Jumaane Williams may be the highest-ranking elected official who is black in New York City, but that doesn’t mean people know much about what his job actually does. New York City’s Public Advocate is the first in line to succeed the mayor, but even its own website describes the position’s duties as “ambiguous.” Williams sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss how he conceptualizes the position’s role, if he’s running for Mayor, buying bootleg De La Soul cassettes, Democratic Socialism, and New York City’s curfew during recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Williams had credited Bernie Sanders with introducing him to the ideology of Democratic Socialism. “Bernie came around, and I really started rocking with it then,” he explains. But, Williams came across a school paper he’d written in the Nineties at Brooklyn College on Maurice Bishop, a revolutionary leader from Williams’ parents’ home country of Grenada. “In that school paper, it talks about Maurice Bishop, and his beliefs in Democratic Socialism, and why I so aligned with that.”
Elsewhere, Williams describes his shock at seeing a curfew imposed in New York City in response to the protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd, and he expresses his disappointment in Mayor Bill de Blasio (who previously held the position of Public Advocate). “It was kind of surreal, especially to see a person who described himself as a progressive, and came in supposedly being the progressive wave and change that people wanted to see,” Williams explains.
But, that does not mean that Williams — who won in a special election in 2019, and whose term is up at the end of 2021 — is interested in running for Mayor when de Blasio finishes his term next year. “As an elected official, probably the highest honor you can have is people saying you’re doing a good job at representing the people themselves,” he says. “So I just view that as a compliment of the job I’m doing. I asked folks for the job I have now, and I really want to keep doing it, so I hope they give me another opportunity next year.”
Also in this clip, Williams breaks down how he envisions the role of Public Advocate. “They’re supposed to be the ombudsman and raise the voice of the people, which I think is the crux of it,” says Williams, who contrasts his spin on the office to his predecessor Letitia James, now the New York State Attorney General, who took a legal approach. “As a community organizer by training, I wanted to bring that aspect to it. And so we have a community engagement unit that’s made up of a bunch of organizers. It’s exciting times, not only re-envisioning the Public Advocate’s office, re-envisioning how government can work. And it’s interesting to see people who have been in government that you need to keep government working, and people who organize to push government, working together.”
On a lighter note, when asked what the first album he ever bought was, he’s not 100 percent positive, but he suspects it was De La Soul. And he is sure that, whatever it was, it was on a bootleg cassette. “You could get two-for-five back then,” he recalls.