Running to Lose
In Audrey Silk's treasured tapes of Odd Couple reruns, she sees a clear sign of the failure of New York City politics. Her library of Oscar and Felix's antics goes back to 1991 and contains installments of "What's Your Opinion?"a sort of time capsule of Gotham's gripes. Silk hears echoes: Fourteen years later, in this year's campaign, "It's the exact same things," Silk tells the Voice, "about health and taxes and education. It never goes away."
Silk wants to talk about something new: government's infringement on civil liberties, starting with the city's smoking ban. She organized opposition to the ban, and then was approached by the Libertarian Party to run for mayor. Now the retired cop sees the ban as part of a slick sales pitch by an overbearing nanny state. "Mayor Bloomberg," she says, "is trying to market us as a product."
Last Thursday night, Silk took her own sales pitch to Marine Park in Brooklyn. There, clipboard in hand, she tried to convince registered voters to sign the petition that will help get her on the ballot. Theo Chino, one of two people vying for the Green Party slot, was doing the same thing last week. The Education Party was also out on the streetsor at least its founder and mayoral candidate Seth Blum was standing at the corner of 72nd and Amsterdam wearing a sign and politely listening to a passerby who complained that public schools are letting history be taught by Nazis. All of them were trying to gather the required 7,500 signatures to get on the ballot in November, with only a handful of volunteers and a few bucks to work with. Such is life on the fringes of New York City's $28 million (to date) mayoral campaign.
Silk doesn't expect anyone to even ask to see the signatures she submits to the Board of Elections. "I've been told Libertarians have never been challenged," she says. "The other parties don't think we're a threat." Nor should they: Four years ago, a mere 27,000 votes (less than 2 percent of the total) went to someone other than Bloomberg or Mark Green in the general election. It seems winning is not an option for Silk and her no-name rivals. But that depends on how you define winning.
If an intense-looking, fast-talking guy gets on your subway car in coming weeks asking for your vote, it's probably Christopher X. Brodeur, candidate for mayor." That's how Brodeur introduces himself on the five-minute voice-mail messages he leaves for reporters, during which he rages at "media corruption" and the "robots" who are major candidates in the race.
"There's no debating that I would make a better mayor than any of the mayors we've had in 300 years," he says, pointing to a platform that includes free subways, a law against politicians lying, and more public clocks. "And there's no debating that in every election in our lives we're given the choice between lousy candidate A and lousy candidate B. That's outrageous."
Brodeur knows outrage. He says he's been arrested around 20 times for things like telling cops to stop blocking traffic. When the 9-11 Commission was tripping over itself to congratulate Rudy Giuliani last year, Brodeur heckled them. They threw him out. Now Brodeur has elbowed his way into the Democratic primary by collecting enough signatures to appear on the ballot next to Freddy Ferrer and company. "My run is not quixotic or anything," he says, adding: "If I can influence them in any way to pick up their goddamn campaign and offer something that the voters actually want, then that's good." Saying he'll retire after this race (he ran and lost the Green Party primary in 2001), he hopes to leave 8 million angry voters in his wake.
Third-party candidates often talk about influencing the process, rather than winning. But not everyone on the lower rungs of this year's race has that in mind. The Education Party's Blum, a high school teacher who wants to allow schools more freedom with their curricula and less rigid emphasis on standardized testing, says he hopes to lay the groundwork for future races by the party. Chino says he's running like he's going to win, emphasizing affordable housing and better mass transit. Anthony Gronowicz, the other Green Party candidate, wants to reduce car traffic on New York's streets and says he's hoping to get a vote count in the six figures to establish the Greens as "the conscience and the spokesperson for the people of New York."
Attaining any of those goals won't be easy. Silk says she has about 10 Libertarian volunteers as well as members of her smokers' rights group circulating her petitions. But it's not clear how the effort is going because, in true Libertarian spirit, she doesn't "pressure people to do anything and I don't check in on them."
At least one insurgent candidate, Republican Steve Shaw, has already dropped out. He tells the Voice that the petitioning process was just too great a challenge. Shaw will back former city councilman and fellow conservative Tom Ognibene against the mayor. Sam Sloan, a chess expert, isn't sure if he's actually running or not: He's been too busy, with moving for the 17th time in eight years and with his bid for election to the executive board of the U.S. Chess Federation, to circulate petitions. Andy Horowitz, a writer-performer who works at P.S.122 and formed the Blog Party to make his run, says his own petitioning campaign is "not going very well."
"The initial impetus was sort of out of anger and frustration in the wake of the West Side stadium and the Olympics, having no idea what it would take to do it," says Horowitz, who asked blog readers to help him craft a platform. "I still have a full-time job, which I've realized is a tough impediment."
That's not the only lesson Horowitz has learned; another is that "people prefer to complain than get involved." For her part, Silk has concluded that there's a disconnect between what people say they want from their politicians and what they really want. "They may expect that the issues [in the campaign] are supposed to be the big things," she says. "In their hearts they're concerned about the smaller things."
At Blum's school, students learn in a less structured format than in most public schools. "We look at a portfolio of their work instead of one exam that's going to hold them backand holding them back is going to turn them off to learning and is going to turn them off to school," he says. Strict numerical targets aren't the style there, and they aren't driving Blum's campaign, either. This is a long-term project, not a pop quiz. "The Education Party could be the next big party, 10, 20, 30 years down the line. I'm looking at the long run."
Blum has been carrying petitions full-time during his summer break. He's spent about $4,300 of his own money so far. "Hopefully I won't go over $5,000unless we get on the ballot, and then more spending will be done," he says. Despite the obstacles, he doesn't think the 7,500-signature target is unfair, although he's not sure it's really necessary to have a cover charge to get onto the New York City ballot.
"Can we let anyone on just to say they were running? That would be interesting, you know?" he says. "I mean, why not? How does that hurt?"
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