When New York City Public Advocate Letitia James won the Democratic primary to be the next state attorney general on September 13, it opened up the position of the city’s top watchdog. It’s a role that investigative reporter, activist, and organizer Nomiki Konst hopes to fill.
Konst has been engaged in politics since age 16, getting her start backing Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in New York. She went on to serve as a national co-chair on Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign, and later, acted as a surrogate for “Draft Biden” — the effort to recruit the former vice president to run as an alternative to presumed frontrunner Clinton in 2015.
More recently, Konst has established a reputation as a forceful voice pushing now-popular progressive policies like “Medicare for All” and free college, as well as wonkier, but also important, issues relating to party politics. She gained a national profile as a Bernie Sanders surrogate during the 2016 campaign, and then as his representative on the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission. A well-known New York activist, she has been a vocal opponent of the Independent Democratic Conference — a group of Democratic state senators who caucused with Republicans to provide them a constructive majority in what could have been a Democratic legislature.
Many, including Konst, anticipate that the race will be crowded. Likely candidates include several current and former city council members, such as Melissa Mark-Viverito and Christine Quinn, who lost the 2013 mayoral bid to Bill de Blasio. New York State Assemblyman and DNC Vice Chair Michael Blake and Kirsten John Foy, a staffer to then-Public Advocate de Blasio, are also speculated to run.
New York City’s public advocate has no voting power, but can attend meetings and introduce legislation. The position’s profile grew after de Blasio, the city’s third-ever public advocate, used the post as a launching pad for a successful mayoral run. That’s the same trail nearly blazed by the city’s first public advocate, Mark Green, who would likely have become mayor if not for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which threw the election into chaos, resulting in a narrow win by Michael Bloomberg.
“I’m not beholden to any political machine. I’m not beholden to any special interest group. And as of right now, I think that does make me very unique.”
But Konst rejects the notion that the job is a launching pad for higher office. In fact, she sees herself as uniquely suited to the job because, like herself, it exists somewhat outside of politics. “Unfortunately if you’re an elected official in New York, because of the circumstances, it’s almost like you take part in that system. They do control your ballot line, they can run people against you, endorsements …” she trailed off. “But I’m not beholden to any political machine. I’m not beholden to any special interest group. And as of right now, I think that does make me very unique.” The public advocate is there as a “check on the system,” said Konst, “and by definition, someone who is a check on the system should not be part of the system.” Konst pointed out that Green was a consumer advocate — he worked with Ralph Nader from 1970 to 1980 at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “The role of the public advocate was designed to keep the issues of the public on the forefront” — all the time, not just during an election year, said Konst.
“I have a history of investigating corruption and calling out these machines and these special interest groups,” Konst told The Intercept, “and I have a platform that I think aligns with the core leftist politics that most New Yorkers believe in. And to have a vehicle to express that is exactly what the public advocate should be.”
A viral clip of Konst dropping an F-bomb on C-SPAN while advocating for fundraising transparency exemplifies much of her appeal as an impassioned advocate for the people. “We spent a billion dollars, lost the easiest presidential race in history,” she inveighed. “I did go through FEC [Federal Election Commission] filings and it doesn’t look good, it smells. We’re talking about close to $700 to $800 million between the joint fundraising agreement and the DNC being spent on five consultants.” She went on to say that, in her mind, the DNC fundraising committee is responsible for the human cost of the party’s failures — for example, a women who might die because she loses access health care after red-state legislatures cut funding to Planned Parenthood. “It’s fuckin’ — excuse me — corruption,” she concluded.
The choice to frame herself as an outsider candidate contrasts with traditional city party politics, where belonging to the status quo is transformed into a selling point by way of rhetoric about “experience” and “qualifications.”
Konst suggested that her experience cleaning up the DNC means that she can help clean up NYC. On the Unity Reform Commission, she was tasked with getting the Democratic Party back on track after its devastating 2016 electoral defeat and the loss of over 1,000 seats in state and local government since 2008. While on the commission, Konst says she was able to enact direct reform, including introducing a resolution banning conflicts of interest. With the new resolution, she says, “if you are making money off the Democratic parties or candidates, you cannot vote on the position being held.” (It was later diluted by the Rules Committee). “When the Democratic Party is made up of lobbyists who are voting on the policies of the Democratic Party, and those lobbyists have that much influence on who the leaders of the Democratic Party are — who the endorsements are going to be for the Democratic Party. … Of course that’s going to influence how they are going to frame the debate.”
Konst pointed to the “direct relationship between corporate capitalists in New York City,” and speculators in Puerto Rico, to which she has traveled frequently between November 2017 and May 2018 reporting for the Young Turks, as another area she hopes to focus on if elected. She explained that many of the bonds for Puerto Rican debt are held by Wall Street banks, and Democratic consultants who work for them are profiting off human suffering on the island. Few politicians want to touch the issue due to the power held by the corrupt players involved. This strikes Konst as incongruent with what New York City residents want.
“I think New York is a progressive city. This is where the Progressive Era was located,” she told The Intercept. “This is where the Triangle Shirt[waist fire] happened. … You had young, female workers who were exploited and died in the largest tragedy in [American] history before 9/11. Workers’ rights emerged out of these experiences. The Progressive Era was one of New York City’s proudest moments.
“Not only do we have to fix those subways, we have to make them free.”
New York City is the largest city in America with a progressive voter base, and as a result, Konst thinks New York leadership should do more than push for “Medicare for All” and free college — ideas which have gotten widespread national support. It also should be covering new ground. “Not only do we have to fix those subways,” said Konst by way of example, “we have to make them free.” To Konst, the subways are a criminal justice issue and a working people issue. People’s jobs depend on it, she said.
Konst went on to argue that a $15 minimum wage is a good start, but in New York, where income inequality is the highest in the country, it should be double that. “Fifteen dollars an hour over time is a path to poverty in New York City,” said Konst. “That works I think in other cities, but in New York City, you cannot survive on $15 an hour with a family. You can barely, honestly, survive with a family on $30 an hour. I’m going to call for a $30 minimum wage by the end of 2020, so that we change that debate and we normalize it.”
Konst wasn’t indifferent to the burden that places on small businesses either. “If a small business wants to be able to afford to pay their employees a livable wage and they can’t, we have to start talking about commercial real estate costs,” she said, putting the onus on “foreign oligarchs,” who buy up local real estate, rather than on workers’ wages.
Some might argue that Cynthia Nixon’s recent loss meant that New York isn’t that progressive — despite the victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, and the six insurgents who defeated former IDC members. Konst, however, sees the governor’s race as distinct.
For one, the race for public advocate is an open primary, so independent voters, who skew younger and more liberal, can vote. “The Democratic Party does not control this election,” said Konst, which means “none of this ‘did you register two years before?’ or being purged from the polls,” as was the case in 2016, when 27 percent of registered voters in New York couldn’t vote in the presidential primaries, and again in this month’s state elections.
Konst also pointed out that the funding gap, from which Nixon suffered, will be less of a problem in the public advocate race, since municipal candidates in New York City can make use of matching funds as long as they’re on the ballot and collect a minimum number of $10 contributions from residents in the area they seek to represent. Those funds can add up, and donations from New York City residents match at a rate of 6-to-1 for donations up to $175.
“Every race is different,” explained Konst, but she sees the progressive movement gaining steam despite Nixon’s loss. Nixon “had $25 million thrown at her that Zephyr Teachout didn’t have — not to mention there were independent expenditures. … It was like the vengeance of the machine after Alexandria.” She pointed out that while Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent Joe Crowley’s machine “was a little bit dormant,” Cuomo’s was not.
“It is a special election, it is a winter election, and there’s likely to be low turnout,” she said. “But when you organize, you win.” In fact, after her upset, Ocasio-Cortez made the case that low turnout is a benefit to insurgent challengers, since grassroots, door-to-door campaigning can have a bigger impact.
New York’s democratic socialist organizing network has proven it can get results, but it’s unlikely that Konst will be the only progressive in the race. Democratic City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who narrowly lost the lieutenant governor race earlier this month, has been cited as a likely frontrunner. He told The Intercept he’s still weighing his options. “It would be an honor to have folks even consider me in the mix,” he said. “I’m seriously considering it, but I haven’t made a decision of what I’m going to do. I’m planning to do that in the coming days.”
A recent New York Times article noted that Williams earned over 414,000 votes in New York City alone, which is more than any other likely public advocate candidates have received in an election. (In 2017, incumbent Leticia James won the race in a landslide with 812,234 votes).
“I think that because I’m not elected, I can do a lot of things that they can’t do. That’s not to be held against them, it’s just the scenario, it’s just the truth. I have the freedom to go out there and be bolder.”
But Konst thinks the fact that she’s not an elected official is a boon, and she doesn’t see herself as being in direct competition with others who are. “There’s a lot of people on the left. And a lot of them are my friends who I’ve worked with. But I think that because I’m not elected, I can do a lot of things that they can’t do. That’s not to be held against them, it’s just the scenario, it’s just the truth. I have the freedom to go out there and be bolder.”
Konst pointed out that although in his current role, Williams can do things she can’t, like present legislation, there are also things she can do, like unreservedly take on the real estate industry and political machine. “I think he did a tremendous job in the lieutenant governor’s race, and I was so proud to support him throughout the way, but I do believe the public advocate position should be a race that is independent of politics.”
Konst sees her experiences, including as a reporter on the ground covering movement issues and investigating root causes of corruption, as more diversified and valuable to the role of public advocate. “He’s definitely popular right now, and that is wonderful and that is so good for our movement, but I will say this is a year when democratic socialism has an opportunity to present ideas that have really been dismissed for a long time, but are becoming tremendously popular and to have somebody who’s committed to those issues and has shown commitment, and has been involved with the Democratic Socialists [of America] — the DSA — for a long time is, I think, really important.”
This isn’t the first time Konst has run for office. In 2012, she made an attempt at Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s vacated seat in Tucson, Arizona, where Konst lived during part of her youth not spent in western New York. “That was a great lesson in how much you can depend on political institutions. I learned a lot out of that race. I learned a lot about campaign finance. I learned a lot about the Democratic Party.” Konst said she also learned a lesson in insider politics. “When I talked about economic issues, I didn’t realize that was off limits for the political establishment. And so I was pushed out of the race.” But, she said, “the stakes are too high here” to back away from those concerns.
“This is New York City. A progressive city. There are matching funds. We have a great progressive history here. And I think that the moment that we’re in is a moment when these issues should be at the forefront,” she told The Intercept. “I am going to push the narrative to make sure that these issues are at the forefront, despite what any political institution or groups want me to do. I think it is of the utmost importance that we change the narrative in New York City politics.”