Working-class roots, a record of helping the city’s underprivileged residents in particular and the recognition that the middle class cannot be forgotten in matters of public policy are the traits that city Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) says he will transfer to the office of public advocate if he wins the seat.
And they’re the ones he believes would most help him help his fellow New Yorkers if he’s elected to that position.
“Perspective and record — to be a good public advocate you need to be independent, you need to be resourceful, almost entrepreneurial, you need problem-solving ability and you need to understand how New Yorkers live today,” Gioia said last week in an interview with Queens Chronicle staffers. “The middle class is being squeezed in new ways.”
To alleviate that pressure, Gioia wants to make more people aware of the help that’s available from the government, whether it’s subsidized lunches for children whose families may not know they qualify, food stamps for those who suddenly find themselves needing them, the state’s health insurance program for children or the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.
As a councilman, Gioia said, he helped New Yorkers save $8 million collectively over three or four years just by providing volunteer accountants who went to residents’ homes, rather than having them come to a government office for assistance.
To spread the word about free and reduced price lunches for city school students, Gioia looked to Newark, N.J., where the subsidized meal program is utilized by nearly 100 percent of those who are eligible. The key, he found, was that the Newark schools gave students information about the program in class. Gioia told schools Chancellor Joel Klein about Newark’s system, and now New York is running a similar program in 100 schools as a pilot measure.
And when the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted protection to Sunnyside Gardens, he convinced the panel to open a temporary office in Queens to answer residents’ questions about the new regulations that came with preservation.
Those are the kinds of initiatives Gioia intends to promote if he wins the race against former Public Advocate Mark Green, who is running again this year, Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio and Norman Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The job is to solve problems and to help people solve problems,” he said. “The luxury of being public advocate is I don’t have to run the city, I get to help run the city better.”
His approach is even reflected in his fundraising efforts. To make sure no supporter is excluded, especially those who do not command great wealth, Gioia imposes no minimum donation at his events. People can get in to show their support even if they contribute just $1, he said, and “you’re in the same room as the guy giving $500.” The amount he most often receives is $10.
The technique has worked: Gioia has raised more than $2 million, far more than any of his competitors, and is poised to begin most of his heaviest spending soon. He acknowledged, however, that he has a formidable challenge to overcome with Green in particular, because he formerly held the office and retains widespread name recognition throughout the city.
Gioia is from Woodside, where his family has owned a small flower shop on Roosevelt Avenue for more than 100 years.He attended P.S. 11 and I.S. 125, and St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows, and then worked his way through New York University as a janitor, doorman and elevator operator. He was a member of SEIU Local 32BJ. Next he went to Georgetown Law School, and after that got a job in the Clinton White House.
He won his City Council seat in 2001, trouncing his opponents in both the primary and general elections. The decisive Democratic primary in the race for public advocate is set for Sept. 15.