08/15/2013 01:47 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

In Need of Publicity: The 2013 New York City Public Advocate Race

written with Caleb Kennedy

"This is going to be the Wild West of New York City politics," candidate Cathy Guerriero recently warned a crowd at an event she later said was the 1,014th of her campaign, just part of an intense, yet sparsely-covered race to become New York City's next Public Advocate.

Guerriero -- a professor who teaches at NYU and Columbia -- is one of four leading candidates for advocate, competing against Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia "Tish" James, former Deputy Public Advocate Reshma Saujani, and State Senator Daniel Squadron in the Democratic primary for the post. Sidique Wai is also running in the Democratic primary, but has not been seen on the campaign trail much to date.

Throughout a campaign that continues to be overshadowed by the races for the two other city-wide offices of mayor and comptroller, the four leading candidates have been hitting each other with personal attacks while trying to differentiate themselves and boost their name recognition around the city the old-fashioned way, at subway stops and in rooms of small groups of voters. As far as substance goes, each has, to varying degrees, outlined how she or he will structure the advocate's office and what issues she or he plans to focus on if elected. Each, of course, also has a record to run on, or away from, as the case may be.

Thursday night's first official, televised debate, in which all five candidates will participate, will give those who tune in more of a sense of who the candidates are and may very well change the dynamics of the race, as will the impending spending blitz of the more monied candidates, Saujani and Squadron. Squadron just released the first television ad of the race, which prominently features his former boss, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who has endorsed him in the race.

In response to the ad, James' campaign quickly sent out an email challenging Squadron's claims of a strong record on gun control in Albany, to which the Squadron campaign fired back. This comes on the heels of attacks by Saujani's campaign, which got personal, after Squadron's had touted its fundraising advantages.

The attacks on Squadron may be a result of his fundraising and the advantages that his large war chest will give him in the competition to raise name recognition around the five boroughs. Additionally, Squadron has picked up a number of high-profile endorsements -- including from Schumer and the former Public Advocates Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum.

In her corner, Saujani has flexed her own fundraising muscle, easily outpacing James and Guerriero through the help of celebrities and leaders in the tech community, including actor Kal Penn and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, while also securing a great deal of more traditional institutional support throughout Queens. Recently, Saujani's campaign launched an "Up to Us" initiative seeking to refocus the election season on substance, especially women's rights, and away from the sex scandal candidates.

What they lack in fundraising dollars, James and Guerriero have made up for in grabbing the majority of labor union endorsements. Ms. James, who represents the Crown Heights and Clinton Hill areas of Brooklyn in the City Council (District 35), has pulled in many of the larger unions -- including 32 BJ SEIU and District Council 37 - which will surely translate to many "boots on the ground."

Guerriero, meanwhile, has pulled in many of her own endorsements from city unions, a list that has recently added the larger Police Benevolent Association, Uniformed Firefighters Association, and Uniformed Fire Officers Association. Highlighting her family's history as union workers and bringing an athlete's intensity to the campaign trail, Guerriero has left an impression in every room she has visited throughout the campaign.

Along with money, endorsements, and personality, identity politics could play a significant role in this race, with the four candidates coming from diverse backgrounds. There are many ways to slice the race up demographically, with James the lone black candidate, Saujani the only one of South Asian descent, Squadron the only male and Jewish candidate, and Guerriero, a proud Catholic, of German and Italian descent. Additionally, the candidates' are from or represent different parts of the city and have varying educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Each, of course, campaigns making the claim that she or he will speak for all New Yorkers as their next public advocate.

While many voters are unfamiliar with the candidates in this race, many may not even know what the Public Advocate does -- though some who do have a grasp on it, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argue to do away with the position altogether. Each of the four leading candidates is campaigning vigorously and sees a viable path to victory.

Given the lack of any Republican or a prominent third party candidate, he or she who emerges from the Democratic primary is virtually certain to become the city's fourth straight Democratic Public Advocate. The little coverage the race has received thus far has been dominated by the aforementioned attacks and the candidates' attempts to gain much needed publicity after the only poll released so far revealed that most voters (54 percent) still had no opinion of any of the candidates.

Upcoming media buys and the televised debates set for Thursday, August 15 and Monday, August 25 will likely make a world of difference in determining who moves on to the general election and, therefore, the advocate's office. If this race has not been on your radar yet, start taking a look -- after all, you'll be hearing a lot over from whoever wins over the next few years, and, if history serves as any guide, seeing that person run for mayor in the not too distant future.

Primary day in New York City is September 10; new voters must register and declare a party by Friday, August 16 in order to vote in the primary.