Joe Borelli fights for the silent minority in public advocate debate

Councilman Joe Borelli.
Councilman Joe Borelli.
John McCarten/NYC Council
New York City Councilman and public advocate candidate Joe Borelli.

Joe Borelli fights for the silent minority in public advocate debate

The Republican says he represents “millions of New Yorkers who aren't out there protesting in the streets.”
October 23, 2019

New York City Councilman Joe Borelli is fighting for the silent minority. 

Borelli, the Republican nominee for public advocate, hails from the South Shore of Staten Island. It’s the most remote corner of what’s often called “the forgotten borough,” and he introduced himself to New York City voters at Tuesday evening’s public advocate debate on NY1 as the spokesman for a forgotten New York.

Challenging the incumbent public advocate, Democrat Jumaane Williams, Borelli has little hope of winning, but he made it clear that he wasn’t planning on drifting to the left to improve his chances. 

“I'm running because there are millions of New Yorkers who aren't out there protesting in the streets,” Borelli said in his opening statement. “They're not demanding we hamstring our police. … These are people that don't have a voice in ... any citywide office. I'll be that voice.”

It’s a very different forgotten New York than the one Mayor Bill de Blasio argued was overlooked by his predecessor Mike Bloomberg. De Blasio pledged to advocate for low-income New Yorkers and communities of color, whereas Borelli said that he would “be the most effective counter-balance” to de Blasio’s liberal agenda, “and I'll hold Mayor de Blasio accountable." 

The problem for Borelli is that the majority of New York City voters lean left. That’s why they’ve elected such liberal citywide officials in the first place. Williams himself is a progressive standard-bearer, who has enthusiastically embraced the public advocate’s role as a spokesperson for marginalized communities such as the homeless and mentally ill. 

Throughout their hour-long jousting match, Borelli repeatedly staked out typical Republican positions that are unlikely to help him defeat Williams. Among the popular causes he opposed were bail reform, marijuana legalization, closing the jail complex on Rikers Island and divesting public pension funds from fossil fuels. 

And so where Richard Nixon famously identified a “silent majority,” Borelli has only a silent minority. 

Perhaps most contrarian of Borelli’s views, however, is that he thinks the city should consider eliminating the very office he is seeking. He’s not the only one to argue that the job currently lacks power and that it should either be given some or be disestablished. Borelli has a bill to move the Department of Investigation under the public advocate to enhance the department’s independence from the mayor – a measure Borelli said on Tuesday would “make the public advocate worth having.” But it’s unusual for someone to apply for a job by saying that the position shouldn’t exist. 

“The position is reduced to protester-in-chief,” Borelli complained, referring to Williams’ well-known habit of participating in protests or acts of civil disobedience. “Jumaane, to get anything done, feels he has to get arrested and chain himself to a building or something.” The public advocate can introduce City Council legislation, though – and Williams countered by pointing out that he passes more legislation than most council members. 

Williams, confidently cruising to reelection, didn’t let that gibe upset him. Throughout the debate, he maintained an amiable calm, offering subtle progress reports on his efforts, such as creating borough-based satellite offices in which victims of police brutality can complain to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which he said needs more funding. 

“Government tries to do things to people; the public advocate needs to try to get government to do things with people,” Williams said. 

While Borelli may be offering a stark ideological contrast, he and Williams seemed to get along personally; when Borelli professed that he found calls to dismantle car culture in New York City “incredibly offensive,” he hastened to add that he wasn’t pointing the finger at Williams. In his typical conciliatory fashion, Williams offered that he doesn’t want to kill car culture, but merely to “change” it.

Despite his positions that are plainly not poll-tested for the city’s left-leaning electorate, Borelli did show, with appealing truthfulness and humor, that he recognized how hard he was swimming upstream. When asked if he would run for mayor in 2021 if elected public advocate this year, he answered, "It's a 7-1 Democratic city. If I win this race, I'm starting my campaign for mayor the next day.”

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
20200328