Orwell in New York: Predictable Partisanship and Non-Partisan Elections

As you may or may not know, the mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomberg, has assembled a commission to review and suggest reforms to the city's charter. Among the most prominent issues being considered by the commission is that of nonpartisan elections. New York is one of the few cities in the country which still has partisan elections. According to statistics at the National League of Cities, of the nation's ten largest urban centers, only three still retain partisan elections: New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. A proponent of non-partisan elections, Nancy Hanks has been following the commission very closely over the past few weeks at the Hankster, be sure to check in there for updates on that front.

In early May, an article in the New York Times laid out some background issues on the measure and the coalitions that were likely to take shape both for and against the idea. Ironically, the antagonism has coalesced along a predictably familiar partisan fault line: leading Democrats and the Working Families Party are strongly against the reform, while Republicans and the Independence Party have come out in support of it. From the NYT:
Several Republican leaders have also expressed openness to the idea . . . Many of the city’s Democratic leaders are steadfastly opposed to nonpartisan elections.

supporters, including leaders of the city’s Independence Party , said that party politics had outlived its usefulness in city elections . . . In a strongly worded letter to the Charter Revision Commission . . . leaders from a cross section of groups, including the Working Families Party, the N.A.A.C.P. and Common Cause New York, said that asking voters to consider nonpartisan elections “strikes us as highly cynical” [Emphases added.]
Yesterday, Democratic leaders held a press conference to voice their opposition to nonpartisan elections in NYC. Revealingly, however, rather than defend partisan elections, speakers instead emphasized the virtues of the two-party system, which is not surprising, but all the more absurd, given that New York City has a one-party state. The New York City Council has 51 members: 46 Democrats and 5 Republicans. From the New York Observer's report on the press conference:
Outside New York's Municipal Building on Wednesday, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio stood at the podium--backed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and former comptroller Bill Thompson--to dismiss the notion of nonpartisan elections . . .

"Nonpartisan elections undermine our democracy," said the towering Mr. de Blasio, who appeared to have something of a sunburn. [He continued:] "They create a system that is dominated by wealth, suppresses voter turnout and makes it harder for minority candidates to compete." . . . "I think we can all agree the two-party system has served America and served New York pretty well," Mr. Markowitz said.
Are such statements not perfectly Orwellian in character? The professed deference to the two-party system is nothing but a cynical defense of the ruling political class – which, in this case, comprises a one-party state. Further, imagine the gall of any Democratic or Republican leader who would defend the two-party system's one-party state by implying that it is not dominated by wealth, that it doesn't suppress voter turnout, that it does not work against the interests of minority candidates. This disconnect is particularly obvious in the case of New York City. As mentioned above, one party has monopolized the city council. The mayor's office was purchased by Michael Bloomberg for $102 million in 2009. Voter turnout numbers in 2006 reveal that roughly 2 out of 3 New Yorkers opted not to cast a ballot (these are numbers for the state, but are likely comparable with the city). Finally, even despite the successes of minority candidates, structural racism is indisputably endemic to the ruling parties, their politics and their policies. We have not even broached the topic of topic of independent or third party politics, ballot access issues etc.

The Democrats' defense of "democracy" here demonstrates the willingness of the ruling political class to engage in outright falsification of reality to maintain the system that ensures their hold on power.


Samuel Wilson said...

Today's Daily News had a small mention of this event with the same quote from Thompson, whose argument seems to be that only an entity like the Democratic party makes it possible for working-class people to run for office. While I don't care for the trend toward plutocracy represented by Bloomberg, Thompson's argument simply doesn't follow. If anything, the demise of the American Bipolarchy might make politics more affordable for ordinary citizens by levelling the fundraising playing field so that you don't have to be a Bloomberg to compete with the party machines.

The same paper coincidentally featured an editorial slamming the WFP for seeking a change in the statewide election law that would make it easier for Working Families to keep its spot on the ballot. Ballot position is now determined by performance in the gubernatorial election; if your candidate doesn't get 50,000 votes, you lose your spot. WFP reportedly wants to change the law so that they can keep their line if any of their statewide candidates reaches the 50,000 threshold. That's most likely because they don't expect to have Andrew Cuomo on the top of their ticket, but that's no reason for the News to disparage the idea. I'll probably have more to say on these issues later at Think 3 along with links to the pertinent articles.

Nancy Hanks said...

Damon, great post!! (And thanks for the shout out...) One correction: Chicago does have nonpartisan elections, and, as attorney Harry Kresky pointed out in his testimony, the Democratic Party is alive and well in the Windy City.

Also, I want to make an observation about your statement that Bloomberg "bought" the 2009 election. We all know politics is a dirty business, people get paid off in all kinds of ways, corruption abounds. But I think you give short shrift to the NYC Independence Party -- which IS a third party, and a damn good one, and is the party that got Mike elected all 3 times -- and to independent candidates like Mike Bloomberg with this kind of rhetoric. Would you say that Ross Perot "bought" 20% of the vote in 1992? If we are ever going to have a viable truly independent third party, we are going to have to work with many rich people. Money is not the issue. This is a capitalist country, so unless you want to outlaw capitalism, we're stuck with a system where rich people can have a say and can use their money to influence elections. That's part of our democracy. Sometimes rich people do good stuff with their money (like back nonpartisan elections), and I think that's a good thing.


d.eris said...

Sam, I hadn't seen those pieces, and hadn't heard of the WFP's proposal. I look forward to the post at Think 3.

Nancy, I had a suspicion the League of Cities stats were a bit off, they were a few years old, I think. "Alive and well" is an understatement to describe the Dems in Chicago. The city council has 50 members, 49 Democrats and 1 Republican, elected in a "non-partisan" election in 2007, according to Wikipedia, which goes to show that "nonpartisan" can function as a cover for uni-partisanhip, just like the "two-party system" can, I suppose.

My stab at Bloomberg was not meant to slam Independents, but rather to undercut the absurd implication that the ruling two-party system's one-party state is currently not "dominated by wealth." I wish more independents would invest more money in independent and third party candidates and campaigns, rather than throwing their dollars away in support of Democrats and Republicans. Bloomberg, for one, has been pretty consistent in his monetary support for the Independence Party.

Nancy Hanks said...

Damon - thanks for the clarification. I completely agree -- the bipartocracy we have right now virtually stinks of moneyed interests! It is a typical Dem (Big Labor) war cry that nonpartisans give advantage to rich candidates. Bloomberg, lest we forget, was elected under partisan elections, first as a Repub and now as an independent, in a city with a 5 to 1 Dem registration. Partisanship makes people dumb!!