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2016 Again Highlights New York ‘Incumbency Protection Machine’


NYC BOE photo voting machines cropped

(photo via NYC Board of Elections)


New York City residents are represented in the state Legislature by a total of 91 seats, 26 in the state Senate and 65 in the state Assembly. Among them, 60 are held by incumbents who were uncontested in their party primary elections that took place Tuesday, September 13.

In these just-completed primaries, 66 percent -- or about two-thirds -- of the city’s state legislative seats saw no intra-party competition. Twenty-four New York City-based legislators did face primary challengers this month, three of whom lost.

Additionally, there were seven already-vacant seats or seats where the current officeholder is not seeking re-election -- most of these seats saw competitive primaries, but City Council Member Inez Dickens ran unopposed for the Assembly seat being vacated by Keith Wright in Harlem.

In total, there are 150 Assembly seats and 63 Senate seats in the state Legislature. There are no term limits for state legislators in New York.

Of the 60 New York City-based incumbents who were uncontested from within their parties this cycle, 58 are Democrats, including State Senator Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans in Albany and has both the Democrat and Republican lines on the ballot this year. In most, if not all, of these districts, Board of Elections voter enrollment data show registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republican voters 4-to-1, or more in some cases.

The single party dominance in many districts renders general election competition virtually meaningless and allows incumbents to be re-elected without lifting a finger. In some districts, the opposing party isn’t running a general election candidate at all. As many as 23 state legislators across the city will face neither a primary nor general election opponent this election cycle.

For example, Queens Democratic Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is running unopposed in the general election after facing no challenger in the primary. Elected into office in 2008, DenDekker has never faced a primary or general election challenger, according to Ballotpedia. Like with many other legislative races, especially so for uncontested votes, a small percentage of registered voters cast ballots for DenDekker and other uncontested incumbents, though numbers do rise when there is a presidential contest the same day.

In the 2010 general election, not a presidential year, just 10,117 people -- 1-in-5 registered voters in Assembly District 34 -- selected DenDekker’s name at the polls. New York State Assembly members each represent an average of 129,089 district residents, while state Senators have larger districts and represent roughly 307,356 residents, according to the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographics and Reapportionment.

Senator Felder of Brooklyn, who has been instrumental in maintaining a narrow Republican majority in the state Senate, will appear on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative ballot lines in District 17 for the general election. Felder won his first state Senate election in 2012. In that first general election he defeated incumbent Republican David Storobin. He hasn’t faced a primary or general election challenger since.

Repeatedly uncontested primaries and general elections has become the norm for many seats across New York City and at least partially explains dismally low voter turnout in legislative elections around the city and state.

In the 2016 primary elections, 115,819 New Yorkers cast a ballot for state Senator out of nearly 1.1 million active voters within the districts where elections were held -- just 11 percent of the active voting population in those districts.

With so few New Yorkers casting ballots and so little competition, state legislators are more likely to listen less to their constituents and more to the people and interest groups who fund their campaigns, political consultants, and lobbyists. Elected officials become indebted to these power brokers for maintaining their office as big donors could just as easily funnel their money to a primary challenger should their interests go unheard.

“That’s not good enough, people should be made aware of that,” said Olateju “Remi” Ogunremi, 54, a civil servant who has lived in Brooklyn for ten years, when told that his local Assembly member is running unopposed and fits a larger pattern. Residing in Crown Heights, Remi is represented in the state Assembly by Walter Mosley, a Democrat who is uncontested in his primary and general election this year. “There should be a competitor to make it more democratic,” Remi said.

Without a public campaign finance system that matches private donations and encourages small-dollar contributions, outsider legislative candidates have little to no chance of raising enough cash to stage a significant challenge without strong name recognition or support of established organizations, unions, and local political figures. Once elected, incumbents have helped redraw their own districts to their and their party’s advantage and regularly pass legislation benefiting the people and interest groups that help them stay in office (redistricting will be done differently in New York next time thanks to a constitutional amendment passed at the ballot by voters in 2014).

Without term limits in place, state legislators get comfortable. The average tenure in Albany is over a decade long, according to a 2015 report by Politico New York. State lawmakers have also been at the center of a rash of corruption schemes and convictions, including recent leaders of each house.

As discontent and disapproval of state government grows, so does a lack of interest and involvement in the political system - less voting by those who are eligible; fewer aspirants willing to run for office. With loyal incumbents securely in office and fewer competitive races for which to distribute resources, campaign donors are free to hone their attention on strategic districts where they seek to broaden their influence and push their agenda.

“It’s very difficult for newcomers to unseat incumbents,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “Once you’re in office it’s much easier to stay in and protect that office, so a lot of people see it as a David versus Goliath situation and choose not to engage in trying to break into the political system.”

Greer paints a striking picture of the situation: “If you are from a very Democratic district and won your primary, then you’re probably not going to have a credible Republican challenger when you’re on the ballot in November. You’re going to Albany with 4,000 votes. You’re going to be in charge of a budget that’s larger than most countries on the planet. You’re going to be able to control children’s education, what happens to a woman’s body, prisons, drug use, punishment, marriage equality-- and you’re being sent there with 4,000 votes.”

Representing District 57, Assemblymember Mosley has no electoral competition this year. He was first elected to an open seat in 2012 when he faced challengers in both the primary and general election.

District 57 -- representing large portions of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant -- is one of many districts that is overwhelmingly dominated by the Democratic Party to the point that general election contests are virtually meaningless. Any serious candidate, liberal or conservative, would be smart to run as a Democrat in the district if they expect to stand a chance.

In 2012, 47,844 votes were cast in District 57 for the Assembly general election, which Mosley handily won with 98 percent of the vote. Occurring at the same time as the Presidential vote with Barack Obama seeking re-election against Mitt Romney, over half of the registered voters in AD57 went to the polls for the general. But, many missed the actual Assembly race that took place months before.

In the AD57 Democratic primary that year, out of 72,380 registered Democrats in the district, just 7,268 cast a ballot -- about 10 percent. Mosley won with 4,565 votes, or 1-in-16 registered Democrats in a district representing over 129,000 residents.

“People are not enthusiastic, they are not willing to come out and vote,” said Remi in a conversation with Gotham Gazette outside of the Franklin Avenue subway station on Eastern Parkway. “People need to be aware of which contestant they need to fight for.”

AD57 fits a pattern.

Multiple forces produce the current system of so many uncontested elections. On one hand, there are the natural incumbency advantages of name recognition and access to financial means, but there is more to it than that.

“One, is the gerrymandering that occurs allowing lawmakers to draw their own district lines…[two is] a disgraceful campaign finance system that allows them to hit up special interests for ridiculous amounts of money,” said Blair Horner, executive director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, referring to a lack of “pay-to-play” restrictions on campaign donors with government business. “You overlay that with the lousy system of running elections in general -- which is, voter registration laws are cumbersome, we have a closed primary system, getting on the ballot is difficult -- and as a result New York has anemic voter turnout, one of the worst in the country.”

“I think the voting public increasingly believes that they will not see competitive elections by and large, and it’s a reflection of a system that is designed to be an incumbency protection machine,” said Horner. This is a self-perpetuating problem Horner calls a “democracy death spiral.”

“One of the reasons I think the public is so unhappy with Albany is to some extent a reflection of policies that have emerged that are also not in the public’s interest,” said Horner. “As the public gets more turned off you can see it in the voter turnout numbers, interest groups wield more clout, which further alienates the voting public.”

This lack of competition has a negative impact on voter turnout, and as Greer also points out, it’s not limited to New York City. “Think about places in the deep south that are very red where we’re seeing a dismal turnout among Republicans,” said Greer. “It’s not just a Democratic problem, it’s an elected official problem.”

Horner agrees that incumbent dominance to the point of mass uncontested elections is not unique to the Democratic Party’s control in New York City. “What you’ve found in New York City sadly is the case across the state,” said Horner. “New York has always had a twisted system like this…and as the stakes get higher, more and more money comes in, it too often crowds out the public’s interest.”

With such a history of one party dominance in New York City and decades of policies that have favored incumbents, mitigating this problem is a daunting task.

One place to look for possible solutions is New York City itself. With one of the most highly regarded public campaign financing systems and term limits, City Council elections have been opened up for candidates of modest means to run, and sometimes win.

“A system of public financing allows individuals who are not beholden to any groups to actually run significant campaigns for public office,” said Horner. “You see that in New York and you don’t see it at the state level because you have the highest campaign contribution limits of any state that has limits in the country, coupled with a rigged system of redistricting and the normal powers of incumbency.”

The state Legislature could pass a variety of measures that would make elections more democratic. There are advocates for the general idea of more open and fair elections throughout both the state Senate and Assembly, though most of the relevant legislation has failed to come up in each passing session, often in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Another avenue of reform could be through improved civics education programs. “I worry that we’re just creating more and more generations of people who are disaffected and non-participatory,” said Greer. “I wish we could figure out a way in which we could better educate the public about these offices, but I don’t really know how to solve that. Obviously the literature that we’re sending out to voters isn’t resonating in a way, [and] it’s not being taught in schools where students are actually retaining the information.”

Voters can be among those who see it as a shared responsibility. “Everyone has their own role to play; Republicans, Democrats, and the Board of Elections needs to generate more awareness, they need to distribute more information into the grassroots,” said Remi. “I mean, a grassroots election is the most important election, but having nobody to contest with, that means we’re going to be getting the same ideas and nothing is going to change.”

Others Unchallenged

Queens
Democratic Assemblymember Aravella Simotas (AD36) has held her seat in Queens since winning an open seat election in 2010. She ran uncontested in both the Democratic primary and general election that year despite there being no incumbent in the race. In 2012, Simontas handily defeated Republican Julia Haich in the general election. She has run unopposed since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Queens Assemblymember Michael Simanowitz, an elected Democrat who also appears on the Republican and Conservative ballot lines, is running unopposed in both the Democratic primary and the general election for Assembly District 27. In 2011, Simanowitz won a special election against Republican Marco Desena. He’s been unchallenged in the primaries and general elections since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi is a Democrat representing Assembly District 28 in Queens since he was first elected in 2005. The last general election fight Hevesi faced was in 2010. He was also challenged in the Democratic primary that year. He’s run unopposed in all primaries and general elections since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Michelle Titus represents District 31 in Queens and is facing neither a Democratic primary opponent or any general election competition. Titus, who was first elected 2002, ran unchallenged in the primary even that year, and has never faced a primary opponent. She faced a general eleciton opponent in 2002, 2004, and 2006; while in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014, Titus faced no opponents whatsoever, al according to Ballotpedia.

Queens Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry has served in the state Assembly since he was first elected in a 1992 special election for District 35. The veteran Democrat has run unopposed in at least five straight election cycles including the current one, all according to Ballotpedia.

Veteran Assemblymember Catherine Nolan of Queens, a Democrat, has served residents of District 37 since 1984. She has not faced a primary competitor in the last five election cycles. John Kevin Wilson challenged Nolan as a Republican in 2012 and as a Libertarian in the 2014 general elections, which Nolan easily won. In the 2014 general election, Nolan defeated Wilson with just 10,336 votes, or one-in-six register voters, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Francisco Moya is a Democrat representing District 39 in Queens since he was first elected in 2010. He is running uncontested in the general election this November after running uncontested in the Democratic primary. The 2008 election cycle was the last time Moya faced a primary or general election opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Queens incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD11 - Democratic State Senator Tony Avella;
SD12 - Democratic State Senator Michael Gianaris;
SD13 - Democratic State Senator Jose Peralta;
SD14 - Democratic State Senator Leroy Comrie; and
SD15 - Democratic State Senator Joe Addabbo;

AD24 - Democratic State Assemblymember David Weprin;
AD25 - Democratic State Assemblymember Nily Rozic;
AD26 - Democratic State Assemblymember Edward Braunstein;
AD38 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Miller; and
AD40 - Democratic State Assemblymember Ron Kim

Brooklyn
Republican State Senator Martin Golden has held the District 22 seat since he was first elected in 2002. He was uncontested for the Republican nomination this year and will not face a challenger in November either, despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans 2-to-1 in the district, which largely covers Southern Brooklyn. Registered voters with no party affiliation also outnumber Republicans in the 22nd District. Golden faced a serious challenger each of the past two general elections, though Democrats are not putting up a fight this cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Brooklyn’s District 43, State Assemblymember Diana Richardson has held office since winning a 2015 special election in which she won 49% of the vote as a Working Families and Green Party candidate. Now an incumbent Democrat, Richardson was unchallenged in 2016 party primary, nor will she face a general election opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Dov Hikind, a Democrat, has served Brooklyn’s District 48 since 1983. There is no one challenging Hikind this election cycle. In 2012, Mitchell Tischler challenged Hikind for his seat in both the Democratic primary and in the general election as a School Choice Party candidate. In 2014, Hikind ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and defeated Nachman Caller in the general election. In a solidly Democratic district, Caller was able to achieve over 20 percent of the total vote count. Hikind won his re-election against a serious Republican challenger with just 12,317 votes, or one-in-four registered voters in the district, all according to Ballotpedia.

Democrat Joseph Lentol has served in the State Assembly representing Brooklyn’s District 50 since he was first elected in 1972. He is running unopposed in both the Democratic primary and general election this election cycle. In 2014, Lentol faced Republican challenger William Davidson and won with 9,789 votes -- one-in-eight registered voters cast a ballot for their Assembly member in a District representing over 129,000 residents, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Assembly District 53, Assemblymember Maritza Davila has represented Brooklyn since winning a special election in 2013. She ran uncontested in the Democratic primary this year and will run unchallenged in the general election, as was the case in the 2014 election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Nick Perry has served as the Assemblymember for District 58 in Brooklyn since he was first elected in 1992. He will be running unopposed in the general election this year after facing no challenger in the Democratic primary either. In the last five election cycles, Perry has only faced one primary opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Brooklyn incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD20 - Democratic State Senator Jesse Hamilton; and
SD21 - Democratic State Senator Kevin Parker;

AD41 - Democratic State Assemblymember Helene Weinstein;
AD45 - Democratic State Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz;
AD47 - Democratic State Assemblymember William Colton;
AD49 - Democratic State Assemblymember Peter Abbate;
AD51 - Democratic State Assemblymember Felix Ortiz;
AD52 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon;
AD54 - Democratic State Assemblymember Erik Dilan;
AD59 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jaime Williams; and
AD60 - Democratic State Assemblymember Charles Barron

Staten Island
Democratic State Senator Diane Savino is part of the five-member Independent Democratic Conference and incumbent for District 23 on Staten Island and in parts of Brooklyn. She has held her seat since she was first elected in 2004. The IDC has helped Republicans maintain a majority in the State Senate. In 2014 multiple IDC members were challenged in the Democratic primary, though not Savino, who was again unopposed in the Democratic primary this year (other IDC members were not challenged this year either.) Savino is also running unopposed in the general election. She has never faced a primary challenger; she faced a general election opponent two cycles ago, in 2012, in Lisa Grey, who Savino handily defeated. One-in-three registered voters in District 23 cast a vote in that general election, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Senate District 24, also on Staten Island, Republican State Senator Andrew Lanza has held his seat since winning in 2006. The district is home to many more Republicans than most New York City districts, though they are still outnumbered by registered Democrats in the district. Lanza has never faced a Republican primary challenger. He handily defeated Democrat Gary Carsel in the 2012 and 2014 general elections. Carsel nor any other Democrat has staged a campaign against Lanza this election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Matthew Titone of Staten Island ran unopposed in the District 61 Democratic Primary and will not face a challenger in the general election either. Titone won a special election in 2007 that gained him the seat. He has never faced a primary opponent though he has handily defeated several general election contestants. He ran totally unopposed in the previous election cycle of 2014, all according to Ballotpedia.

Michael Cusick is a Staten Island Democratic Assemblymember who won his first District 63 election in 2002. Cusick has run unopposed in the past five Democratic primaries, though he has faced a general election contestant every year up until now. He’s running unopposed in the general election, all according to Ballotpedia.

Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis has represented the people of District 64 on Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn since first winning the seat in 2010. Previously she represented District 60 in the State Assembly. The Democrats have ran campaigns against Malliotakis in the last three general elections, while she has ran unopposed in the Republican Primaries. This election cycle Malliotakis will not face an opponent in the general election in addition to the primary, all according to Ballotpedia.

Manhattan
In Senate District 27 of Manhattan, Democrat State Senator Brad Hoylman has held office since he was first elected in 2012. This election cycle he faces no Republican opposition in winning back his seat. During the 2012 open seat election, Hoylman came through the Democratic primary, then won an uncontested general election in which 93,469 registered voters cast a ballot for him. In the primary of that year, Hoylman split the vote with two other Democratic contenders, with only 13,051 Democrats voting, all according to Ballotpedia.

State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat who represents District 26, which encompasses downtown Manhattan and part of downtown Brooklyn, is running unoppposed in the general after facing no primary opponent either. Squadron was elected in 2008, but did not face a primary opponent then and has not faced one since.

There are nine other Manhattan legislators listed below who did not face a primary challenger this year. On the other hand, Sheldon Silver’s replacement Alice Cancel (AD65) and Guillermo Linares (AD72) lost their seats, while Sen. Adriano Espaillat’s chosen successor Marisol Alcantara (SD31) won her election.

On the Upper East Side, Republicans are seeing hope in gaining more support for general elections in the Assembly.

Manhattan incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD28 - Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger;
SD29 - Democratic State Senator Jose Serrano;
SD30 - Democratic State Senator Bill Perkins;

AD68 - Democratic State Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez;
AD71 - Democratic State Assemblymember Herman Farrell;
AD73 - Democratic State Assemblymember Dan Quart;
AD74 - Democratic State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh;
AD75 - Democratic State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; and
AD76 - Democratic State Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright

The Bronx
Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (SD35) has represented residents north of the Bronx in Westchester County since 2006. She has never faced a Democratic primary challenger as she previously served as the vice-chair of the Westchester County Democratic Party and in the Westchester County Legislature from 1996 and until she was elected to the state Senate. Stewart-Cousins will not face a challenger in the general election this year, as was the case in the 2012 election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein, a Democrat who leads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, had to primary opponent, unlike in 2014 when mainline Democrats tried to unseat him. He is also facing no Republican challenger in November. Klein's IDC has formed a ruling coalition with Republicans in the Senate for the past two sessions. Klein represents the 34th Senate District.

And finally, Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie -- of the Bronx’s 83rd Assembly District -- was first elected to the chamber in 2000. He is not facing a competition in his general election contest after running uncontested in the Democratic primary. Heastie ran unopposed in the last five Democratic primaries, while he defeated general election challengers in those election cycles with upwards of 95 percent of the vote, all according to Ballotpedia.

Bronx incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

AD77 - Democratic State Assemblymember Latoya Joyner;
AD79 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Blake;
AD80 - Democratic State Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj;
AD81 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz; and
AD82 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Benedetto

Many of the incumbents without a primary challenge will see an opponent from another party in the general election. That said, given that New York City voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, general election competition is often symbolic.

“Oftentimes for so many districts across the country, the primary is the election for all intents and purposes,” said Greer. “In either strong Republican or Democratic districts, if you win your primary you essentially don’t even face anyone in November, and if you do it’s almost a joke.”

***
by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

*note: as stated, many of the references to past elections are based on aggregation done by Ballotpedia.



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