Would nonpartisan elections empower the voters?

By Henry J. Stern

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals for city charter revision have been presented, and the opposition has quickly formed: an alliance between Democratic Party organizations and the unions who comprise the N.Y.C. Central Labor Council. There is less difference between these two groups than may meet the eye, Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, (Democrat of Queens) is chairman of the Central Labor Council and a potential candidate for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

  It is in the self-interest of the leaders of the Democratic Party and the city’s labor unions to try to sew up the Democratic mayoral nomination in a process in which only their followers can participate. They will oppose the mayor’s plan as not being representative enough, but in fact it would allow far more people to take a significant part in choosing a mayor than the existing primary, limited to party enrollees, currently permits.

  Few people, or agencies, give up power voluntarily, and political elites are no exception. The requirement of prior party enrollment for participation at the polls in a primary precludes people who are politically independent, and have not enrolled in a particular political party. The process is called a closed primary, it is similar to a closed shop, where workers have to be union members even before they are hired, therefore excluding everyone not selected by the union leaders as worthy of admission. Since union membership is sometimes awarded on a hereditary basis, this policy has the effect of keeping desirable jobs in the family, either genetic or extended.

The case for this preference was once explained to me by a union officer as follows: Mr. Rockefeller can leave his millions of dollars to his children, and that gives them a great advantage in life. My main asset in this world is my union card, so why can’t I leave that to my son. People wiser than I can explain why this unionist’s position is unjustified. It is, however, usually true that the necessary burden of eliminating discrimination in education, housing and employment falls far more heavily on the middle and working classes than it does on the rich.

Many people claim that they do not like party politics or insider domination of city government. The proposed charter will somewhat weaken political parties, although they will still exist because of the natural human desire to band together for protection against enemies and advancement of friends, and to nominate and elect state and federal officials. But it is also true that while many people dislike politics, they are satisfied with their own officials.

I saw this most vividly years ago at a small recreation building in Bay Ridge, where the citizens complained to then-Mayor Giuliani and cited examples of what they called rampant lawlessness in their neighborhood. When the mayor asked the people their opinion of the captain of their precinct, who was present, they all replied that he was a wonderful police officer and that they liked him. The captain was shortly transferred out of the precinct by Commissioner Bratton, who felt that if the officer were so competent, there would have been fewer crimes for the people to complain about.

It may well be the same with the charter; people don’t like politics, but they like their own representation. They may be inclined to vote to keep them in office, and not to make it more difficult or inconvenient for them to be re-elected. On the other hand, term limits won twice, thanks to Ronald Lauder. The issue could come down to how much each side spends on the campaign. The political and labor establishment will attack Mayor Bloomberg if he spends even one percent of the money he has earned over the years in support of charter reform. But they will use the treasuries of their organizations and the members they control to defeat the new charter and preserve the status quo, which has brought them such rich benefits in power and prestige over the years of their hegemony.

On the other hand, in a predominantly Democratic city like New York, there are problems with nonpartisan elections as well. The first round would become the substitute for the Democratic primary, and the two front-runners in November could well both be Democrats. Indeed in many if not most of the 51 Council districts, this is likely to be the case. Therefore Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals would not have a candidate of their own party to vote for in the November election. They would, however, be able to choose between the top two vote-getters, which would be a good thing, because Republicans might support the more conservative Democrat while members of the Working Families Party could support the more radical. The September candidates might have to reach out to different constituencies to win votes in November, especially in moderate districts. Voters would have a second chance to pick a winner, even if their choice did not prevail in September. Since the Council today consists of 48 Democrats and three Republicans, people who are not enrolled Democrats have much more limited influence in choosing their Councilmember than those who are.

In his third term, former Mayor Ed Koch was criticized because of the corrupt activities of the Bronx and Queens Democratic leaders. Stanley Friedman and the late Donald Manes. Koch did not appoint either of them to public office; they were elected to party office in their respective counties before he became mayor. Friedman and Manes controlled the City Council delegations from their boroughs. If the mayor wanted any significant legislation to be adopted by the Council, their approval was necessary. As a result, they had certain leverage, which they tried to exert in personnel recommendations. They were often rebuffed, as in 1985 when Manes sought control of the Department of Transportation and the Parking Violations Bureau (for reasons not known at the time, but later revealed, setting off a chain of events that culminated in his suicide). His repeated requests were denied by Mayor Koch, who appointed a nonpolitical career manager, Barbara Gunn.

The link between elected ciphers and county leaders is unquestionably a corruption hazard. Imagine if the since-convicted former Councilmember Angel Rodriguez, who was Clarence Norman’s candidate for City Council speaker in January 2002 had been selected. As in 1986, it was the Bronx and Queens organizations that combined to defeat Brooklyn. Manhattan was always too fragmented and too full of candidates to be of much use to anyone, and Staten Island was too small.

The enemies of nonpartisan elections oppose the new charter because of self-interest. They rely on their lawyers’ intimate familiarity with the existing process. Even if the power of political leaders would not, in fact, be significantly diminished, they are fond of the rules as they are, with all their built-in unfairness, such as: onerous requirements for ballot access, lawsuits knocking candidates off the ballot for technical reasons, harassing elderly petition signers with subpoenas, forcing jobholders to do battle with insurgents, etc.

As a nonradical reformer, I have serious problems with the way the big guys play politics in New York State. Existing conditions and practices, sometimes widespread, include executive, legislative and judicial patronage; court appointments of attorneys based on influence and contributions to the party in power; nepotism, cronyism and favoritism; private law practices on public issues; pork barrel appropriations; poverty pimping; padded expense accounts; double billing for expenses; multiple constituent mailings; influence peddling and purchasing; judge selling; logrolling, buck passing, grandstanding; gerrymandering to insure eternal tenure; as well as yet undetected schemes of pillage and privilege, have made state and local government somewhat less worthy of New Yorkers’ respect than might be the case if the people had real choices to make when they vote.

If nonpartisan elections would lead to curing some of these evils, they would be worthwhile. No one can be sure how politics would be affected, but it is hard to imagine how the system would become worse.

Stern is a former New York City parks commissioner and the director of New York Civic.