Hacks Celebrate Defeat of Reform

The word is that the city’s Democratic Party has been energized! Yes, those donkeys are ready for action now. Why, they’ve even begun to count down the number of days until Mayor Bloomberg is returned to civilian life.

They’re smiling and cheering, those Democrats. The newspapers have taken notice of the bounce in their step, the sparkle in their eyes, the passion in their voice. And to what, you might ask, do we owe this burst of energy?

The city won’t be implementing nonpartisan elections any time soon.

In an off-off-year Election Day that roused but a small percentage of the electorate, voters turned down a change in the City Charter which would have done away with party primaries-instead, the primaries would have been open to all, on an individual and not a partisan basis. Mayor Bloomberg was a big proponent of this idea, which would be considered radical only in the one-party city that is New York. The Mayor, a Republican of sorts, spent some chump change (for him) in promoting this reform, but an overwhelming percentage of the very few people who voted decided they liked the idea of letting Democratic Party hacks pick their municipal officeholders.

Hooray for democracy! Long live the party! “We’re on our way!” exclaimed the chairman of Manhattan’s Democratic Party, Herman (Denny) Farrell.

Yes, we’re going back to the status quo! Hooray!

In the same issue of the newspapers which reported that Democrats now have energy and motivation, careful readers took note of the columns of agate type that recorded the results of this year’s City Council elections. Wait-you didn’t know that the City Council was up for election this year? Hold on-you’re not entirely sure you can name your City Council member? Hooray three times over! This is exactly how the system is supposed to operate! This is why the Democrats are energized! They can go back to sleep!

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal was designed to add interest and competition to some of the least-contested elections in North America. This, as you can understand, posed a terrible threat to those who count on disinterest and a lack of competition-that is, the city’s five Democratic county committees. By junking party primaries, the Mayor hoped to encourage genuinely competitive elections for municipal office. This sort of thing is done in many American cities and towns, with admittedly mixed results.

It’s true that the Mayor’s precise proposal may have been flawed. After all, when the Reverend Joseph O’Hare, former head of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, and public-

interest lawyer Gene Russianoff oppose a reform, attention must be paid. These voices for good government have no interest in maintaining the status quo for its own sake-unlike the city’s Democratic power brokers.

Still, though, there was something off-putting about watching these Democratic hacks celebrate their brush with irrelevancy. Nonpartisan elections would have meant that no longer could the chairs of the county committees decide, in essence, who was going to serve on the City Council. Because New York is such an overwhelmingly Democratic city, to win the party’s nomination for City Council is to win the election, except for a few districts in which the Republicans have an edge (four or five out of 51 Council districts).

The result? Check out some of the winning margins posted on Election Day. Of the 51 victors, only six piled up less than 75 percent of the vote. Thirty-one victors, all but one of them Democrats, recorded 80 percent or more of the vote-and that doesn’t count the nine districts in which there were no “competitive” elections. In New York’s vibrant democracy, elections are considered competitive even when the anointed candidate gets 95 percent of the vote.

The Mayor properly considers this state of events appalling (as do all good-government groups, including those who opposed the Mayor’s reform). The Democratic hacks, however, consider this system to be just fine, and why wouldn’t they? They put up the candidates-generally for reasons they don’t dare acknowledge publicly-and the voters do as they’ve been trained to do: They pull the Democratic lever (when they bother to show up), and then they go home.

What a fine system this is! Is it hardly a wonder that Democrats are, yes, emboldened now that the threat to their power is gone?

Of course, you might have wondered why it took the defeat of nonpartisan elections to excite the Democrats, to embolden them, to energize them, to get them on their way. You might have asked if, say, the plight of the schools or the city’s financial problems aren’t enough to energize officeholders.

But then again, when you win with 95 percent of the vote, what’s your incentive to get excited about failing schools and budget shortfalls?

You don’t have to worry about re-elections!