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Advocating for an advocate

No blood was drawn as three of the four candidates for public advocate squared off in a forum at St. Francis College earlier this week.

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce sponsored the debate. Three of the four candidates -- City Councilmembers Bill de Blasio, Eric Gioia and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel -- showed up for the verbal battle.

Former Public Advocate Mark Green, who is also running, was a no-show.

The debate came amid recent legislation introduced in the City Council to abolish the public advocate post.

The office also received a 40 percent reduction in funding in the Fiscal Year 2010 city budget.

All three candidates defended the city position, although Siegel admitted that it has been “painfully inactive” the past few years.

“Betsy Gotbaum [the current public advocate] has been a poster child for getting rid of the job,” he said.

But Siegel said that the position could be a very effective tool with a minimum budget. The office could go out in the community and teach people advocacy where it creates a synergywith the public, he said.

De Blasio said the public advocate position is crucial in creating checks and balances between the people and the mayor’s office and the agencies that he controls.

The office would be particularly important as a voice for parents whose children are attending public schools under mayoral control, he said.

De Blasio also said the office should be independently budgeted so that the City Council and mayor cannot just indiscriminately cut the budget.

Gioia agreed with de Blasio that the public advocate position should be independently funded, and said the position is needed in a watchdog role over city government.

The office is also needed to stand up for the most vulnerable, he said, adding that this includes those who ride the subways every morning and are struggling to make ends meet.

Both Gioia and de Blasio said they are well positioned for the job with eight years of experience in the City Council.

De Blasio further pointed out that he was at the forefront of against extending term limits, and most recently fought to keep firehouses and child care centers open.

Siegel positioned himself as an outsider who knows how to build bridges among blacks, Hispanics, gays and other minorities.

The three candidates also spoke about the high unemployment rate citywide and how it is upwards of 50 percent in communities of color.

The Democratic primary is set for September 15.

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