The Torch Is Passed, But Who’s Getting It?

With the formal demise of Fernando Ferrer’s Mayoral candidacy, an era comes to an end in New York politics.

Gone from the municipal scene are the Board of Estimate Democrats—that is, those Democrats who came of age politically in, well, another political age. David Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, Mark Green (who’s actually not done yet) and Mr. Ferrer came to public notice back in the days when the Mayor, the City Council president (remember that office?), the Comptroller and the five borough presidents made up a quasi-legislature known as the Board of Estimate.

It was a throwback to the bad old days of wheeling and dealing. (Of course, in our enlightened times, those kinds of things don’t happen any more, right?) Borough presidents would gang up on the citywide officials, the Mayor would cut deals with borough presidents, the Comptroller would try to outflank the Council president—all in the name of good and progressive municipal government.

In other words, they were ready bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the safe delivery of a handsome contract to a special friend.

But the Board of Estimate no longer exists—because, about 20 years ago, no less a body than the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. This was something that city government never expected. Sure, it was possible that some court somewhere might declare that the board stunk to high heaven. But declare it unconstitutional? Never.

Well, it happened, because reformers argued that the borough president of Brooklyn, who represented more than two million people, had the same single vote on the board as the borough president of Staten Island, who, at the time of the litigation, represented about 300,000 people. Given development patterns on that island in the last 20 years, the Staten Island chief executive these days probably represents about 14 million people, with most living in illegally constructed multi-family homes that somehow missed the scrutiny of local officials.

The Supreme Court found that the Board of Estimate violated the principle of “one person, one vote.” To resolve this problem, a City Charter revision commission could have either allocated the votes in proportion to the borough populations or just ditched the whole thing altogether. Surprisingly, the thing was ditched, and the Board of Estimate is no more.

Of the recent Democratic Mayoral nominees, only Mr. Dinkins actually served on the Board of Estimate. But all of them were significant figures in city politics when the board existed. So, in the interests of making a sweeping generalization that may actually have no basis in fact, let’s call the passing generation the Board of Estimate Democrats.

What do they have in common? Well, they ran against Republican Mayoral candidates and lost. Somehow, they couldn’t excite the interest and passion of their fellow Democrats, and thus helped usher in 16 years of Republican rule in City Hall. The word “unprecedented” is used with great promiscuity these days, and seems to attach itself to any development that seems unique to the current calendar year.

But Michael Bloomberg’s victory on Election Night truly was without precedent. Democrats now face the prospect of being out of City Hall for 16 years, assuming that Mr. Bloomberg completes his new term. There is no template for that in New York politics.

Democrats must now search for the reasons why. It doesn’t promise to be a particularly pretty sight. Bitter political introspection rarely is.

What would seem clear is that the era of the Board of Estimate Democrats is over. Sure, Mr. Green might well become State Attorney General next year—but that’s state politics. In the city, voters will no longer support a Democratic Mayoral candidate based on mere partisan affiliation, or on old-fashioned appeals to ethnic, racial or gender solidarity.

New York came close to the precipice in the early 1990’s. Not coincidentally, no Democrat has been elected Mayor since the breakdown and turmoil of that not-forgotten era. Two Republicans with very different styles have won office based on their claims to competence and efficiency.

This ought to have been a rough year for a Republican running in New York—even a Republican incumbent with lots of money to throw around. In another age, Mr. Ferrer might have gotten some traction by associating Mr. Bloomberg with Republican policies in Washington and abroad.

But that didn’t work, and it won’t work in the future. Democrats can no longer expect to win the hearts and minds of New York voters because they oppose Republican housing policies in Washington, or because they believe the U.S. ought to withdraw from Iraq.

Those kinds of appeals worked for the Board of Estimate Democrats in another era. But the Board of Estimate is long gone, and so is the assumption that Democratic voters in New York regard their Mayor as the city’s top Democratic cheerleader.

If the results of the last four elections tell us anything, it’s that New Yorkers want a chief executive in City Hall.

And they have one still.