Editorial: Let the Debate Begin

The city’s registered Democrats and Republicans have made their mayoral choices. And so the general election begins in earnest.

This progression seems only natural. But it isn’t, because, historically speaking, it is absolutely out of the ordinary in New York.

A generation of New Yorkers has become accustomed to strong—and victorious—Republican mayoral candidates. But for a slightly older generation, the concept of a contested mayoral election between a Democrat and a Republican still seems fresh and new. That’s because, thanks to the Democratic Party’s overwhelming edge in party registration, mayors often were chosen not in a general election but in Democratic primaries or in general elections that featured dueling Democrats.

This fall’s contest between primary winners Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota marks the seventh consecutive contested mayoral election between a Democrat and a Republican. That’s unheard of in New York political history. Before 1989, when Rudolph Giuliani unsuccessfully challenged David Dinkins, a legitimate Republican candidate for mayor emerged once in a generation—Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933 and John V. Lindsay in 1965. For the most part, the G.O.P. was content to nominate earnest sacrificial lambs, like John Marchi in 1973, Roy Goodman in 1977 or Diane McGrath in 1985.

Beginning with Mr. Giuliani’s unsuccessful campaign in 1989, however, the city’s Republican Party has challenged the Democratic Party’s hegemony over City Hall in every mayoral election. Even more amazingly, given the city’s historic preference for Democrats, the G.O.P. has won five straight mayoral elections. One can argue that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s money, not his partisan affiliation, paved the way to his three victories. Nevertheless, Mr. Lhota enters the general election campaign not as an afterthought, not as a token, but as the beneficiary of Republican success in the city’s top job.

The Republican revival means that Mr. de Blasio has his work cut out for him—and that’s how democracy is supposed to work. A contested general election means a legitimate choice in November, not just a coronation. Ideas will matter more than party registration, as Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg proved in their successful campaigns.

New York is better governed today than it was a generation ago, when mayors were chosen in Democratic primaries, or between two Democrats, as in the Ed Koch-Mario Cuomo contest of 1977.

That’s a trend worth continuing.