Commentary

VIRTUE TRIUMPHANT:
ELECTORAL LESSONS FOR ATTENTIVE NEW YORKERS

Among Other things, the Charter Revision Vote Last Tuesday Was the First Round of the Democratic Primary in 2001.

by Conn Nugent

Last Tuesday's off-year elections prompt a number of observations, not the least of which is that the complexion of the mayoral election of 2001 has been altered considerably. An aspiring candidate for the mayoral nomination of the Democratic Party may have lost any serious chance of winning that prize. In the process, however, that same candidate may have improved his chances of being elected mayor on a non-Democratic line. Dreams of LaGuardia-like Fusion surely have already danced across his mental landscape.

But we race ahead of ourselves. First, a catalogue of the lessons learned last Tuesday:

1. DO NOT PICK A FIGHT YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO FINISH. When Mayor Giuliani impaneled a group of undistinguished loyalists to recommend amendments to the City Charter, he made little effort to obscure his desire to change the section that bestows the powers of mayor to the Public Advocate in the event of the former's resignation. "It's no secret what I think of Mark Green," the Mayor said. So naked was the intent that every daily newspaper and civic group censored the Mayor for an ad-hominem approach to constitutional change. By the time the stormlet of protest induced Commission Chair Randy Mastro to drop mayoral succession from his agenda, the damage was done: Mark Green, an intelligent man with friends, had already committed himself to serious, sustained opposition.

2. DO NOT SCORN THE PROPRIETIES. The Mayor underestimated an attachment among many to appearances of civil decorum. The public mood these days is less obsessed with "good process" than it was in the pre-Giuliani era, but that doesn't mean that a loyal-to-the-boss commission can start its work on the Fourth of July, wrap up by Labor Day, and credibly claim to meet its legal obligation to "examine the whole charter." Good-government groups were sincerely offended. No one believes that the goo-goos actually command blocs of votes these days, but they were instrumental in keeping the charter issue in the media and very useful for providing a high-minded cover for the behind-the-scenes organizing of Green loyalists and labor unions.

3. DO NOT PROVIDE YOUR ENEMIES EXTRA AMMUNITION. Perhaps the Mayor's fulminations on the Brooklyn Museum exhibit helped his fundraising among national Republicans, but most City voters thought he was out of line, and a significant fraction of them were quite seriously upset. To provoke them so closely to Election Day was either principled or careless or both.

4. DO NOT SPEND TAXPAYER MONEY ON BAD MATERIALS. The Charter Commission sent out three publicly funded "educational" mailings to almost all registered voters in the City, at a cost of at least $1 million. They were so unpersuasive! Aficionados of Iron Curtain work noticed a resemblance between the leaflets of the Mastro Commission and the newsletters produced by the Hoxha regime in Albania -- many words, small type, exhortative headline, one-third of the layout given over to a photograph of the Great Leader . Also unpersuasive, for opposite reasons, was the Commission's high-production-values-but-what's-it-about? television commercial.

5. DO NOT SPEND YOUR OWN MONEY ON BAD MATERIALS . The Mayor's prerecorded telephone message ("I need your help to provide a safer city for our kids") was a blunder of grand proportions. The Mayor's "Solutions America" PAC had retained a Beltway firm called Chesapeake Enterprises, who made the mistake of sending the disembodied Rudy-the-robot call to people who a) don't like such calls and b) don't like the Mayor. No piece of Vote No propaganda was nearly so effective as this boomerang piece of Vote Yes propaganda.

6. DO NOT OFFEND THE UNIONS UNNECESSARILY. I don't believe that the charter question was turned down because of effective phone banking by the labor unions. (The labor callers concentrated on their own membership, but the big anti-charter-change majorities were scored in precincts more white collar than blue.) But the unions certainly played a key role and -- most important -- they enjoyed the taste of victory.

Too much can be made of these lessons from an election which attracted 11% of registered voters, at least insofar as one can posit applications for the General Election of November 2001. The main consequences of last week's election will be felt, I believe, within the ranks of the Democratic Party, and will be made manifest in the Primary Election of September 2001.

I am speaking of what might be described as a reinvigoration of the left and left-middle of the Democratic Party. The unions; the political clubs; the issue activists; the neighborhood groups; the unaffiliated but myriad liberal voters -- all the self-described progressives were exultant last Tuesday night. Their new confidence changes the look of the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

Among the putative candidates for mayor, Mark Green risked the most and gained the most. His office, plus the privatized pressure group he spun out under the direction of Richard Schrader, provided the unmistakable leadership in bringing around the unions and attracting Mayors Beame, Koch, and Dinkins to take up the anti-revision cause in public. It was Green who was seen as the person targeted by the Mayor and it was Green on the evening news every night for the final week before the election. Green's willingness to fight the Mayor in public solidified his base among minority voters and the white Left, and earned grudging respect from politicians hostile to the Mayor but afraid to say so.

Peter Vallone solidified his comeback after the heavy loss to George Pataki twelve months ago. He was moderate in his criticism of the Charter Commission when it was appointed last June (the Mayor's people will tell you that he was within an inch of accepting the Giuliani invitation to nominate one-third of the members), but in time he came to speak out strongly on behalf of the interests of future governments against what he saw as fiscal-policy handcuffing by the current administration. The Mastro Commission's proposals to place supermajority requirements for new taxes also spooked union leaders looking for generous contracts for their members in the first negotiations conducted in the post-austerity era. The Speaker heard their anxieties.

Fernando Ferrer was an early and outspoken critic of the Mayor and the Commission. Had Peter Vallone failed to toe the mark, Ferrer could have been the chief beneficiary, after Green, of the anti-revision vote. But Vallone did come around after all, and it's difficult to see how Ferrer will be able to expand his bases beyond the Bronx geographically or beyond Latino voters demographically. He will deny it until the last opportune moment, but I suspect that Ferrer will run for (and win) the Democratic slot for Public Advocate.

Among Democrats, at least, the big loser from last week's vote is Alan Hevesi. "I was very public in my opposition to the Charter," Hevesi told NY1 last week. Strike "very." The Comptroller submitted public-record objections to the Mastro Commission, but he was certainly not seen doing much in the way of conspicuous campaigning. Party regulars were distressed with his low profile.

Hevesi says he was very busy, particularly with auditing the Y2K compliance of the City's computer systems. Sober, non-ideological attention to real questions has become something of a Hevesi trademark in recent years. He has made a point of speaking at every opportunity to civic groups and business associations, showing a deft centrist mastery of issues like debt service, infrastructure investment, tax burdens, and pension obligations. He is now saying over and over that public education must be the defining issue of the next mayor as public safety has been the defining issue of the Giuliani Era. Solid stuff, engagingly presented.

But Hevesi has thin support among white liberals and very little support at all among Latinos and African-Americans. His absence from the Charter fight only makes things worse for him now. As solid as he is, and as attractive a candidate as he may be in a general election, Hevesi today would probably finish third or fourth in a Democratic Primary for mayor.

If this were already 2001, and if Mark Green were the Democratic nominee, and if any current Republican were the Republican nominee, and if Liberal Party boss Ray Harding still drew breath, then the voters of that day might very well be presented with the option of voting for Alan Hevesi for mayor on the Liberal and Independence lines.

And do you know what? I think he could win.

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Conn Nugent is the executive director of Citizens Union.

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