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More Than a Cosmetic Change?

by Philip Lentz, Sep 11, 2000
 

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Congressional seats in New York City used to be lifetime sinecures. Given the Democratic Party's traditional dominance here, a newly-elected member of Congress could figure out their pension benefits before taking the oath of office.

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This year, however, the road to Capitol Hill tenure and seniority has become a bit bumpier than usual for several local incumbents. Four local members faced serious challenges in this week's Democratic primary and a fifth dodged a stiff contest only due to the last-minute withdrawal of his opponent following the disclosure of damaging information.

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All four incumbents, based on unofficial tallies, won out over their challengers. But what's significant is that they were challenged at all.

The genesis of each of these contests is unique, of course, relating to the personality and record of the incumbents and the neighborhoods they represent. But it is not a coincidence that an unusual number of challenges were mounted a year before term limits goes into effect for local elected officials. In fact, all the City Council members who challenged local congressmen are being forced out of office next year by term limits, an indication of how much term limits are disrupting the normal ease with which incumbents usually face re-election.

Whether Ron Lauder, the cosmetics mogul and father of New York City's term limit law, intended to cause so much tumult in the local Democratic Party is unclear (Mr. Lauder, a Republican, was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 1989 in the Republican primary). But with all three city-wide elected officials, four borough presidents and 36 council members barred from seeking re-election next year, New York City's political map is resembling a game of 52-card pickup: throw all the cards up in the air and who knows where they will land.

Where they are landing, initially at least, is on congressional incumbents. In the 11th Congressional District in central Brooklyn, Rep. Major Owens, a 18-year incumbent, was challenged by a one-time protògò, Councilwoman Una Clarke, who got her start in politics with Mr. Owens' help. Ms. Clarke must give up her council seat next year and she is looking for new elections to conquer.

The local twist in this contest was racial. Ms. Clarke is Jamaican, Mr. Owens African-American. Ms. Clarke's campaign represents the first political stirrings of local Caribbean pride. Not surprising, the African-American leadership in Brooklyn first tried to talk Ms. Clarke out of running, then threw its support behind Mr. Owens when she refused. The incumbent won the primary by a landslide, but the contest will force him to pay more attention to the concerns of Caribbeans in his district.

To the east, freshman Rep. Anthony Weiner had a rematch with Councilman Noach Dear, both Brooklyn Democrats seeking to represent the 9th C.D., which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Dear ran a distant third to Mr. Weiner in the 1998 Democratic primary, but he must give up his council seat next year, so he has little to lose by challenging Weiner again. In fact, Mr. Dear is running his wife, Rickly, a speech, therapist, for his council seat. This has led to speculation that Dear plans to reclaim his council slot in 2003, when the next municipal elections will occur. (Term limits only bar local officials from two consecutive four-year terms.)

Weiner easily won renomination, but there is a twist to this race as well. Dear, a Democrat, has gotten the Republican line in November and thus Mayor Rudy Giuliani's endorsement. The district is heavily Democrat and Weiner should have no trouble defeating any Republican candidate, even one as well-known as Dear. But just to make sure, he persuaded President Clinton to host a fund-raiser for him the day before the primary, to raise money for his general election campaign.

The city's most contested congressional primary was in the 17th district in the Bronx, where Rep. Eliot Engel, a 12-year incumbent, had, in effect, two opponents. There was the other name on the primary ballot, state Sen. Larry Seabrook. And then there was Bronx Democratic Chairman Roberto Ramirez, who stunned the local Bronx political world by backing Seabrook's challenge against the incumbent.

While term limits hasn't had a direct impact on this contest, they have prompted a good deal of political musical chairs in the Bronx this primary election and that could have a domino effect. For example, Seabrook gave up his Senate seat to challenge Engel. So now he could very well run for an open City Council seat. If not for term limits, perhaps Seabrook would have been more reluctant to challenge Engel.

The fourth incumbent who faced a major primary fight this week was Rep. Ed Towns, a Democrat who represents the 10th C.D. in central Brooklyn. Term limits has had its impact on this race as well. Mr. Towns' son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns, was challenged in a primary this week by a term-limited councilman, Martin Malave Dilan. Mr. Dilan also ran against the younger Towns in 1998 and the senior Towns spent so much time helping his son win re-election that year that he ignored his own primary and won with only 52% of the vote.

That prompted his 1998 opponent, lawyer Barry Ford, to try again. But this year the congressman, who came under attack in 1998 for endorsing Mayor Giuliani for re-election, was said to be more concerned about his own contest, and he easily trounced Ford.

Finally, there was the congressional primary that wasn't. When touts first began looking at the election prospects of the local members of Congress, freshman Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Queens Democrat, seemed to be the most vulnerable. He had been picked in a backroom maneuver when Queens Democratic Chairman Tom Manton suddenly decided to step down from Congress in the summer of 1998. Mr. Crowley had never run in a contested campaign in the 7th C.D. and there were powerful local politicians upset that he, and not they, were not chosen for the seat.

One of them, Councilman Walter McCaffrey, a respected zoning expert and one-time protògò of Manton, had strong local support and a track record of being able to raise money. His candidacy made Crowley and the Queens Democratic organization very nervous.

But the regulars had a trick up their sleeve. Combing election records, they discovered what appeared to be evidence that McCaffrey was using campaign funds for personal use. They waited until after the filing period--so no other candidate could jump into the race--then released the damaging records. McCaffrey claimed the money was just used to pay for car services, but the damage was done and within 24 hours, McCaffrey was an ex-candidate for Congress. Crowley suddenly had a clear path to re-election.

Of course, McCaffrey, like many of his ambitious council colleagues, cannot seek re-election to the council because of term limits.

If all this turmoil is brought to you by term limits, the forecast is more political turbulence on the horizon. Many council members first elected in 1997 can't seek re-election in 2003. They too will be looking for new offices to run for .

Philip Lentz is a senior reporter covering government and politics for Crain's New York Business.


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