“Our current system is not broken, so we don’t need to fix it,” said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum last week, joining Comptroller Bill Thompson in an assault on the Bloomberg charter proposal that attempts to make New York the 84th of the nation’s top 100 cities to be governed by nonpartisan elections. With Gotbaum only the third woman ever elected citywide and Thompson only the second black, their assessment of our just-peachy partisan primary process, designed to arouse the Democratic grassroots against next Tuesday’s ballot question, couldn’t be more subjective.
Unlike most major American cities with nonwhite and female voting age majorities, New York has elected just one black mayor, and no woman, Latino, or Asian mayor. In fact, Latinos, the city’s largest minority, have yet to hold any of the three citywide posts, and Asians, the fastest growing minority with 10 percent of the voting age population, are represented by a solitary member of the 51-member City Council. The city’s only black mayor was also the only Democratic incumbent in the 20th century to lose to a Republican challenger, with two of every three white Democratic voters deserting the party for Rudy Giuliani in 1993. So much for the empowering benefits of partisan politics.
Indeed, after winning competitive Democratic primaries in 2001, Thompson and Gotbaum were elected virtually without opposition that November—ascensions that make them models of the dysfunction of pointless and publicly subsidized general elections. Though the incumbents for their posts could not seek re-election, neither the Republicans nor a third party fielded real candidates. So Gotbaum holds office due to the 156,832 primary Democrats who voted for her—4.2 percent of the total electorate—and Thompson won just 8.3 percent of the city’s registered voters in a head-to-head primary.
Neither is apparently troubled by the fact that 1.3 million registered independents, Republicans, and others—New York’s second-class voters—were barred from voting in the primary that anointed them. Nor are they troubled by the $291,059 in Campaign Finance Board subsidies they collected for their general elections by acclamation. Nor are they concerned about the fact that no one in modern times who’s held either of their posts had to win it in competitive November races.
Similarly, the City Council has never had a minority or female speaker and still has a narrow white-majority membership, though the city’s voting-age population is 61 percent nonwhite. With all the shrill and unsupported slams at the supposed rich-boy bias of Bloomberg’s nonpartisan alternative, has anyone noticed the 33-year-old preppie installed by Queens’ white party boss at the helm of the council? Or that only one of the 25 minority councilmembers comes from a district that is less than 70 percent minority, while seven predominantly nonwhite districts have white councilmembers? Or that the district created a decade ago to give Chinatown its first shot at representation is instead represented by a white councilmember who got a measly 21 percent in the multi-candidate primary vote of 2001?
Take away a single Bronx councilmanic district where incumbents have lost three elections in a row and it’s been literally impossible to beat an incumbent since 1993. All incumbents are expected to win again next week, as they did in the September primary. The only real contest—in a general election that will cost $1.7 million in public funds—was provoked by an assassination. And if you expect partisan elections to become more competitive, Republican registration actually declined from 14 percent of all voters to 12 percent during the last 10 years of GOP mayoralties.
Yet council candidates who won in 2001 general election landslides—with margins of above 30 percent—drained $2.1 million from the campaign finance system, with borough presidents adding another million. Minorities finally hold three of the borough president or beep jobs, just when the powers of that position are so reduced they’ve become bleep jobs.
The apocalyptic opponents of Bloomberg’s proposal—from the professional pols to the goo-goos who lobby them—lean on the slender reed of three Republican mayoral terms in a row as a sign of a vital democracy. But all Rudy did was beat the black guy, hardly a lesson in civics, and it took 3,000 dead and $75 million to make hybrid Bloomberg a second exception to the rule. It was as recently as 1981 that Ed Koch ran for re-election on the Democratic and Republican lines. The last Republican mayor, John Lindsay, elected in 1965, became a Democrat while in office.
“What’s the rush?” opponents seductively ask, though four charter commissions in the last half-decade have considered the switch to nonpartisan, and the city has been filling vacancies that way since 1988, with higher turnouts than in partisan vacancy elections. Is there anyone who believes that this sky-is-falling gang would calmly assess changing the rules that put them in power if the charter revision is postponed for another year, as it was in 2002? They circled the same wagons in 1993 and 1996 when term limits were on the ballot, warning that fresh faces would kill wise governance, even trying, when they lost both referenda, to revoke the people’s will legislatively. There is no more hidebound a public-employee union than one that protects the interests of elected elites.
It’s not certain that the Bloomberg reform will succeed where partisan elections have so certainly failed. It is clear that none of the bombast against this proposal—including the rants from the GOP and its propaganda apparatus at the New York Post and the Manhattan Institute—has made a supportable case that it would reduce turnout or minority opportunity (either ethnic or ideological). The canard that this change favors billionaires or Schwarzeneggers is refuted by decades of experience with nonpartisan choice in virtually every major American city except us and Philadelphia.
Bloomberg made the billionaire and other screeds even less likely when he changed his and the charter commission’s mind and allowed candidates to list their party registration on the ballot, giving voters under the new system a greater chance of responding to “cues” other than high-priced name recognition. Most importantly, the mayor retreated from his own onetime self-serving motive for this initiative by making the effective date 2009, meaning he can’t benefit from it in 2005. He still must make sure that this change, if approved, does not damage the city’s invaluable campaign finance system.
It’s true that this proposition may be part of a Bloomberg deal with the discredited Independence Party—whose ballot line he won on in 2001 and wants in 2005. But every other third party is fighting the proposition because, as the Working Families Party concedes, it will mean they have no ballot line to broker. A mayor honoring a promise made to a party on a matter of principle to both—and against the narrow interests of the party—is hardly a scandalous compromise. Bloomberg’s multimillion-dollar financing of a slick and anonymous campaign to ratify a proposal he forced on the ballot is disquieting. But good can come from bad, as it did with term limits, when an unelected billionaire, Ron Lauder, outraged every insider, yet wound up breathing life into a moribund electoral system.
Since there is no city whose politics mirror New York’s, and since the listing of party registration only occurs in two other nonpartisan cities, there is no scientific evidence that this precise reform is a panacea, only that it is a reasoned hope. The difference between the percentage of white voters in the general election and Democratic primary here is miniscule, making the chance of a minority winning one race or the other roughly equivalent. The Justice Department’s Voting Rights Division under Democratic and Republican presidents has approved all 152 nonpartisan applications, indicating they do not believe it dilutes minority rights. Thirty-seven percent of the 41 largest nonpartisan cities have minority mayors, compared to 22 percent of the largest partisan cities.
We can’t be prophets about so fundamental a change, but we can be historians. This city’s broken and fixable history demands that we take this calculated chance.
Research assistance: Tommy Hallissey, Cristi Hegranes, Christine Lagorio, Ruth Mantell, and Abigail Roberts
“Rush to Judgment: Why New York’s Leading Reformers Oppose Charter Change” by Tom Robbins
“Primary Colors: Activists Fear Nonparty Elections Will Quash the Minority Vote” by Ta-Nehisi Coates