Does Primary Hint
At a Rising Storm?
Maybe, Maybe Not
By Henry J. Stern
September 17, 2009
The primary election came and went on Tuesday. The media reported the results Wednesday, and provided additional comment today.
We offer you a decalogue of observations, our take on the anticlimactic events. (Note the middle c, we are not writing about global warming).
First, and possibly most important: only eleven per cent of the eligible voters turned out. That means that eight ninths of the public did not take the trouble to go to the polls. A low vote favors those who are highly motivated to cast their ballots, or are pulled to the polls by campaign workers. The casual or occasional voter stays home.
The weather was good all day, so it cannot be blamed for the low vote. The lack of a serious mayoral race kept participation down.
Second, the fact that four to six backers of term limits lost renomination does not mean that their vote on that issue was decisive in their defeat. Some of the losers were lackluster legislators, mediocre members of a Council that, for the most part, is unimpressive. The defeated incumbents were not chairs of key committees, nor part of the leadership. In fact, many more supporters of the extension won than lost. Nonetheless, overriding the Charter was unpopular, and was a major argument used by challengers. Incumbency was jolted Tuesday, but it still ruled in most cases.
Third, the Working Families Party is unusual in that it is a third party, with its own line on the ballot, but much of its activity, and that of its for-profit subsidiary, Data and Field Services, is devoted to participating in the internal affairs of a major party, the Democratic Party.
The Liberal Party had its own ballot line from 1944 to 2002. It usually, but not always, supported Democrats for Congress and the State Legislature, but in municipal issues it often allied itself with Republicans, who were anti-Tammany. Although the Liberals would endorse a particular Democrat who had a contested primary, they would not generally participate in the primary of the principal party.
The WFP has its cake and eats it too by its massive participation in the nominating process of the Democratic Party. They justify this activity by the claim that all that they do is in the interest of working people, and that WFP members, supporters, contractors and employees are simply exercising their First Amendment rights.
Fourth, Mayor Bloomberg should be somewhat concerned over the sentiments expressed by voters in the Democratic primary. There is unquestionably some resentment of his wealth, power and perceived lack of empathy with ordinary people, along with his campaign spending. Whether this feeling is confined to those who voted Tuesday is another issue. The chances are that it is not, but we do not know, in the absence of tracking polls, if it has spread, if so how far, and whether it would be strong enough to induce people to vote for a competing candidate, particularly one who they believe is substantially less qualified.
Fifth, Comptroller Thompson has no reason to take pleasure in the result, either. He was opposed by a dissident Councilmember from Queens (Anthony Avella) who could not raise the minimum sum required to participate in the campaign finance program, and by a complete unknown, Roland Rogers, a Harlem real estate man who did not have enough good signatures to qualify for the ballot but was not challenged for tactical reasons. Thompson received just over 70 per cent of the primary vote. In addition, the there were about 40,000 fewer votes cast for Mayor than for Comptroller or Public Advocate. Usually a larger number of people vote for Mayor than for any other office. The reverse pattern here could be due to lack of interest in the race, or the fact that many Democrats intend to support Mayor Bloomberg in November.
Sixth, the victory of Kevin Kim in a six-way primary in Bayside, Queens, for the seat vacated by Anthony Avella does not guarantee his election. Mr. Kim won the Democratic primary with 30.74% of the vote. There are no runoffs in elections for Councilmember; that law only applies to the top three city wide offices. Dan Halloran is the candidate of the Republican, Independence, Conservative and Libertarian parties. Halloran, a lawyer, was raised in the district. His great-great-granduncle was an Alderman in 1890, although he could not have represented Bayside since it did not become part of the City of New York until consolidation in 1898.
Seventh, the defeat of Alan Gerson can be traced in part to his support for the extension of term limits, which came after a dubious maneuver he engaged in with David Yassky. He had also irritated people over the years by having had to take positions on local issues in the contentious Village community. Margaret Chin was elected on her third attempt to win the seat, despite the presence of another Asian, P. J. Kim, in the race. Kim, a Princeton alumnus of Korean descent, is also an alumnus of the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. He is a newcomer to politics, and probably attracted more Gerson voters than Chin voters. He gained third place. In politics, however, Rule 26-S: “Second place is the first loser.”
Eighth, we do not know how recounts and absentee ballots will affect the final results. Two days after the primary, the margin in two districts is less than 100 votes. The closest race is between former incumbent Tom White and Mr. Lynn Nunez. At this time, White leads by a margin of six votes out of 5,805 that were cast. You don’t need a crystal ball to see litigation ahead in these cases.
Ninth, the principal surprise of the day was Bill de Blasio coming in ahead of Mark Green by 1.75 per cent in the race for Public Advocate. Green was better known and led in the polls, but may have been the victim of voter fatigue due to his frequent candidacies. Green was Public Advocate from 1994 to 2001, and was widely regarded as having done well in that office. Betsy Gotbaum succeeded him, serving from 2002 to 2009. A strong supporter of term limits, she did not seek re-election.
Tenth, the primary was unmarred by scandal, excess negative campaigning, violence, or voter fraud (as far as we know). Considering the problems other countries have in holding elections, we should appreciate a peaceful, honest opportunity, for citizens to exert their rule over elected officials. It’s like senior day at high school.
For additional coverage, we link to the dailies. The council members’ decision to dispense with their term limits, the papers say, has fueled public anger. Errol Louis, on page 29 of the Daily News, in VOTERS ARE COMING TO TERMS, observes that voters ousted at least four (and possibly six) incumbents, the most in 27 years. The Daily News titled its editorial, on page 28, THE FIRE THIS TIME and says that “the city council took a well-deserved shellacking.”
The Post looks ahead to the mayoral race. In THOMPSON JABS AWAY AT BLOOMY, Sally Goldenberg and David Seifman report that the Democratic challenger is already using the Mayor’s decision to run for a third term as a major line of attack. Another story in the Post, By Maggie Haberman and Sally Goldenberg, also on p29, argues that the historically low turn-out was helpful to the Working Families Party.
The Times has three stories on the election, which fill pA28. INCUMBENCY FAILS TO HOLD OFF CHALLENGES FROM CAST OF NEWCOMERS TO COUNCIL.
By Russ Buettner and Ray Rivera. VICTORIES ACROSS CITY RESONATE IN CHINATOWN, By Jennifer Lee. And YOUNG AND ACTIVE; THE WORKING FAMILIES PARTY SHOWS MUSCLE IN THE PRIMARIES, By Julie Bosman and Kareem Fahim.
StarQuest #596 09.17.2009 1283wds