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New York's New Primary Day

24 September 01

By Mark Berkey-Gerard and Lara Naaman

City Council candidate Rudy Greco hoped that September 11 would be the day he would win the Democratic nomination to represent district 25 in Jackson Heights, Queens. Instead, he found himself with one of his rivals in the race, Helen Sears, watching the horrific images of hijacked passenger planes smash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on television.

He spotted one of his supporters carrying one of his campaign posters. "Put that sign down," he snapped. "Just have a seat. This election is secondary right now."

Helen Sears' volunteers stationed in front of the fire department set down their signs as well, and instead began cheering and waving to fire trucks as they rushed toward the billowing smoke on the Manhattan skyline.

It had taken all their effort and money for candidates to rally a small number of voters to the polls; turnout had been light all across the city. But within hours, thousands of people were crowding hospitals and blood banks to donate blood.

For a few campaign workers, it seemed difficult to change gears on the very day that was meant to have been the climax of so many long months of effort: In Flushing, the campaign manager for council candidate John Liu sent out an email saying that the "victory party" had been postponed, even though the polls were closed after a few hours and the votes were not counted.

Most campaigners, though, seemed as dazed as everybody else. In Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, campaign workers for Paul Bader joined people in a local bar watching the tragedy on television because they did not know what else to do.

Susan Lasher, running for her husband's City Council seat in Coney Island, opened his district office as a crisis center.

Hours after it began, the "historic" primary election day was halted, campaigning and public financing was suspended, and the candidates who had spent months trying to convince voters that they should be the next leaders of the city, fell silent. The tragic events of September 11th produced a new election with new priorities, a daunting test of the electoral process, and serious questions about who can best rebuild the city and how it should be done.


The Democratic and Republican candidates for mayor, who filled hundred of pages of newspapers with their campaigning and hours of television time with their ads, virtually disappeared in the days after the attack. They agreed to stop campaigning, debating, and spending money.

The Campaign Finance Board told the participants in the program for city matching funds that they could not spend any more money in the primary, except for things they would have spent on the original primary day and to replace equipment damaged in the attack. "The campaign is over," the Campaign Finance Board declared.

For a week and a half, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone was the only visible mayoral candidate, often sharing the stage with the mayor and governor at their frequent televised press conferences, which drew some criticism from his rivals.

But a few days before the new primary day, the mayoral candidates began speaking again, although quietly and respectfully, about how they would deal with the crisis and help rebuild the city.

Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer said the city should replace the lost space of lower Manhattan by dispersing construction throughout the city. City Comptroller Alan Hevesi suggested not requiring businesses whose offices were destroyed to pay taxes for as long as 10 years. Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg proposed a housing construction program to help keep companies that might otherwise leave in New York. Republican Herman Badillo said he would ask every member of Giuliani's cabinet to stay on to ensure continuity. Council Speaker Peter Vallone said he would add more security measures in the city. And Public Advocate Mark Green called for a consortium of state, city, labor unions, and business leaders to work together on how to spend federal aid. [See Searchlight on Campaign 2001 for individual essays by the mayoral candidates elaborating on their plans for Rebuilding NYC.]

The issues that had previously dominated the campaign - education, affordable housing, and police-community relations - became secondary.

"Clearly, our first priority is to maintain safety and security, and the second is to rebuild our infrastructure. I don't doubt that local goals I had will have to yield in time to these first two goals," said Mark Green.

If the attack on the World Trade Center nearly silenced the mayoral candidates, it devastated the City Council race in lower Manhattan, City Council district 1. Many voters are displaced from their homes and businesses - and so are the candidates.

On the Friday before the primary, the phone at candidate Margaret Chin's was still out of service. Another candidate, Elana Posner, could not reach her home on Warren Street. "I'm not sure voting is the most important thing for people in the district right now," said Rodd McLeod, her campaign manager. Rocky Chin's campaign said they would still try to get people to the polls on primary day, but like many candidates across the city, they had suspended any normal campaigning.

And voters in lower Manhattan face numerous difficulties. There are no polling sites open to the west of Broadway. Voters who would have gone to those sites must request an absentee ballot and have it post-marked by September 24th.

"There are logistical problems, but also the problem of how to get involved and help without appearing opportunistic," said Lincoln Mitchell, a campaign manager for Alan Gerson.

Kwong Hui, another candidate in district 1, thought the primary should be postponed, arguing residents were being deprived of the right to vote. "A lot of people are traumatized, have lost loved ones, lost their property, lost their jobs," Hui told Newsday. Hui and eight other council candidates filed a lawsuit to try to delay the primary, but it was rejected in a Brooklyn court, which ruled that only the state had that authority.

Candidates across the city tried to figure out how to get elected without campaigning.

David Yassky, a council candidate in Brooklyn Heights sent a delicately written email to supporters just days before the primary: "I am sure that you have been focused on matters more urgent than the primary election. I know I have. Nonetheless, I want to make sure you know that the election has been rescheduled."

Victor Bernace, a candidate in district 7 in northerm Manhattan took a different approach in his email newsletter: "The media's continuing WTC coverage has failed to publicize the new primary date. Every competitive juice tells me I should be campaigning but commonsense tells me that the public is not in campaign-mode yet. The elections should be canceled."

"I tell people the primary has been rescheduled because that's part of getting back to normalcy and continuing democracy," said Steven DiBrienza, who is running for Public Advocate. "I don't care who they vote for at this point. I really don't. Just so they get out and vote."


With the largest field of candidates in the history of the city, a prediction of many close races, and a collection of ancient voting machines, this year's election was already going to be a challenge for the New York City Board of Elections.

Now the primary, a possible run-off, and the general election are more daunting than before.

The Board of Election's central office, just blocks from the World Trade Center, was without electricity, phones, and much of its staff for days after the attack. Because computers have been down, the usual notices to voters and poll workers were not sent out in time. Some are worried that the already overworked police department can not spare the officers needed to staff the 1,300 polling sites across the city.

The board also devised no plan for alerting the 30,000 poll workers to come to work on primary day and hoped that a general ad in newspapers to be reminder enough. "I don't know whether people are going to show up," said the board's deputy director, Joseph Gentili at a meeting with election commissioners. "I don't know!"

However, the biggest problem may still lie ahead. It may be impossible to get the voting machines ready for a possible run-off, which is scheduled for October 11th, and then for the general election on November 6th.

The team at the Board of Elections that configures and maintains the voting machines is short by 25 percent of its staff. Gary Berzansky, who heads the team, said his remaining workers had been on the job for "45 days straight with no day off in sight." Berzansky added there was simply not enough time to gather the machines, get the results, then get the machines -- complete with a new list of candidates -- back out to the polling sites. At a recent meeting, the Board of Elections rejected his idea of holding run-off elections on paper ballots.

"We're not ready," said board member Terrence O'Connor at a recent meeting. But the Board of Elections commissioners said they must go ahead because they have no other choice. "The governor gave us this mandate to have this election September 25th," said O'Connor.


Many unions, which are instrumental in getting-out-the-vote efforts, are now dealing with serious life-and-death issues. Just days before the primary, some unions were saying they had not yet decided if they would try to rally volunteers, staff telephone banks, or even send out campaign flyers.

The firefighters union, which endorsed Peter Vallone, is dealing with its losses and the continuing rescue efforts. The United Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Alan Hevesi, called off any kind of campaigning after the attack.

But other unions are still working to get their candidates elected. The healthcare union, Local 1199, which supports Fernando Ferrer, was making phone calls less than a week after the attack and took some criticism. Service Employees International Union-Local 32BJ, which lost janitors, window washers, and maintenance workers in the World Trade Center, said it would still work to help Mark Green. "We want people to know there is a new election," said Jennifer Cunningham, executive director of SEIU's New York State Council.


A recent poll found that 91 percent of voters thought Mayor Giuliani was doing an excellent or good job in the wake of the city's tragedy. And the praise from New Yorkers, foreign heads-of-state, and even long-time rivals, has led some into hoping that Giuliani will stick around, perhaps in a powerful position to help in the city's recovery.

The mayor left some room for speculation. "This point is not the time to talk about that," he answered when a reporter asked about staying on in city government. "Yes, those are things to think about and discuss, but it almost doesn't seem right to talk about that right now."

And because of the leadership he has shown following the attack, Giuliani has remained a factor in the outcome of the election.

City Council Speaker Peter Vallone proposed a reconstruction commission that would help rebuild lower Manhattan by expediting the city's cumbersome land-use regulations. Under the current proposal, the mayor (either Giuliani or his successor) would appoint the seven members of the commission for a five-year term, which has drawn questions from some civic groups and policy experts. Vallone did not rule out the possibility that Giuliani might even serve as the head of the commission.

The mayor had initially backed the idea, but pulled his support because the Speaker wanted to give the city sole power over rebuilding and avoid a state commission. The day before the proposal was introduced to the City Council, Mark Green put out his own proposal which would give the new mayor the power to override the land-use procedures of the city.

Most agree that the city needs a way to expedite the recovery and rebuilding. Just how that will work, and who will have the power to do it, will be decided in large part on the outcome of the primary election.


In the days after September 11, it was clear that few in the city wanted to do anything but grieve. But as the city's mourning turned to action, elected officials, newspaper columnists, and civic groups said that this election - when the majority of the city's new leadership will be chosen - was not only a crucial step for the city, but a larger symbol of democracy.

"We cannot allow these terrorist acts to stop the basic, fundamental principle of democracy, which is the right of people to vote," said State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Joyce Purnick, a columnist for the New York Times, said in a recent radio interview that she had considered writing a column about overturning term limits in order to keep the current administration in office. "I looked into this," said Purnick. "But we did not upset the national election in the midst of World War II. We had elections, and campaigns, and we had politicking.

"My view is that you don't set that kind of precedent in the United States of America," she continued. "There's nothing more precious to me in America, than the First Amendment and the democratic electoral process. I don't think you upset that."

Given all the logistical problems in simply holding the primary this week - problems even in letting voters know that it is happening - it would probably be unfair to gauge New Yorkers' devotion to the democratic electoral process by the actual turnout at the polls. But chances are good that even in the general election in November, New Yorkers will not be lining up to vote in the same numbers, and with the same sense of urgency, that we did to donate blood.

Additional reporting by Puja Kumar


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