All In the Family:
Thrive and Wither
By Henry J. Stern
September 8, 2009
Today is the day after Labor Day. It is the day teachers report for work in New York City (the kids come in Wednesday). We tear our censorious attention away from the grotesqueries of the State Senate, and we turn to the City of New York, whose government is utopian, but only when compared with the dystopian State.
Ready or not, city elections come every four years, and the Democratic primary, which determines the winner of almost all elections in New York City except the mayoralty,comes next Tuesday, September 15. That leaves just seven weeks before the November 3 election, a period shortened to five weeks if there are any runoff elections September 29. A runoff will be held if no candidate for Comptroller or Public Advocate receives 40 per cent of the votes cast.
Labor Day this year arrived on the latest day posible (the holiday can be any day from September 1 to 7). Five Federal holidays are now celebrated on Mondays: Rev. King Day in January, Presidents’ Day in February (Lincoln and Washington scrunched together), Memorial Day in May, Labor Day in September, and Columbus Day (the second Monday in October). Three holidays that are still observed on a day certain are New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Christmas Day. Easter always falls on a Sunday, when most people are off anyway. Those city employees who work on a holiday are paid extra for their shifts.
Thanksgiving Day is a hybrid, the fourth Thursday in November. It was originally the last Thursday, but its date was changed in 1941 to extend the holiday shopping season. Halloween, a pagan ritual which is more widely observed by the public than many legal holidays, falls on October 31 (the evening before All Saints Day) but it is not a Federal holiday nor is it observed officially anywhere, at least in the United States.
Back to Politics: The Democratic primary for Mayor pits City Comptroller Bill Thompson against Councilmember Tony Avella from Bayside. Thompson is expected to win easily, but the percentage of the vote he receives will be taken as a measure of his strength when he runs against Mayor Bloomberg in November. This is a race where public financing will not affect the result. Avella would have been taken more seriously as a candidate if he were a rich man, or if he had attracted more financial support. But when it is conventional wisdom that a candidate will lose, no one who contributes for personal advantage will give any money, and that removes a substantial cohort of self-interested donors.
We should make it clear that New York Civic does not endorse candidates for public or party office. For many positions, we would not want to express a preference for anyone even if we could. For other races, we assume our readers are intelligent and will make rational choices. In many races, there is either no real competition or else there is little to choose between the candidates. But other districts are hotly contested, or offer a number of able candidates. The quantity and quality of candidates varies sharply throughout the city. Frequently, better prepared candidates oppose each other, as do worse ones.
A major defect in our system of elections is the difficulty of obtaining ballot access. The thousands of legal, error-free signatures that must be collected on behalf of a candidate are very difficult to obtain without the support of a political party or substantial personal wealth. After the signatures are submitted, there are further legal costs at the Board of Elections and in the courts as candidates try, often successfully, to knock each other off the ballot. Much of the energy and resources that should go into campaigning are diverted into legal fees and the examination of signatures. Sometimes petition signers are summoned to court and harassed by hostile lawyers, which makes it unlikely that they will sign a petition in the future for any candidate.
We will proceed with our discussion in a leisurely manner, today taking up the position of Comptroller, which would be an extremely important office if it were administered with intelligence and principle, and without favoritism to contributors or employee unions.
This year there are four candidates for Comptroller, all current members of the City Council completing their second term. They could have run for re-election for a third term, taking the route that Melinda Katz, David Yassky and 27 of their colleagues voted to allow for themselves John Liu, David Weprin and 20 colleagues voted against the extension, which was championed by Mayor Bloomberg and the publilshers.
It is very difficult to persuade people, especially if they are not particularly suitable for other gainful employment, to vote against giving themselves eligibility for four more years at $112,500, plus lulus plus expenses. Most will not earn a comparable income when their terms expire, unless they can attach themselves to a Mayor or a poverty program.
However, if the quartet of aspirants swallowed the bait of a re-election cakewalk, they would have to run against an incumbent Comptroller or Public Advocate in 2013 in order to climb the next rung of the political. As an alternative, they could compete for the Borough Presidency of Queens (or Brooklyn, in Yassky’s case). The lawyers among them could run for District Attorney, but incumbents like that job and stay for decades. The last two Manhattan DAs, Frank Hogan and Robert Morgenthau, have served a total of 66 years. They are/were fine public servants. DA Morgenthau is a son of FDR's Treasury Secretary and a grandson of Woodrow Wilson's minster to the Ottoman Empire.
PEDIGREE IN POLITICS
Among the candidates seeking to succeed Councilman David Weprin is his popular brother, Assemblyman Mark Weprin. Both men are sons of the late Speaker of the Assembly, Saul Weprin, who passed away in 1994 and was succeeded by Sheldon Silver.
A similar constellation existed in Queens, where State Senator Daniel Hevesi served two terms, 1999-2002, while his brother, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, first won a special election in May 2005 and has since been re-elected twice. You will have to figure out for yourself the identity of the father of these two legislators.
The Hevesis and Weprins are topped, however, by the Rivera family in the Bronx. Jose, the paterfamilias, a former Bronx County Democratic leader, is an Assemblyman. His daughter, Naomi, was elected to the Assembly in 2006. His son, Joel, was elected majority leader of the City Council at the age of 22 in the year 2002. He retains the position today, and is a candidate for re-election to his Council seat.
There are other sons and a daughter of former members on the Council, all duly elected. If the parents have earned a good name, it is not unreasonable for the next generation, or a spouse, to go into the family business. (Cf. the Adamses, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons, Cuomos and Wagners.)
Out in the great American West, we have the Udall family, where two newly-elected United States Senators are first cousins. It took three large Western states to accommodate this talented and public-spirited family; Senator Mark is from Colorado and Senator Tom represents New Mexico. Tom’s father, Stewart Udall (1920- ) was a Congressman from Arizona for six years before President Kennedy appointed him Secretary of the Interior in 1961. His brother Mo Morris (Mo) Udall (1922-78) was elected to Stewart’s seat in Congress, and held it for thirty years (1961-91). Earlier in his career, Mo had played basketball professionally for the Denver Nuggets. The Udalls, all Democrats, became known as strong environmentalists.
We should not look down on offspring simply because they are dynasts. On the other hand, if they have no qualifications other than their pedigrees, they do not necessarily deserve to hold the public offices to which they may be elected.
The business world sometimes faces similar problems of nepotism and cronyism. They are supposed to be resolved by the discipline of the market, but those of us who have watched capitalism lately are not certain that market discipline is effective, except in the very long run. We close by quoting the revered economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) who said: “In the long run we are all dead."
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