Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to put "non-partisan" elections on the Fall ballot is the wrong answer to a non-problem:
What's the Problem?
Did any citizen come up to the two major party nominees in the Fall, 2001 mayoral election and complain about the nominating process for City Hall? Based on my relevant experience, the expressed concern over unleashed dogs was far greater than over "party bosses" controlling nominations, to cite the phrase charter commission chair Frank J. Macchiarola used three times in his Gotham Gazette essay of a few weeks ago. And last week on NY1 the mayor seven times in about 15 minutes attacked the evil of the Democratic political "machine" to argue for the end of democratic primaries.
But exactly what "machine" and which "party bosses" chose Spitzer, Schumer, Clinton, McCall, Hevesi, Thompson, Gotbaum or me to be our party's standard-bearer in our respective elections? I believe fair-minded observers would agree that none of these aspirants were hand-picked by anyone and all worked hard to win competitive primaries (with the unique exception of a world famous former First Lady, who was the near-unanimous choice of rank-and-file Democrats as well as party leaders). While there are no doubt some local baronies, rhetorical attacks against bosses and the machine are largely 20 years out-of-date.
Indeed, Messrs. Bloomberg and Macchiarola should be careful about criticizing "party bosses" anointing nominees because two who did so chose Mr. Bloomberg. Governor Pataki, who must be considered the Republican party boss, decisively helped the former Democrat win the GOP mayoral nod; also, the occasionally anti-Semitic Lenora Fulani gave Bloomberg her Independence Party line in 2001 when he supported her key platform plank of non-partisan elections (and the votes on this line exceeded Bloomberg's 36,000 vote margin).
It is wrong for a mayor to repay a "party boss" by convening the fifth charter commission in six years after the city previously had only five over the prior 100 years -- and those earlier ones were due to real governmental necessities, such as the Supreme Court decision in 1989 declaring the Board of Estimate unconstitutional.
Elections or Auctions?
Allowing party primaries means that candidates can run in the General Election with a D or R after a nominee's name. A party affiliation should not be sufficient information in an election. (Thomas Jefferson once said, "Don't ask if [a candidate] is a Federalist or a Whig. Ask, is he honest and does he believe in the Constitution?") But a person's party still tells a lot about a person's values, surely more than poll-driven, consultant-written 30 second TV spots. If we eliminate party identification in elections, it means that voters will have even less useful information and that wealthy candidates will be more likely to win with commercials. GOTV would then mean go-on-television rather than get-out-the-vote.
This is an important point, one that will be more fully debated before a November vote. But isn't it more likely for a credible minority candidate to enter a general election by getting 40 percent (primary) or 50 percent (run-off) of a Democratic primary electorate that's half "minority" than it would be for him/her to do comparably well in an initial non-partisan "primary" with an electorate (including Republicans and Independents) that's under 40 percent minority?
Encourage Voter Participation?
On NY1 and in Gotham Gazette, Chairman Macchiarola repeatedly said that the essential reason for creating this charter commission was to encourage "greater participation" in our democracy. That's fine and laudable — and already occurring. Because our city has an excellent campaign finance law and term limits, there were some 250 candidates for the 51 city council seats and an obviously competitive Democratic primary for mayor in 2001, a year that saw an increase in voting over the 1997 city-elections. But if the Bloomberg charter commission is serious about expanding democracy rather than merely rubber-stamping this mayor, here are several pro-democracy reforms they should also consider:
- Fund the struggling Voter Assistance Commission at some fixed percentage of the mayor's own office (as the Independent Budget Office is funded by a fixed ratio of the Office of Management and the Budget in the Charter) so the city itself registers more voters based on the "agency-based registration" strategy of the National Voter Registration Act.
- Enact "instant run-offs," as San Francisco has, where voters on primary day vote their top three choices, allowing for a conclusive result between the final two without the need for a costly run-off election eating into an already abbreviated Fall General Election.
- Implement balloting-by-mail, as Oregon has done, which increased turnout there by a very considerable 10 percentage points.
- Fix the campaign finance system as board chair Fritz Schwarz has suggested to encourage self-financed candidates to limit their spending like everyone else. And if a wealthy candidate refuses to play by Campaign Finance Board rules, then instead of one "extra match" in the general election (which amounted to $700,000 in 2001, or one percent of $74 million), the complying candidate would get a one-time grant of half the disparity in spending, up to a maximum of $5 million. Too expensive? If one's concern is participation in competitive elections, it's far less expensive than a City Hall for sale.
Buying a Charter Change?
Some cities have "non-partisan elections" — L.A., Chicago, Houston — and some have "democratic elections" — Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. But that really says nothing about whether we should reverse a century of precedent in Gotham. Frankly, the arguments for a charter referendum are so weak and so personal to Michael Bloomberg — a Republican who stands to politically benefit from the elimination of party labels in a Democratic city — that it would not be taken seriously except for the fact that he has threatened, again, to spend his own wealth to accomplish an electoral result. Indeed, when a reporter recently asked if he'd refuse to spend his own funds, the Mayor snapped, "Why should I do that? I don't ask you what you're going to do with your money. And I don't think it's any of your business what I'm going to do with mine."
I'm in no position to objectively argue whether a billionaire should be constitutionally allowed to spend significantly more in one city to win the mayoralty than LBJ spent (in current dollars) in 50 states to win the presidency. But surely it is the public's "business" if someone spends $74 million in private funds to win elected office, then uses his public authority to repay a special interest by putting a self-serving plank on the ballot and then, in effect, buys the law in question. This would be an abuse of power literally unprecedented in American history.
Space does not permit a discussion of whether it would be constitutional to limit an office-holder — not a citizen but someone with governmental power — from spending his private sector wealth to obtain public sector law. But even First Amendment purists should appreciate the irony that a two century old rule intended to stop one King George-type from monopolizing debate by guaranteeing speech for all would be used now to justify one person combining unique governmental and economic power to stifle the public conversation. How does that encourage the "robust debate" that's the foundation of the First Amendment? Nor is it any answer to trot out the boilerplate phrase that "the answer to bad speech is more speech." For when one side in a referendum spends, say, $10 million on TV and mail and the other peanuts, where's the "more speech" solution?
If a Nelson Rockefeller could be forced to file a financial disclosure and prohibited from spending his own vast wealth to overpay staff because he was governor, I believe it would be both desirable and constitutional, as council members Bill Perkins and David Yassky have proposed, to prohibit Michael Bloomberg from similarly using his assets because he is mayor. But even if it turns out that he has the "right" to do this, the real question is whether it's right for him to do so.
It's an excuse, not a justification, when the 29th wealthiest American complains about being called a billionaire mayor yet then hints he may spend like one by hiding behind an amendment that's historically allowed despised, powerless dissidents to have some voice in their democracy. His self-serving arguments remind me of a favorite aphorism of ex-Senator Warren Magnuson: "All anybody wants in life is an unfair advantage."
Which leads me to respectfully ask three simple questions of the mayor who chose this unnecessary fight and who can alone resolve some of these apparent conflicts:
- Will you commit not to spend your own money to, in effect, buy a charter change?
- Would you agree that such a significant change only be considered prospectively, after the 2005 elections, so that it not appear to benefit the politician behind its enactment? (By law, any congressional pay increase must apply to the next congress after the next election so there is no appearance of a self-enriching vote. And when Congress in the late 1940s was considering Presidential term limits, even anti-Truman Republicans never thought to apply it to the sitting president since it would be wrong to institute a new standard within a term of office.)
- Since you ordered the charter commission to put your idea on the ballot because you wanted to encourage more democracy, will you also urge them to consider other pro-democracy ideas of the kind suggested above?
Mark Green, the former public advocate of New York City (from 1994 to 2002) and the Democratic nominee for mayor in 2001, is president of the New Democracy Project, a public policy institute.
Voters in most of the country's largest cities choose their mayors in elections in which candidates run not as Democrats or Republicans but as individuals. Frank Macchiarola, chair of the mayor's Charter Revision Commission, writes that it is time for New York to join this group.