Could a Republican win the New York City public advocate race?

Eric Ulrich
Eric Ulrich
Emil Cohen
Eric Ulrich

Could a Republican win the New York City public advocate race?

City Councilman Eric Ulrich could take advantage of a crowded Democratic field.
November 26, 2018

Many eulogies have been written for the Republican Party in New York. The once-prominent party lost its grip on the state Senate this month, and has for years found itself consistently unable to win any statewide office, or nearly any office at any level in the state’s largest city. But hope springs eternal for some rosy-eyed Republicans – GOPtimists, if you will. The latest sprig of hope to sprout: a Republican with a chance of being elected New York City public advocate.

With New York City Public Advocate Letitia James vacating the office on Jan. 1 to become state attorney general, voters will have the chance to fill the position in a nonpartisan, citywide special election, expected sometime in late February. At least 10 candidates have already declared they’re running, and all of the major contenders so far are Democrats. With the Democratic vote so fractured, however, Republicans see an opening to unite behind one candidate and push him or her to victory with a relatively small share of the vote.

“Assuming that there are 10 or 12 or 15 other very prominent Democrats who are running for this position, then yeah, maybe I win with a plurality of the vote!” New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich told City & State. Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, hasn’t officially declared his candidacy, but sounded very much like someone plotting for a run, weighing both the advantages – “I don’t have to resign my seat to run” – and the challenges – “the Republican brand right now in the city of New York is at an all-time low.”

Republican campaign consultant E. O’Brien Murray agreed that a Republican would “absolutely” have a chance in a crowded field. “That kind of equation points to an opportunity for a Republican to win,” he said.

As for whether Ulrich could be that winner, Murray said it’s too early to tell. “It’s got to be a Republican that can energize the grass roots behind them and energize the base,” said Murray, who isn’t working for any candidate in the race.

Ulrich said the city’s five Republican county chairs met the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to talk strategy, and hoped to limit the field to just one GOP candidate, whether or not Ulrich decides to run. That’s a time-honored strategy for New York Republicans to give the underdogs the best possible shot in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7 to 1. Michael Bloomberg, who was always somewhat divorced from the Republican Party because of his idiosyncratic views and personal wealth, ran on the Republican line for mayor three times and won as recently as 2009.

But the party’s recent history is bleaker. The 2017 Republican mayoral candidate, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, got just 28 percent of the vote while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earned 67 percent on his way to re-election.

But if a Republican could come close to Malliotakis’ showing by monopolizing GOP voters, while a handful of Democratic elected officials split up the remaining two-thirds of the electorate, one can easily imagine that Republican winning. Unlike in typical citywide elections, where there’s a runoff if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote, the top vote-getter in the public advocate’s race would win the office, no matter how low the percentage.   

But Malliotakis’ campaign is also a reminder of a potential obstacle to Ulrich’s hopes of uniting his party: He backed independent candidate Bo Dietl in the mayor’s race over Malliotakis, and the two elected officials still have bad blood between them, as evidenced by a testy Twitter exchange this month in which Malliotakis said Ulrich “has no influence in this city.”

Ulrich said he would run to be a check on de Blasio, standing up to the mayor and holding him accountable on issues like mismanagement of public housing and failing to do enough to fix the subways. But Ulrich is known in Republican circles for opposing another executive and a fellow New York Republican: President Donald Trump.

Ulrich’s “Never Trump” position could dampen excitement among the 19 percent of New Yorkers who, according to a March Quinnipiac University poll, approve of Trump’s job performance. At the same time, any Republican is unlikely to win over the 76 percent of New York City voters in that same poll who don’t approve of the president and will have many more than a dozen Trump critics to choose from on the ballot.

Yet experts say that the math could work out. “In theory, yes,” campaign consultant Jerry Skurnik told City & State. “If there are multiple candidates, double digits, theoretically you could win with 15, 20 percent of the vote. But in reality, those kind of elections very, very rarely happen. Even if a lot of candidates run, voters at some point decide that only three or four of them are viable and that’s who is going to get the votes.”

This could already be happening, even before the race is announced, with Democrats like New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams and Assemblyman Michael Blake already basking in attention and endorsements that lesser-known challengers are missing out on. It’s easy to imagine voters being guided towards a select few candidates from key endorsements from labor unions and editorial boards.

Skurnik said a best-case scenario for Ulrich would be “as many candidates as possible. None of them Republicans, and all way to the left of him.”

But Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, doesn’t like Ulrich’s chances.

”The odds of a Republican winning that seat are between slim and none,” Muzzio said. “He’s not going to win.” Ulrich isn’t the problem, Muzzio clarified. It’s just that New York “is the bluest of blue cities.”

But there is some precedent. Hawaii, one of the most liberal states in the country, elected a Republican to Congress in 2010 when Charles Djou beat out two Democrats who split the rest of the vote in the special election. There’s no direct comparison in New York, as this will be the first-ever citywide special election.

But some have pointed to Andrew Eristoff’s 1993 victory in the race for an Upper East Side seat in the New York City Council. The Republican beat out six Democrats in a February special election that year, winning with just 31 percent of the vote.

“Obviously some things have changed” in the past 25 years, Eristoff told City & State in a phone interview. “I like and respect Eric, but this situation is different. We had a functioning Republican organization in Manhattan,” with the GOP holding seats in the state Senate, Assembly and City Council in the borough. In 2018, the party doesn’t hold a single seat on the island.

Still, the former councilman wouldn’t rule out Ulrich. “He’s a moderate,” Eristoff said. “He’s respected and intelligent. And if the Democrats are so foolish as to be unable to set aside individual ambitions, who knows?”

Eristoff won re-election in the general election later in 1993, and earned another term in 1997. He stayed in politics, working for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

It could be an inspiring tale for a candidate like Ulrich, eager to move up in politics. But Ulrich seemed well aware of the challenge that could face him in February – let alone what a challenge it would be to win again in November, when the public advocate will have to run in a traditional November race with party primaries.

“Let that be the least of my problems. One race at a time,” he said. “I’m not going to presume that I’m going to come out on top on this. I know how difficult it is.”

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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