A Teachers College adjunct professor who has never held public office is shaking up the race for the city’s number-two job with a surprisingly strong dark horse candidacy.
Cathy Guerriero, who teaches American Politics of Education at TC, has scored a long list of endorsements and done well in the polls in the race for public advocate, the city’s ombudsman and the next-in-line to the mayor.
She has proposed reshaping the office into a “think tank” with college research fellows and has positioned herself as a fighter for the union rank-and-file leading up to Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
“The city has removed from power its stakeholders, the working class, the working poor, the middle class,” she said in an interview.
In the race to replace Bill de Blasio, the current frontrunner in the mayoral election, Guerriero’s three main opponents are Brooklyn City Council member Letisha James, Brooklyn State Senator Daniel Squadron, and former Deputy Public Advocate Reshma Saujani. Also in the running is Sidique Wai, a civilian New York Police Department employee.
Guerriero is confident about her chances, to say the least.
“This thing is happening, it is over, put a fork in them, this is not their time, and this is not their job,” she said of her opponents.
While that might sound hubristic for a first-time candidate, the few public polls released on the race suggest that her prediction is not impossible: In June, she was in a statistical tie with 16 percent to James’ 17, and in another from August, she was in second place, 12 percent to James’ 16.
Her opponents have suggested that Guerriero is benefiting from voters who think her name is Hispanic. (She’s of Italian and German descent.)
But Guerriero, 43, said she’s doing well because of sheer hard work. Her strategy? Be “the girl who shows up”—she said she’s taken more than 1,200 constituent meetings over 16 months of running full time.
Those meetings have paid off—she’s been endorsed by 51 unions, more than any other candidate, although some of the larger ones, including Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and 1199SEIU, are supporting James.
Guerriero said she got her endorsements because “nobody worked for them” harder than she.
“There’s a presumption in politics, and certainly in New York City politics, which is your big money and your institutional power, and having been in office ... will give you center stage,” she said. “Guess what? Your money’s no good here, and your power’s no good here either.”
She speaks quickly and intensely, with a slight Brooklyn accent, often rapping her hand against the table to punctuate her points.
“I’m a fighter. I’m a competitor. I come at you hard, all day, every day. Relentless. That’s who I am,” she said.
Guerriero, who grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, said she comes “from a family of teachers and firemen and cops.” Her father worked two union jobs, as a teacher and a longshoreman.
She went to Wagner College on Staten Island, where she played Division One softball and basketball, and got her masters and Ph.D. in public and education administration at NYU.
It was at Wagner, she said, when she realized that all she really wanted to do was “run the city.” A professor told her, “Good luck, kid, but it’d be nice if you actually knew something”—so she decided to take her time before running for office.
Guerriero has been teaching at TC for 12 years, and also teaches at NYU. She’s worked for the Archdiocese of New York, and she directed the 2008 papal visit to New York. She’s also worked on a number of political campaigns, “doing the real stuff of politics, the grunt stuff, standing on the street corners.”
“I planned for 20 years to run for this exact race,” she said.
The public advocate’s job is notoriously nebulous. In fact, 79 percent of people asked in the last poll couldn’t name a single candidate running for the job. It is intended to help New Yorkers navigate city agencies, and its strongest power is often its bully pulpit.
“It’s a much maligned, much eviscerated job,” she said, with “maybe a $2 million budget, maybe 25 staff.”
Guerriero said she would reshape the office with a think tank structure and recruit 50 research fellows—undergraduate and graduate college students—to work pro bono. Thirty of the fellows would publish reports on major issues in the city, while the rest would help solve New Yorkers’ problems with the city government and provide legal aid.
She said she’ll use the research to back up her bully pulpit role—“when I stand on the steps of city hall and tell the mayor, ‘Whoa, buddy, you’re off.’”
The most important matters Guerriero said she wants to deal with are union issues and public schools.
“I represent the union worker who’s being told his contract is killing the city, that he shouldn’t get retroactive pay, that his health care is more than he deserves,” she said. “He is the city.”
She is a strong supporter of giving unions retroactive raises promised in contracts that have expired under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“That’s money’s not gifted,” she said. “They already purchased into those contracts. It’s theirs. Pay them.”
She would also advocate for weakening the power the mayor has on the public school system.
“Twelve years of mayoral control over the New York City public schools has been an abject failure on the backs of its children,” she said. “Every stakeholder has been removed from power.”
And Guerriero is also the only candidate in the race to support keeping the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy in place—she says she wants to reform it, not get rid of it.
She’s running her campaign from her Lower East Side apartment and a tiny office in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Guerriero’s staff includes a number of her former TC students, who she said are helping her develop policy.
As the major candidate with the least amount of money (she’s raised $277,963, compared with $762,260 for James, $1,475,878 for Saujani and $1,571,353 for Squadron, according to data from the city Campaign Finance Board), she will be relying heavily on her endorsements from unions and faith leaders to help get out the vote.
“My ground game is my whole game,” she said.
She is also counting on her anti-politician image as an asset. In a televised debate last week, she was the only candidate who would reveal which mayoral hopeful she planned to vote for—former Comptroller Bill Thompson—and the only candidate to admit a desire to run for mayor in the future.
“They’re liars,” she said of her opponents. “Nobody grows up and says, ‘I want the number two job.’”
But she said that, despite her higher ambitions, she is well-suited to the role of public advocate.
“This is a uniquely positioned job,” she said. “This is a grinder’s job ... this job is fully commensurate with everything I am good and great at.”
Since there are no Republican candidates running, the winner of the Democratic primary will be guaranteed the position—although if no candidate breaks 40 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held next month.
Guerriero will be teaching her Monday 7:20 pm class at TC the night before the election, and said she plans to continue teaching if she wins the race.
“It’s a part of my brain that I don’t want to atrophy,” she said. For the last decade, she added, “I’ve been roaming around a classroom on 120th Street. That’s a sensibility that follows me.”