On September 9, 2003, New York City will hold primary elections for city council races, in order to nominate candidates for the general election to be held in November. According to New York City election law, once every twenty years city council members serve back-to-back two-year terms, instead of the normal four-year terms. It is a provision that allows the city to incorporate the latest census data into redistricting measures. In 2001, the city council members all stood for a two-year term, and so they are returning this year for another two-year term. Out of the 51 members of the city council, all of whom are up for reelection, there are primaries in 26 of those districts. For details, check out Gotham Gazette’s Campaign 2003 , which is part of the Community Gazettes.
Most of the primaries are on the Democratic side, with the Democratic incumbent challenged in his or her nomination for reelection. But there are two Republican primaries. This is in and of itself unusual enough in a city where Republicans represent roughly only 16 percent of all registered voters, but one of these contests is close to unheard-of. Two candidates, Jennifer Arangio and Douglas Winston are vying for the chance to unseat Democratic City Council Speaker Gifford Miller. That either Republican hopeful would make that kind of history is highly unlikely.
The primary election itself may soon be a part of history, depending on the outcome of the November elections. The Charter Revision Commission recently approved three measures to be placed on the November ballot. Two of the questions deal with city government administration, and the third asks voters whether the party primaries should be replaced with nonpartisan elections.
In one question, voters are asked to approve a measure that would simplify the way the city handles the purchase of goods and services. It includes provisions to expand opportunities for minority-owned and women-owned businesses, and it seeks to streamline procedures for purchasing methods, while increasing qualifications for city purchasing officials.
This question addresses the issue of mayoral authority in the governing of administrative law judges and hearing officers in the city's administrative tribunals. It would expand the authority of the administrative tribunal at the Department of Consumer Affairs, and it would increase the authority of the Conflicts of Interest Board.
This is by far the most controversial question and will be the most hotly contested. The question is whether New York City should abolish party primaries and instead hold nonpartisan elections, in which anyone can run and anyone can vote, regardless of party enrollment or affiliation. The September primary would become an open election in which all candidates run together, and the November election would be the run-off between the top two candidates for each office. This would affect all city elected offices, including mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough president, and council members. If it is passed, it would not take effect until after the 2005 elections, meaning none of the current elected officials would be affected by it.
Voter turnout in primary elections is typically low, and this year will not be an exception. But this year the primaries may take on special significance as voters look ahead to the November elections, and a ballot question that could potentially represent the biggest change in New York City elections in over a century.
Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.