The Death of the New York City Democrat

In Washington, Democrats won the White House and expanded their control of Congress. Albany is run by a Democratic governor,

In Washington, Democrats won the White House and expanded their control of Congress. Albany is run by a Democratic governor, Democratic Assembly leader and a Democratic Senate majority leader. Everywhere New Yorkers look, Democratic dominion is spreading.

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Except in New York City.

The city may be a bastion of American liberalism, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly six to one, but it can’t win the mayor’s office. Nearly 16 years since Republican Rudy Giuliani ended decades of Democratic control of City Hall, prominent Democrats acknowledge that the party is still debilitated by dependence on special-interest constituencies, political legacies, a resistance to structural reform and an overall absence of new ideas.

Now, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg poised to win a third term, some of the very Democrats who are expected to make the case against him recognize a lack of reinvigoration and the low likelihood of coming back to power anytime soon.

“The old-guard Democratic machine has dominated politics in the city of New York for so long that it has to date stifled new ideas and individuals from taking their place in the public discourse,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who several Democratic insiders have pointed to as one of the party’s promising young prospects.     

According to Mark Green, the former public advocate (and current public-advocate candidate) who narrowly lost the 2001 mayoral election to Mr. Bloomberg, the party’s lack of creativity, among other things, resulted in “losing four mayoral elections in a row—possibly five.”


TO BE SURE, the current mayor’s billions of dollars have a lot to do with dampening Democratic hopes.

The money, which he has spent lavishly during each of his campaigns, has allowed him the independence to pick battles against politically influential opposition.

Certainly, there’s an unattractive flip side: Mr. Bloomberg may not have to pander to advocates and interest groups through his legislative actions, but he’s not above spreading his cash around to quell dissent, or essentially cornering the market on political talent to deprive his competitors of competent campaign staff.

But the overall picture, as far as the public is concerned, is of an executive who, by and large, can afford to stay in power without making political deals.

“The current administration is very professional and capable, and to some extent that is the result of a vastly funded, self-financed campaign that has not seen a necessity to build alliances,” said John Liu, a councilman from Queens who is running for city comptroller. “Mr. Bloomberg had some advantages in governing that a Democrat could only dream of. If every political campaign could be run like that, then perhaps we would be better off for it. One in a thousand can be run like that.”

The fact that the mayor can run such a campaign seems to have scared off the Democrat who would likely have posed the toughest challenge: Representative Anthony Weiner, who, before Mr. Bloomberg decided to seek a third term, promised to run a spirited campaign based on the increasingly resonant idea of defending the city’s middle class from extinction. (Mr. Weiner recently announced, in the style of a noncandidate, the decision to defer his decision on whether to run.)

Now, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination is City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the cordial former head of the justly disbanded City Board of Education. So far, Mr. Thompson—by nature a consensus-seeker—has attempted to position himself as an alternative to the incumbent based on the broad idea that Mr. Bloomberg is a mayor for the wealthy, and that there’s a whole other New York that’s being overlooked.

It’s the Ferrer campaign of 2005.

Fred Siegel, an embittered Dinkins-era Democrat turned positive-biographer of Rudy Giuliani (and a lusty critic of Mr. Bloomberg), said that despite the modernization of Democrats around the country, New York remained a wormhole to the 1980s.

“The Democratic Party has changed in terms of personalities, it’s changed in terms of ethnic composition, because the city has changed,” he said. “But in terms of underlying assumptions, social-service and public-sector orientation, it hasn’t changed. In terms of the middle class, the Democratic Party lost touch with the non-public-sector middle class a long time ago. Weiner has half of that. But I don’t think it’s a political campaign that can reestablish that connection. It’s going to be forced to face the future.”

Mr. Siegel said that the decade and a half out of City Hall prevented Democrats from coming to terms with the success of Mr. Giuliani’s policies on policing and welfare.

“One of the unfortunate things about the 2001 election, Bloomberg winning it, is that Democrats, had they won, would have had to adapt to Rudy’s policies. They didn’t,” he said.

Those Democrats don’t necessarily disagree.

Mr. Green, no friend of Mr. Giuliani, said that just as “Eisenhower accepted most of the New Deal reforms and Blair accepted some of Thatcher’s reforms,” he would, if he prevailed in 2001, have adopted such trademark Giuliani ideas as a target-the-symptoms approach to policing and a less lenient approach to welfare.

He also said the party had been ill-served, on an intellectual level, by the frequency of unelected appointments to several statewide offices, because it denied Democrats the opportunity, or saved them the trouble, of defending new ideas in the crucible of closely contested campaigns.

“When Rudy ran in ’93 on broken windows and neoconservative economic ideas, I didn’t vote for the guy, but he had to cheer-lead for plausible Republican urban economic ideas and then govern on them when he won,” Mr. Green said. “And three of the five statewides have been appointed by selection rather than election, and haven’t yet had to run on a philosophy or a body of ideas.”

For Democrats, advocating new ideas, even ones that seem to work, can be an act of mutiny.

Joel Klein, Mr. Bloomberg’s schools chancellor and a Democrat with strong connections to party royalty like the Kennedy family and White House wise man John Podesta, champions mayoral control of the city’s schools. Test scores have risen, and the policy of mayoral control of schools is popular.

Mr. Klein is detested within the local party. And he seems to detest the local party right back.

“Certainly the Democratic Party in New York is a party that is closely aligned with traditionally union interests,” said Mr. Klein.  “If you believe in special-interest-group politics, then divided authority is always a much more attractive form.”

Mr. Klein characterized the proposals of the union and Mr. Thompson—who would prefer the mayor select education policy panelists from a broad pool nominated by panelists and teachers, among others—as “really ahistorical right now.

“Here are all these democratic mayors, Cory Booker, Adrian Fenty, Antonio Villaraigosa, they are classic traditional Democratic mayors, and they all understand what is clear to me,” he said. “That in the absence of mayoral authority, you increase the likelihood of interest-group politics; what you have is divided authority and nobody in charge, and we had that in New York from 1968 to 2002 and everybody knows it didn’t work.”

Ed Koch, a three-time mayor who was once the standard-bearer for the party—and who is now one of Mr. Bloomberg’s most vocal supporters, said, “I believe the local interests, local politicians, have more dominance than ever before.”

“I tamed the party,” he said, referring to his time as mayor. “I pulled its teeth from the party leaders.”

Mr. Koch said that though he liked Mr. Weiner, who had indicated he’d follow in the former mayor’s footsteps, he was “not aware of any hotshot who is whipping up the party” and as far as he could tell, the Democratic Party had gotten worse.

“The spirit of reform that existed when I was in the local club, the V.I.D. (Village Independent Democrats) and others, has all been dissipated as far as I can see. What they need is another effort to reform the party.”

Chris Owens, who in 2006 ran in a primary for the Brooklyn-based House seat of his father, former representative Major Owens, talked about a generational shift that was occurring in the party, in which younger Democrats were more moderate and business-friendly than their predecessors.

“Ferrer was last of the previous generation,” he said

(Mr. Owens lost to Yvette Clarke, whose mother, Una Clarke, was the first Jamaican-born member of the City Council.)

On the evening of March 30, Mr. Bloomberg spoke at an event at the Lighthouse Ballroom in the Chelsea Piers commemorating victims of Sept. 11, which was attended by Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Thompson. “I want to especially thank my predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, who led New York City in those terrible days,”  he said.

The crowd broke out into cheers of “Rudy,” and Mr. Bloomberg continued that “an awful lot of what we’ve done in the last seven and a half years was made possible by what he did in the eight years before, and hopefully whoever follows us will be able to use what we did.” 

I asked Mr. Giuliani, who premised his campaign for president on the notion that he had challenged and defeated Democratic orthodoxy in New York City, why the Democrats still haven’t found a way to win.

“There was a group that supported the changes, but there was always a group that opposed it,” he said as he left the event. “And it seems to me that that group is in more control of the party than the group that embraced the changes.”

The Death of the New York City Democrat