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30th May
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, May 30, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Often, I have been critical of Mayor Bloomberg on this page, largely because I disagree with 99% and 44/100 ths of his education program. But one area that he and I are in full agreement is the issue of nonpartisan municipal elections. No reform of city government would be more meaningful and productive than this one.

Mayor La Guardia once suggested that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. He was right.Most of what city government does has little to do with partisan concerns. But what really makes non-partisan elections so attractive to many of its supporters is that it would promote democracy in a town where our twoparty system has fallen apart.We may have elected Republicans in the last three mayoral contests, but that was due to extraordinary circumstances, not the presence of a consistently competitive system. The situation with the City Council is more indicative of the problems inherent in the current structure.

Rudolph Giuliani lost his first attempt to occupy City Hall to David Dinkins in 1989.Mr.Dinkins would have been re-elected had his administration been successful at any level.But the city was falling apart, enabling Mr. Giuliani to narrowly win his first term. Mr. Giuliani won re-election handily because he demonstrated that the ungovernable city could be governed after all.
Mr. Giuliani was succeeded by the “Republican,” Mr. Bloomberg. But the mayor is really a Republican-of-convenience,a moderate Democrat who strategically changed parties because he recognized that there was little room for him in New York’s left-leaning Democratic establishment. He was aided by a Giuliani endorsement at the height of the ex-mayor’s post-September 11 popularity. And then there was that $70 million, always helpful in leveling the playing field. Take away the big bucks, and Mr. Bloomberg’s office would still be back in his old media-company bullpen.

As the Republicans were winning three terms as mayor, the pitiful, microscopic GOP City Council delegation actually shrank. In the 2001 election, the Republicans didn’t even field candidates for public advocate or city comptroller. Only in Staten Island is there anything resembling a competitive political situation.
Is this democracy? Democracy means choices. If we are looking for choice in New York City we aren’t going to get it
from the Republicans or any of the wacky collection of “third” parties that pollute the ballot.
The current system guarantees that the choices we do have will gravitate toward the extreme and be corrupted by the influence of blatant ethnic appeals. This is exactly what happened in the 2001 Democratic primary and run-off. Somehow, Mark Green, possessing the most bleeding-heart of New York’s ample supply of bleeding heart liberals, was morphed into a “racist” by the Fernando Ferrer-Roberto Ramirez-Al Sharpton alliance. Say what you will about Mr. Green, he is no racist.

Messrs.Ferrer and Green represent the far left of New York’s political spectrum, and had it not been for Mr. Bloomberg’s presence in the race, Mr. Green would be mayor today. The final decision would have been made in the Democratic primary,and it would have been made by exclusively registered Democrats.

Had there been non-partisan elections, the Sharpton-connected Mr. Ferrer would never have made the final cut. But I suspect that the more moderate Mr. Ferrer of 1997 could have succeeded.During those days,he identified himself as a “New Democrat,” coming out in favor of capital punishment, school uniforms,and even raising questions on the abortion issue. It is the system that forced him to the fringe.

The current system even makes politicos who are on the fringe of the fringe, such as City Councilman Charles “I like to slap white folks” Barron, players that must be taken seriously, no matter how distasteful.
Had there been non-partisan elections in 2001, a centrist Democrat, such as the City Council’s former speaker, Peter Vallone, could have been a real contender. Instead, Mr. Vallone finished third among Democrats and was eliminated. Mr. Bloomberg would have run and perhaps still would have won.But at
the least he would have been spared the charade of becoming a Republican. A Democrat would have more than likely still been elected but, in general, the winner and the dialogue would have been firmly seated in the center of the political spectrum. Non-partisan elections would force winning candidates to seek consensus — a good thing in a city that can come to blows over just one racially charged incident.

The new City Council, rather than engaging in a serious discussion about how to revive the city’s economy during the post-9/11 crisis we face, now has other, more parochial agendas. Theyare taking up matters such as the phantom lead-poisoning crisis, a living wage for workers of contractors doing business with the city,and which dead folks should have their pictures hung in City Hall. Oh, how I miss Speaker Vallone.
A non-partisan City Council may still have their Margarita Lopezes, Gale Brewers, and Charles Barrons, but there will be fewer of them.When Riverdale’s Oliver Koppell ran in a non-partisan election for Community School Board in 1999, he campaigned and won with a decidedly moderate, centrist agenda. On the council, having been elected exclusively by Democratic Party voters, he has gravitated back to the left.He is consciously, or maybe even unconsciously, aware that he need not answer to the 25% or so of the local electorate who don’t identify themselves as Democrats.

Moderate Democrats, like the hardworking Madeline Provenzano,who represents the middle-class Bronx communities of Morris Park and Throggs Neck, are marginalized by the current system. But my observation is that Ms. Provenzano’s outlook mirrors the concerns of average New Yorkers. In a non-partisan election, we might still wind up with a City Council composed largely of Democrats, but a lot more of them would be like Madeline Provenzano.

Voters will be inundated with anguished cries from the local Democratic Party establishment as the mayor pushes his plan.They have already begun to angrily attack the mayor, going so far as to suggest that his right to free speech — the right to help finance the referendum on behalf of his initiative — be abridged. Their desperation demonstrates exactly why the Bloomberg plan should be approved.The only negative sign I see is that the plan is receiving the support of the Independence Party’s Lenora Fulani and her cult-like followers. Mr. Bloomberg, and for that matter all politicos,would be well advised to shun any support from Ms. Fulani and her wacky crowd.

Nothing would strengthen the local body politic more than empowering all voters to participate in the selection of their municipal government. The Charter Commission must give the voters the opportunity to end the political monopoly that has ill served our city.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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