Gillibrand was a close personal friend. She lauded her accomplishments, including her position as the only female partner at Boies Schiller Flexner when Smalls began work there.
Smalls defended Gillibrand’s record while representing upstate New York, by saying the Republican she ousted for the House of Representatives, John E. Sweeney, was “really awful”, having been photographed at frat parties while in office, arrested for multiple DUIs, and accused of domestic violence.
Smalls erroneously stated that Sweeney had molested women, for which we could find no evidence or accusations.
When you do your purity and your litmus test, you should also look at the fact that she did not take on a Democrat.Dawn Smalls defending Kristen Gillibrand
2020 Presidential Picks
Ross asked a lighting round question, asking every candidate who they supported in the 2020 presidential race. Nobody had an answer, saying the field was still too wide open, but Konst confided that she was privately lobbying for someone to run.
District Leader Perfetto chimed in at the end, demanding a second question. He asked each candidate whether they would seek subpoena power for the Public Advocate’s office.
Konst said yes, but that there was much that could be accomplished without it. Yee sought subpoena power as well, in addition to absorbing the Department of Investigations (to which Konst agreed). Smalls also affirmed she’d seek subpoena power.
Learn more about Nomiki Konst…
Learn more about Dawn Smalls…
Learn more about Ben Yee…
Check out more from Solidarity Space’s Public Advocates series
We have already posted audio from Jumaane Williams, Rafael Espinal, Danny O’Donnell, and Melissa Mark-Viverito with more to come soon! Be sure to be notified of their newest forums on their events page.