Rush to Judgment

Why New York's Leading Reformers Oppose Charter Change

In June 2001, a then long-shot mayoral candidate named Michael Bloomberg accepted the endorsement of the Independence Party, the most rigidly controlled and frenetically opportunist of all New York's political organizations. The billionaire wannabe mayor then promptly announced his conversion to the party's chief goal: nonpartisan elections.

The plaything of Lenora Fulani and her mentor, the former LaRoucheite Fred Newman, the Independence Party has long viewed nonpartisan elections as its single best shot at advancing its candidates, who have ranged in recent years from wacko millionaire Abe Hirschfeld to right-wing darling Patrick Buchanan.

"What the electoral process should be about is letting everybody have an equal say," said Bloomberg at the time. "You've got to get rid of the partisan politics and party bosses who really limit the public's choice."

A combination of 9-11 fears and the implosion of the Democratic Party's candidates, along with 59,000 votes on the Independence Party line—providing the narrow margin of his victory—made Bloomberg mayor later that year. Now, two years hence, here is Bloomberg, making good on that pre-election promise, backed by at least $2 million in campaign funding from the mayor's personal fortune.

Ballot question 3, before voters on November 4, calls on New Yorkers to dramatically alter the way elections here have been held for over a hundred years, shifting to the nonpartisan scheme advanced by Fulani et al. It would eliminate party primaries, allowing candidates to declare themselves party members. Although aimed at reducing the influence of party bosses, it would remove key protections offered by the city's most successful reform of recent years, the campaign finance system, by allowing party bosses to plow money into favored candidates without even holding a primary.

So intent were the leaders of Bloomberg's charter commission on putting this ballot initiative before the voters that its chairman, former schools chancellor Frank Macchiarola, announced his intentions even before his members had been appointed or a single word of testimony heard.

"There will be a ballot question when the charter commission concludes its work on the question of nonpartisan elections," Macchiarola said after the announcement of his appointment on March 26. "That is the charge from the mayor. It is not a question of whether, it is a question of how. That issue will be put forward."

City Hall reporters chortled. "Break out the rubber stamp," responded Michael Saul in the next day's Daily News. The Times headlined its story: "For City Charter Commission, First a Goal, Then the Members."

The commission's rush to judgment continued throughout its deliberations. Bill Lynch, a longtime Democratic Party operative named to the panel by the mayor, said he couldn't learn the specific language of the proposal until the day before the vote. "When we got it, we had to vote on it," said Lynch, who, along with Father Joseph O'Hare, was one of two dissenting votes on the panel.

O'Hare's opposition to the ballot initiative is particularly telling. It was O'Hare—as nonpartisan an activist as exists in this city—who successfully guided the city's Campaign Finance Board through four citywide elections, earning the wrath of mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani in the process (Bloomberg the billionaire sneered at campaign finance as a political giveaway during his race, famously self-financing his own $75 million campaign).

O'Hare called the commission's review of the issue "inconclusive." In a letter to the Times in August, clarifying the reasons for his opposition, O'Hare wrote, "I remain concerned about the unintended negative consequences of this fundamental change in city elections." He cited possible damage to small third parties and fusion tickets and enhancement of the powers of party officials.

When State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Bronx Democratic reformer, studied the commission's report and its sources, he found it had carefully omitted a sentence from one study that found that nonpartisan elections enhance Republican advantages in big, Demo-cratic Party-dominated cities like New York.

Gene Russianoff, the everyday public advocate for the city, was a champion of previous charter reforms that, after a long and eye-glazing process followed closely by just a handful of New Yorkers, did away with the old Board of Estimate.

At a hearing last week, Russianoff said, "The benefits of ending party primaries in New York are unproven, and the risks are great. Serious questions have been raised about the proposed election system. These include whether it will depress voter turnout; whether it will advantage wealthy candidates; whether it will make elections more about celebrity and less about issues; whether it will undermine the city's campaign finance program; whether it will increase the clout of party leaders; and whether it will expand the platform for fringe candidates."

O'Hare and Russianoff are joined by virtually all of the city's watchdogs on this: Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Social Justice, and the City Bar Association are only some of those opposed to charter revision.

Bloomberg's commission claims its changes will enhance voter participation and lead to increased diversity among elected officials. New York City needs both those things. But a charter commission that is little more than a rubber stamp for a mayor whose main connection to voters has been his wallet is hardly a vehicle for revolutionary change.


Related Articles:

"Vote Yes for Nonpartisan Elections: Bloomberg's Proposal Is Better Than Our Sham System" by Wayne Barrett

"Primary Colors: Activists Fear Nonparty Elections Will Quash the Minority Vote" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

 
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