Party On, Dude: Voters Rebuff Mike Proposal

New York voters sharply rejected Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to overhaul the way the city elects its leaders, leaving the Mayor isolated and his Democratic opponents united.

The plan, which would have done away with party primaries in favor of a single primary open to all voters, was failing by a roughly 71 to 29 percent margin with more than two-thirds of the votes counted, said a Board of Elections spokesman, Chris Riley. Few New Yorkers even turned up to vote on Nov. 4, with turnout on pace to match the lowest pre-election estimates of about 500,000.

In a key Brooklyn City Council race, Letitia James of the Working Families Party held a 74 to 19 percent lead over Democratic Party candidate Geoffrey Davis, the brother of slain Councilman James Davis, with 60 percent of precincts reporting. Her victory is the first third-party win in a quarter-century and a double triumph for a small, left-wing party that helped lead the effort to defeat Mr. Bloomberg’s election plan.

“The voters didn’t fall for all those glossy mailings,” crowed the Working Families Party’s executive director, Dan Cantor, of the Mayor’s failed campaign.

Mr. Bloomberg’s quixotic quest to rejigger the mechanics of local elections never quite got off the ground amid confusion about what it really meant and opposition from all sides. It was a good-government crusade that failed to attract the support of traditional reformers like civic groups and editorial boards. It was an attack on the Democratic Party “bosses” at a time when the party-which hasn’t elected a Mayor or a Governor in over a decade-is at its weakest. Ultimately, the measure died with a whimper at the hands of voters who saw Mr. Bloomberg’s personal wealth at work in pushing the change.

“I happen to think the Mayor’s doing a good job,” said Addie Guttag, a Democrat who made her way through a light drizzle to vote against the proposed charter revision at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. “I just don’t like the way he got elected, and I think nonpartisan elections would make it that much easier.”

Mr. Bloomberg made a last appeal for the measure as he cast his ballot at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side.

“Proposition 3 gives you a chance to say that you don’t want a handful of party bosses or special interests taking away your right to vote,” he said. “That’s exactly the way our system is designed, and that’s why some people feel so threatened by this proposed change-because they have an unfair advantage.”

Ironically, the Mayor’s push for nonpartisan elections lent strength to the very forces he sought to diminish. It produced the spectacle of the two bitter rivals in the 2001 Democratic primary, Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, sitting side by side at an evening forum, exchanging whispers and teaming up to attack Mr. Bloomberg. The Citizens Union found itself aligned with county Democratic Party bosses. And the Mayor’s failed campaign gave interest groups-notably the powerful teachers’ union-a cause around which to organize.

“The Democratic Party establishment is galvanized,” said a Democratic consultant, Hank Sheinkopf. “[The Mayor] has now been exposed as a rich guy who will do anything to get his will done.”

Mr. Bloomberg even lost the support of what may have been his most important source of strength: the editorial board of The New York Times. The newspaper labeled Mr. Bloomberg’s spending on the issue-channeled through a paper entity called the Committee to Empower All New Yorkers-as “sneaky.” It worried that the change would inadvertently destroy the city’s public-financing system. “With so few clear benefits to the mayor’s plan, we are unwilling to take the risk,” the paper’s editors wrote. The Democratic Party quickly scraped together the money to mail copies of the editorial to likely voters.

“I just voted with The New York Times -I had it in there with me,” said Jane Levinson, a former shopkeeper on the Upper East Side.

Other voters absorbed Mr. Bloomberg’s reformist message, conveyed through a set of glossy mailings featuring pictures of smiling, obscure neighborhood leaders, and through recorded phone calls from the likes of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

“If it takes some of the power out of the political machines, then I’m all for that,” said David Oltman, 41, a Democrat who works in film production.

Insiders ruminated about the winners and losers in a campaign that may be remembered less for its substance than as a snapshot of the state of Mr. Bloomberg’s Mayoralty, and of the enduring gap between the Mayor and the voters.

“It’s clearly a defeat for Mike Bloomberg and continues to show that, certainly in this city, money alone cannot buy elections,” said Scott Levenson, a political consultant.

Among the winners were some Mayoral hopefuls, including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who pushed other Council members to work the streets on Election Day with flyers that mixed their own campaign slogans with opposition to nonpartisan elections. A labor leader who is flirting with a Mayoral run, Central Labor Council president Brian McLaughlin, organized union opposition.

A Dubious Ally

Mr. Bloomberg started talking about nonpartisan elections early in his 2001 campaign, and his embrace of the measure won him the support of the Independence Party, a group led by Lenora Fulani, who has been associated with everyone from Karl Marx to Patrick Buchanan. The nonpartisan system-which is, in some form, in place in 42 of the nation’s 50 largest cities-first emerged about a century ago as a Progressive reform aimed at breaking the grip of parties and party bosses.

The Mayor first named a Charter Revision Commission to consider the change in 2002, but that commission chose not to put it on the ballot. So this year, Mr. Bloomberg appointed a new commission led by an avowed supporter of nonpartisan elections, former Schools Chancellor Frank Macchiarola.

Mr. Bloomberg argued that the new system would increase voter turnout and minority representation. Opponents warned that it would do the reverse, and that it could also tear a hole in the city’s complex system of public financing for political campaigns. Ultimately, however, many key players on the city stage-like the powerful health-care workers’ union, the Service Employees International Union Local 1199-appear to have decided that the change wouldn’t make much difference either way and sat out the race entirely, as did the vast majority of eligible voters.