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Peoplehop: David Eisenbach, LitHum Professor and NYC Public Advocate Candidate

leader in the campaign and classroom!

Professor David Eisenbach CC ‘94, TC ‘95 , GSAS ‘06 is running in the February 26th special election for the post of New York City Public Advocate. This is Eisenbach’s second bid for the seat, after a previous defeat in 2017. 

Columbia History lecturer David Eisenbach ran against incumbent Public Advocate Letitia James in the 2017 Democratic primary, winning almost a quarter of the vote despite having almost no funding. James’ victory in the race for State Attorney General last November triggered next week’s special election for the post of Public Advocate, and Eisenbach has once again thrown his hat in the ring against a crowded field of candidates. He and several other candidates have staked out strong anti-establishment positions against Mayor DeBlasio and the City Council, citing what they view as corruption and kowtowing to lobbying interests. We caught up with him to ask him about the campaign, his academic work, the office of Public Advocate, and what he hopes to achieve if he wins.

If you’re registered in New York, the election is the 26th. The field is crowded and the race is tight, so go vote!

What classes do you teach?

I teach LitHum, and then at the Manhattan School of Music, I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Comedies, an American history survey, and some Great Books classes (MSM’s equivalent of the Core).

How are you able to balance teaching all your classes and running for office?

Well, seven is my normal load. Last semester I was actually teaching in a federal jail through Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative. I’ve always taught a kind of insane amount of classes (seven or eight classes a semester), but doing it at the same time that I’m running for office is definitely a lot. The first time I ran, during the Democratic primary in 2017, the election was September 12th, so I had the summer off and I could focus on that, but this is particularly crazy.

How has your academic work informed your political activities over the years?

I’ve always been kind of an advocate on various issues – my first book was on the gay rights movement, at a time when it wasn’t particularly fashionable. Especially as a straight guy writing a book about gay people and the gay rights movement – it was just confusing to a lot of people, but I felt it was, at that moment, the key civil rights issue that was very much in the news that needed to be explained historically. I wrote my second book about the Bush administration and its use of the media after 9/11 leading up to Iraq. So my academic work, if you want to even call it that, has always been in the advocacy vein. As a teacher of the US presidency and American history, while I keep my politics out of the classroom, I’m always still kind of explaining, “How did we get here?” As Public Advocate, I think I’ll bring that ability as an educator to explain, “How did we get to the point where we are rezoning affordable neighborhoods like Inwood and East Harlem to build luxury towers in the name of building affordable housing?” That is a story, a long story, and it has to do with our disappearing middle class and the influence of money on politics.

Can you give like a ten-second explanation of what exactly a Public Advocate does, for those Bwog readers who might not be up on their NYC local politics?

The Public Advocate is supposed to be the voice of the people. It’s the ombudsman of the city, so it’s supposed to voice complaints from the public about city agencies, the mayor, and the city council. It’s supposed to be the truth-teller in the city to call out waste, fraud, and corruption.

What made you run, and what’s some of the history of the office?

Well, it hasn’t been around all that long. The first Public Advocate was Mark Green, in 1993, so it’s varied. I just think that right now, the city is heading in the wrong direction, and becoming a city where the rich and big real estate have taken over our city council and our mayor, and we’re displacing huge numbers of working New Yorkers.

Obviously some other candidates with some similar concerns have managed to get a lot more funding behind them. What made you decide it was still worth entering the race?

Well, I ran against Tish James, a very popular politician, in the Democratic primary in 2017, and I got 92,000 votes, almost 24% of the vote with no money, so it was all about speaking the truth. And the truth is that the city has been sold out to big real estate. We have a small business crisis that you see every day just walking around the street, empty storefront after empty storefront; we’re rezoning the city to build luxury towers in affordable neighborhoods, which is leading to the displacement mainly of people of color, and we have historic homelessness. One in 10 kids in our public schools are homeless. There’s something really wrong with this situation under a so-called progressive mayor. I just feel as though no one else is standing up – or at least, was standing up – to challenge the system, and I thought that I would just do it. And that’s why I have a shot to win.

Can you tell us more about the Small Business Jobs Survival Act that you’ve been championing for some time?

So, the main reason why I ran last time was to push this bill. I made the campaign promise that I was gonna pass the bill, but I figured even after I lost the election why not just work to pass it anyway? I realized that the key factor is making sure we have a city council speaker who’d allow the bill to get out of committee and go to the floor. So I got involved in making sure we got a city council speaker who supported the bill, and that was Cory Johnson, who was elected city council speaker. I did a press conference against his main opponent, and we had a bit of a run-in on City Hall steps. It was on New York One, definitely hurt him, but we got Cory elected and I’ve been working with his office as head of the Friends of the SBJSA to pass the bill. We’re going to pass this bill! For the first time since it was submitted, 33 years ago.

What kind of role does the Public Advocate play in passing legislation, if they’re also focused on being a watchdog?

Really, the office is what the Public Advocate wants it to be. It’s really just a matter of using the bully pulpit on whatever issue the Public Advocate wants. So, in this case, I would make sure I use the office to continue to fight for the bill, because I think it’s absolutely essential to our economy. The biggest employer of immigrants is small business, the key to the American Dream for 400 years has been small business. In New York City we have this vibrant economy with diverse stores and restaurants and bars – they’re all small businesses. And I’m just sickened to see chain stores take over New York City and kill the city that I fell in love with when I was your age. That’s what’s going on right now, and I just want to fight to get New York back.

What exactly does the SBJSA do, for us laypeople?

What it does is it gives commercial tenants rights in a commercial lease renegotiation. Right now, they have no rights. If the landlord doesn’t want to renew a lease for commercial tenants, they don’t have to give them a lease renewal offer. They’re just like, “get out”. So this guarantees every commercial tenant in good standing a ten-year lease renewal offer from the landlord. That’s really important, because a lot of landlords will demand from a small business owner a cash payment, sometimes of $100,000 in cash, under the table, in order to even get a lease renewal offer. And particularly vulnerable to this are immigrant-owned businesses. This will eliminate that extortion; that will not happen, it’ll be illegal. You’ll have to offer the ten-year lease renewal, and so the tenant will not have to pay these under-the-table cash bribes. Secondly, if the landlord and tenant cannot come to an agreement on their own, they will go to a legally-binding arbitration process, where the arbitrator will choose what the fair market rent is for the space based on a whole set of criteria. What that’ll do is it’ll prevent rent increases of 300-400%, which is what we’re seeing now, and it will force landlords and tenants to be reasonable. Rent is still going to go up, but it just isn’t going to go up astronomically- it will keep the small businesses in their spaces.

What’s stood in the way of getting the SBJSA passed before now?

Big real estate. The Real Estate Board of New York (the name of my party in the special election is “Stop REBNY”) is the biggest political power in New York State and New York City. They are the biggest lobbyists, and they are the biggest opponents. And that’s a heavy opponent. If we get this bill passed, it’ll be the biggest David and Goliath story since Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses. This is historic, because for the first time a group of citizens – small business activists, chambers of commerce, small business owners – will actually defeat this incredibly powerful REBNY.

How does Columbia’s history as a major developer and landlord fit in with the same real estate interests that you’re fighting against? Is Columbia part of that, in some ways?

Well, Columbia is an interesting case, because you know, Columbia has a really bad and very well-documented history of being very heavy-handed in Morningside Heights. And this became exposed after the 1968 student takeover, in which many files, about what the administration was doing in terms of promoting a kind of gentrification of the neighborhood, were exposed to the public. Columbia has a kind of tortured history — on the one hand being a liberal institution and on the other hand being a very heavy-handed landlord. But they have, in recent years, with that knowledge of that history, very much begun to clean up and be much more considerate and aware that you can’t stand for the principles of Columbia (spreading education, spreading truth, opening up doors to people from all around the world) and at the same time be a heavy-handed landlord. We actually have to be good citizens in the city of New York.

Image via Manhattan School of Music

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