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23rd September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 23, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Tuesday would have been the runoff election that wasn’t, the last chance that the local Democratic Party would have for the next four year to reverse its losing streak. And it is not surprising that the idea of the runoff, the great assembler of consensus, is under attack as “divisive.” It is under siege by those who see our city as a collection of ethnic groups pursuing their own agendas, rather than as a city of individuals united by our shared vision for the future.

The runoff is not only necessary, but essential. If I were to change the system, I would opt for a 50% rather than 40% threshold to win a party’s nomination for mayor.
The runoff was established a generation ago when a conservative Democrat, Mario Procaccino, then the city’s comptroller, won a primary election against four more liberal opponents. Procaccino went on to be defeated by Mayor Lindsay, despite the fact that the incumbent mayor was, at the time, not the most popular fellow on the block.

Lindsay’s failure to clear a snowstorm that crippled the borough of Queens for weeks became a Ray Nagin–like symbol of municipal ineptitude, albeit on a smaller and less lethal scale. So unpopular was Lindsay that he lost the nomination of his own Republican Party to a Staten Island State Senator, John Marchi.

Local Democrats believed that there was no way they could lose in 1969, but lose they did. Seven of 10 Democrats who opted for candidates more liberal than Procaccino felt that they were disenfranchised by his selection as their standard-bearer with so few votes. In the end, many of them held their noses and voted for Lindsay in the November general election, finding him more acceptable than Procaccino ideologically.

Lindsay won the election as the candidate of the Liberal Party. Thus was born the runoff system here in Gotham.

This system is used in many American cities, in one form or another, because it helps to guarantee that a winning candidate has been able to form a reasonably broad coalition.

In New York, ideology has taken a back seat to identity politics.Without a runoff, winning candidates could end up reflecting the aspirations of whichever ethnic, gender or sexual preference group is at that moment the largest, even if not remotely close to a majority. The importance of coalition-building dwindles.

This is why Mr. Ferrer, a member of the fastest-growing ethnic bloc, was quick to call for an end to the runoffs. If he has his way, in the future Latinos might bring a numerical advantage to every mayoral election without having to reach out to other groups.

In fact the actions of Mr. Ferrer and his top advisers have been designed to accomplish that end by creating a climate of fear driven by racedriven political correctness. This is now the second election since Mr. Ferrer became the ultimate sore loser in 2001 that a white challenger to a minority candidate threw in the towel lest he be perceived as “divisive,” demonized as “racist” the way Mark Green was in 2001 by Mr. Ferrer’s allies. The former Bronx president may rail against Mayor Bloomberg today, but he certainly played a large role in electing him four years ago.

In 2002, Andrew Cuomo prematurely ended his race for the Democratic nomination for governor against Carl McCall, citing concerns over divisiveness, as did Mr. Weiner last week. Is there anyone who believes that if the numbers this year were reversed, there would be a snowball’s chance in hell that Mr. Ferrer would stand aside for Mr. Weiner? The Ferrer forces would be in court faster than you can say “Voting Rights Act.”

The final count “averting” a runoff, may also not be all it is cracked up to be.Vote tallies in close elections, as we learned in the 2000 presidential election, result from a give-and-take of challenges and counter-challenges, particularly of paper ballots. Absent this, we’ll never know whether Mr. Weiner might have forced the runoff. Nobody independently challenged any of the 32,000 paper ballots cast.

Many savvy New Yorkers believe that by standing aside, Mr. Weiner betrayed his supporters and the law. With a 17% turnout, Mr. Ferrer’s just-barely-40% is really just 7% of all registered Democrats. As Michael Goodwin pointed out in the Daily News, Mr. Ferrer actually received nearly 100,000 fewer votes than he did four years ago, suggesting that voters know Mr. Ferrer — too well. Wednesday’s Quinnipiac Poll bears this out.

Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign team is now targeting the 93% of Democrats who didn’t vote for Mr. Ferrer, perhaps too aggressively, trying to out-Democrat the Democrat. This election is not about who is the best Democrat; it is about who would be the best mayor.

In 1932, Fiorello La Guardia lost his seat in Congress, a Republican eradicated in the FDR Democratic landslide. But the following year, city voters put La Guardia, still a Republican, in City Hall. Mr. Bloomberg should have faith that the voters know that neither George Bush nor Herbert Hoover is on the ballot. If the Little Flower could blossom carrying the GOP label in 1933, so can Mr. Bloomberg in 2005.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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