As he pursues his goal of implementing nonpartisan elections in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has found it easy to dismiss the plan’s vocal opponents as a cabal of patronage-enriched Democratic Party bosses who fear that reform will loosen their monopoly
But now, for the first time, the Mayor’s reform plan is coming under attack from one of his own appointees to the Charter Revision Commission, which is studying ways to overhaul the city’s electoral system.
In an interview with The Observer , Bill Lynch, a deputy mayor under David Dinkins, charged that the charter-revision process is deeply flawed, and said that the commission isn’t interested in pursuing genuine electoral reform.
“The commission isn’t serious about real change,” said Mr. Lynch, who is one of nine members of the panel. “The commission hasn’t done the necessary research. It hasn’t given this the time it should have. And it hasn’t seriously thought about all the different ways they could increase voter participation. That’s why I don’t think the commission is serious.”
Mr. Lynch said that he would write a minority report detailing his objections, and would submit the report alongside the commission’s recommendations when they are made public later this month.
Mr. Lynch’s dissent could seriously complicate Mr. Bloomberg’s hopes of realizing one of his most important initiatives-one that is central to the Mayor’s efforts to be seen as an independent reformer unencumbered by ties to local party organizations.
Indeed, Mr. Lynch’s objections come at a sensitive moment for the Mayor. Mr. Bloomberg, whose poll numbers are at historic lows, can ill afford to lose the protracted, high-profile fight that will be waged over nonpartisan elections.
What’s more, Mr. Lynch’s attack comes at a moment when it looked as if the commission was close to reaching agreement on a proposal that would scrap party primaries in favor of two rounds of elections, the first of which would be open to any and all candidates, regardless of party affiliation. The two leading vote-getters would then face off in a final contest.
But that emerging consensus is likely to be tested by Mr. Lynch’s dissent. His minority report, which is intended as a counterpoint to the commission’s expected recommendations, could induce other members to break with the rest of the group when the commission votes on its recommendations on Aug. 25. (Its final recommendations could be placed before voters in November.)
“If my concerns are not addressed, I am likely to vote ‘no’ on the proposals,” said Mr. Lynch, who is also a top Democratic party operative.
While the immediate impact of Mr. Lynch’s dissent remains uncertain-one “no” vote wouldn’t single-handedly stop the commission from agreeing on a package of reforms-at a minimum it constitutes a blow to the commission’s credibility. Many political observers believe that the appointment of Mr. Lynch, who is African-American, was intended in part to insulate the commission from accusations that nonpartisan elections marginalize minority candidates. That argument has been made by Congressmen Charles Rangel, a black Democrat from Harlem, and Jose Serrano, a Latino Democrat from the Bronx, among others. Mr. Lynch’s dissent could mean that the commission will no longer be shielded from such attacks.
A Rallying Cry
Mr. Lynch’s criticisms are also certain to provide a rallying point for opponents of nonpartisan elections. In recent weeks, Democratic Party officials have been arguing that nonpartisan elections-which are common in other cities-harm minority candidates and confuse voters.
“The fact that one of his own commissioners is defecting is the first crack in the dam,” said City Council member Eric Gioia of Queens, an opponent of the changes. “When your hand-picked committee begins to disagree with you publicly, it begs the question, ‘How good an idea can this be?’”
Alan Gartner, executive director of the Charter Revision Commission, took issue with Mr. Lynch’s critique. “It is puzzling that a commissioner should declare that he’s going to write a minority report when we’ve reached no final decisions,” he said. “He’s reaching a conclusion before the game is over.”
Still, Mr. Lynch offered multiple criticisms of the commission. He thinks that members are moving far too quickly on what could be a momentous decision with far-reaching implications for the city. In that regard, he drew an unflattering comparison between today’s commission and one that was put together in the late 1980′s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Estimate violated the principle of “one person, one vote.” That commission created the position of Public Advocate, gave new administrative powers to the borough presidents, and mandated nonpartisan special elections to fill vacancies on the City Council and in the Mayor’s office.
“In 1989, there was across-the-board participation from people at all levels of government,” Mr. Lynch said. “That commission took two years to reach a consensus. Ours has taken less than six months. People say that most of the research has already been done by other commissions who have recommended nonpartisan elections in the past. But I argue that it was done by somebody else-not this commission.”
Mr. Lynch also said that the commission had been too willing to change course in the middle of the process. In an apparent effort to fend off critics who said that he was proposing changes to facilitate his re-election, Mr. Bloomberg surprised the political world recently by publicly suggesting that his changes take effect in 2009-that is, after Mr. Bloomberg finishes his second term, if he wins one. He also suggested that candidates be allowed to include party labels-chiefly for identification purposes-along with their names on the ballot. The commission, which is supposed to be independent of the Mayor, promptly began discussing the two changes-a move that critics say makes the commission look as if it’s simply there to rubber-stamp Mr. Bloomberg’s wishes.
“We never did any research about those proposals,” Mr. Lynch said. “There was never any public testimony about them. Those recommendations came out of left field.”
Finally, Mr. Lynch said he was dismayed that the commission didn’t appear to be giving serious consideration to several ideas that would help realize its stated goal of opening up the electoral process to disenfranchised voters.
“There’s no doubt that the system needs to be changed so that there can be more voter participation,” Mr. Lynch said. “But there’s no proof that nonpartisan elections alone will accomplish that. There are other ways that have proven more successful, like same-day voter registration, voting rights for non-citizens, and allowing voters to cast their vote on more than one day, not just on Election Day. Those three items are very important to me, because they represent real change.” (The most radical of these ideas, non-citizen voting in municipal elections, is currently in place in five municipalities in Maryland.)
“The leadership and staff of the commission have basically been saying that some of these items take state legislation, and therefore will take too long,” Mr. Lynch continued. “But if we weren’t trying to rush this process, we could get these real changes through.”
But Mr. Gartner argues that nonpartisan elections would be a victory for New Yorkers. “I don’t want to in any way minimize [Mr. Lynch's] suggestions or the importance of those changes,” he said. “On the other hand, nonpartisan elections in and of themselves would be an enormous gain for democracy in New York City. Fifty out of 51 of the 2001 Council races were won by a margin of victory of over 10 percent. That’s not an electoral system-it rivals elections in the former Soviet Union.”