As of this writing, it is unclear whether New York’s baseball community will enjoy a meaningful autumn. For a certain element of that community—the voluble though feckless cult known as “Yankee fans”—fall baseball is considered an entitlement. Should the Yankees fail to live up to their end of the devil’s bargain, autumn in New York will surely not be the same.
For fans of New York politics—and we know who you are—a meaningful autumn is assured this year. A Republican Mayor is seeking re-election, and a credible Democrat is opposing him. Play ball!
Like Yankee fans, New York’s political junkies have gotten used to this sort of thing, and that is a noteworthy milestone. The successes of Republicans Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have transformed Mayoral general elections, turning them into actual contests rather than coronations of the Democratic nominee. Remember, it was not so long ago (1981, in fact) that the Republican Party simply cross-endorsed the Democratic incumbent (Ed Koch) rather than fulfill its small-“d” democratic mission of contesting an election. But since Mr. Giuliani’s first bid for election in 1989, every Mayoral campaign has provided at least a facsimile of a real election. Yes, this would include Ruth Messinger’s bid to unseat Mr. Giuliani in 1997, a campaign that reversed the usual political order of anointed Democrat and hopeless Republican.
This year’s contest between incumbent Michael Bloomberg and challenger Fernando Ferrer is New York’s fifth consecutive contested general election for Mayor. But the city’s political community faces the same question that confronts fans of the aging Yankee dynasty: How much longer can this go on?
The answer, in both cases, isn’t especially reassuring.
After 12 years of running City Hall, with pretty good prospects of extending that run to 16, the Republican Party in New York has no better farm system than the Yankees do. No stars wait on the horizon—there is no young Bernie Williams learning his craft with the old Albany-Colonie Yankees. Mr. Bloomberg allegedly is running for re-election at the head of a Republican ticket that ought to include candidates for Public Advocate and City Comptroller. Apparently, however, the Republicans will not contest Comptroller William Thompson’s re-election, and its candidate for Public Advocate is a political unknown named Daniel Maio.
A hard-headed political realist could make a strong case for the Republicans not bothering to contest the other two citywide offices. Why expend resources on a couple of unwinnable races? In a city where Republicans are outnumbered 5 to 1, what’s the point of throwing sacrificial lambs into the arena?
Of course, that’s what the Republicans used to say about Mayoral elections.
Mr. Thompson, by all accounts, is going to run for Mayor in 2009. No doubt he will confront many obstacles along the way, but one thing he needn’t worry about is a serious Republican attempt to challenge his first four years as the city’s chief financial officer. By giving him a pass, Republicans only enhance his chances of retaking City Hall for the Democratic Party in four years.
Imagine if the Republicans had searched for and found a credible candidate to take on Mr. Thompson, or, for that matter, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. While either campaign would have been poorly financed, ending in swift and certain burial, the candidate or candidates would at least have gotten some television time, a place on the Sunday political-chat shows and appearances in front of those fearsome editorial boards. Perhaps one or both candidates could have emerged with a reputation as a “can’t-miss” prospect for higher office.
But that’s not going to happen. The Republicans, fat and content with their recent Mayoral successes, have failed to appreciate the importance of those lesser offices, which often are a proving ground for future. Hugh Carey ran in a Democratic primary for City Council President in 1969, five years before becoming Governor. Charles Rangel, soon to be a Congressman, was in that very same race. Daniel Patrick Moynihan ran for Council President in 1965. All were unsuccessful, but their campaigns helped prepare them for future victories.
The Republicans have apparently decided that running and losing is no way to prepare for an eventual triumph. That’s fine, but they haven’t offered an alternative method of grooming future candidates for Mayor—or for much of anything else in New York City. That’s despite the precedent-shattering election of two consecutive Republican Mayors in this supposed bastion of the Democratic Party.
Of course, it’s possible that the Republicans and the Yankees both have a not-so-secret plan for continued hegemony: Spend whatever it takes. The problem is that the Republican big spender, Michael Bloomberg, is subject to term limits. The Yankees’ big spender, George Steinbrenner, is not so constrained.
Come to think of it, didn’t Mr. Steinbrenner give money to Richard Nixon a few hundred years ago?
Just a thought.