By Tracie McMillan
City Limits • July/August 2005
Burlesque dancers, fire-spinners and nightlife activists aren’t commonly courted by politicians. But this year, bohemians citywide have at least one candidate eager for their support: Norman Siegel for Public Advocate.
Taking his second stab at the office, Siegel’s jumpstarting his campaign by drawing on the city’s newly mobilized masses, some of whom he’s represented in court: cyclists opposed to the aggressive policing of monthly mass bicycle rides; hipsters fighting the city’s arcane cabaret law, which prohibits dancing in bars without a license; and anti-gentrification advocates in Williamsburg, Prospect Heights and beyond. By early June, Siegel’s campaign had compiled a list of more than 400 volunteers ready to do battle for Norman.
He’ll likely need them. Siegel is again facing Betsy Gotbaum, who won last time by a margin of nearly 2 to 1 in the primary runoff, and who now has the advantage of incumbency. She also has far more money: Late May filings showed her campaign clocking in at $1.3 million, with another $800,000 slated to come from matching funds. Her war chest far exceeds her five opponents combined; Siegel, in second place, was at less than $500,000.
“I think it’s incredibly difficult to make a case against Betsy Gotbaum. I would think you’d have to outspend her by a magnitude of 2 or 3 times to have a fighting chance,” says Micah Lasher, a Democratic political consultant with Knickerbocker SKD. “You have an incumbent that people have no problem with, in a city in which people are feeling good. What is the impetus for change?”
That is precisely where Siegel hopes to make his mark. Battling for an office that few have heard of, Siegel promises that “after my first year in office, everyone will know what the Public Advocate does.” He envisions the Public Advocate as a professional firebrand, brazenly challenging the Mayor and City Council on behalf of city residents. Siegel wants to deputize residents as “neighborhood advocates” across the city, convene town meetings on race relations, and tackle thorny issues like Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development.
It’s a bit different from Gotbaum’s strategy of assuring voters that she knows how to work within the system. Indeed, she entered office assuring Bloomberg that she would be his “partner–not adversary.” It’s played well with city politicos; Gotbaum’s already picked up major endorsements from all five county Democratic organizations, and from former Mayors Koch and Dinkins. Siegel’s approach, says Gotbaum, is just not realistic. “You can’t get somebody on the street and say, ‘This person can solve government problems,’” she says. “He kind of sees this as a little law office, and that’s not what this office is all about. The issue here is you’ve got to try to solve the problems.”
Siegel’s betting that his fiery approach will gain ground, and points to his 14 club endorsements by early June (up from five in 2001). It’s also what’s drawn such an energized, idealistic crew to Siegel’s side. His campaign manager, Matthew Roth, was an arrestee during the Republican National Convention whom Siegel later defended. Two of Siegel’s 10 staffers come out of Democracy for New York City [DFNYC], an early endorser of Siegel and a local offshoot of Howard Dean’s organization. “We think Norman Siegel embodies everything that Howard Dean did,” says Lewis Cohen, who’s been fundraising for Siegel in addition to coordinating finance for DFNYC.
Of course, there’s a glaring difference between the insurgent Dean campaign and Siegel’s approach: Regardless of how he finishes the race, Siegel has little interest in becoming an insider. “After all,” he says conspiratorially, “I’m a very charming troublemaker.”