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The responses came out sheepishly, as though the debate question had delved into some illicit college-age misconduct.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Nomiki Konst, a candidate for public advocate, admitted. “Not anymore.”
Other Democratic candidates, like Ydanis Rodriguez, a city councilman from Upper Manhattan, Ronald Kim, an assemblyman from Queens and Danny O’Donnell, an assemblyman from Manhattan, also gave grudging nods, but blamed their partners or spouses.
Their transgression? Acknowledging that they have used Amazon.
Of the candidates on the debate stage that day, only one — Eric A. Ulrich, a Republican city councilman from Queens — was an unabashed fan of Amazon, and the only one who fully supported the company’s deal to accept as much as $3 billion in tax incentives to build a corporate campus in Long Island City, Queens.
And now that Amazon has pulled out of a deal, Mr. Ulrich may be uniquely positioned to benefit.
Nearly all of the 17 candidates in the Feb. 26 special election have opposed the deal that would have given Amazon the tax breaks, citing the company’s anti-union background, and the demands that 25,000 workers would have placed on the city’s struggling housing and transit infrastructure.
Mr. Kim even named his party line “No Amazon.”
So for voters cheering Amazon’s departure, there is no shortage of like-minded public advocate candidates to choose from. But for those unhappy with the company’s exit — and the loss of the 25,000 jobs the company had promised to create — Mr. Ulrich may be a logical choice.
“I was right and they were wrong,” Mr. Ulrich said in an interview. “The other candidates in this race were trying to outperform one another on who can be more anti-business and anti-Amazon. They chased Amazon out of town.”
A Republican running for citywide office in New York would not normally stand much of a chance, if for no other reason than simple political math. For every one registered Republican voter, there are six registered Democrats. Multiply that by a factor of Trump — the president’s election in 2016 has only strengthened the Democrats’ hold on New York — and the current odds rise even further.
But as one of two Republicans (Manny Alicandro, a lawyer, is the other) running, Mr. Ulrich may benefit from the race’s nonpartisan status: With 15 Democrats in the race, the traditional Democratic vote may be spread so diffusely that it could boost a Republican’s chances.
“I think there’s a chance that regular people who would not normally be inclined to vote in a special election are a little bit angry about what happened and are therefore more likely to vote,” Chris Coffey, a Democratic political consultant, said of the failed Amazon deal. “And if they are, there’s only one person who was not against Amazon and that’s Eric Ulrich.”
Amazon’s new campus drew strong disapproval from the public advocate field early on.
Mr. Kim, for example, wrote an opposing op-ed with Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who has run unsuccessfully for attorney general and governor on progressive platforms, and introduced legislation that would direct corporate subsidies to instead help cancel student debt.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former City Council speaker, denounced the plan, suggesting that New York should focus on improving its subway system. Jumaane Williams, a councilman from Brooklyn, was irate. “You give away $3 billion? $3 billion? To the richest man in America?” Mr. Williams told The New York Times in November.
And during the recent debate, several other public advocate hopefuls doubled down on their position against Amazon. Ms. Konst said she was “actively fighting” the Amazon deal. Mr. O’Donnell said the deal was done “backwards.” Dawn Smalls called for the plan to be blocked until there was further public review. Michael A. Blake, an assemblyman who represents the Bronx, called for “dramatic changes” to the proposal.
“They were reading from the same script,” Mr. Ulrich said when asked about the question in an interview. “It’s like they were passing a piece of paper and putting their own spin on it.”
Mr. Ulrich has already distinguished himself from the Democrats in the race by taking a tougher stance on the policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio. He opposes the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and congestion pricing.
Mr. Coffey said Mr. Ulrich’s path to becoming public advocate must travel through Republican voters and people “who don’t like” Mr. de Blasio. “If you have a small number of people who all go to Eric Ulrich in a race like this, that could be a game-changer,” he said.
Amazon’s decision to abandon its planned campus has spawned a political nonprofit called Accountable New York that will urge voters out to vote on Feb. 26 by attacking Mr. de Blasio in planned television and digital advertisements. The group, created by a Republican political operative, E. O’Brien Murray, is not allowed to explicitly support any candidate.
Although Mr. de Blasio joined with Mr. Cuomo to support the Amazon plan, the pair split on who to blame after the deal collapsed. Mr. Cuomo blamed Senate Democrats and other members of his own party who identify as progressive for opposing the plan. Mr. de Blasio mostly pointed the finger at Amazon, saying Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the collapse of the deal is an example of an “abuse of corporate power.”
But candidates such as Mr. Kim and Ms. Konst believe they may benefit from the Amazon decision because they were against the deal in any form, while several other candidates wanted to simply modify it.
“There’s a litmus test at this point,” Mr. Kim said. “It’s basically corporate politicians versus true progressives.”
Ms. Konst said the stances adopted by public advocate candidates on the Amazon plan show the importance of the job as an investigator and foil to the mayor. “At the end of the day, Amazon is a bad company and we should not be welcoming bad companies with bad histories,” she said.
Other public advocate candidates have been accused of shifting their position to become more critical of Amazon, perhaps sensing the shifting political winds among Democrats.
Ms. Mark-Viverito, Mr. Williams, Mr. Blake and Mr. Rodriguez all signed a letter in October 2017 urging Amazon to locate their campus here. They have all since said that does not mean they support the deal that the city and state agreed to, but others have seized on the seeming incongruity.
“By signing the letter, you are clearly supportive of the deal,” said Councilman Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, who is running for public advocate and did not add his signature to the letter. “I don’t believe we should have even started the conversation” because of Amazon’s labor practices and how it hurts small businesses.
Mr. Blake opposed the Amazon deal when it was announced, calling it “very troubling” in a statement. He also called for more transparency regarding the details of the plan, such as how it would benefit the community.
After the deal’s collapse, Mr. Blake said he was disappointed. In an interview, Mr. Blake said his reaction should not be interpreted as him changing his stance on Amazon. “I said the deal needs to be changed,” he said. “That does not mean scrap the deal.”
Mr. Blake suggested that his position on Amazon — sandwiched between Mr. Kim’s fervent opposition and Mr. Ulrich’s “blind acquiescence”— was the smartest and most consistent one, characterizing Amazon as a “defining issue” in the election.
Mr. Ulrich agreed.
“The voters will remember that either you were for Amazon and for jobs,” Mr. Ulrich said, “or you were against Amazon and against jobs.”