Four on Council
Lose in Primary
Over Term Limits
By Henry J. Stern
September 16, 2009
What significance can we draw from yesterday’s primary election?
The first is reaffirmation of our belief in the underlying good sense of the people. They make decisions based on the information available to them, but can be misled in some cases by paid media or untruthful people.
But when media coverage or advertising conflicts with common sense and basic values, the people ignore the publicity and make decisions on the merits.
In the 2009 Democratic primaries for the City Council, the underlying issue turned out to be term limits, following the City Council’s 29-22 vote on October 23, 2008 to over-ride two City wide referenda so they could extend their own tenure from eight to twelve years. Although the publishers of three dailies (The Times, Post and News) supported the Charter change because they wanted to keep Mayor Bloomberg in office for four more years, public opinion was opposed to changing the rules in the middle of the game without submitting the issue to referendum. This public displeasure resulted in the defeat of four incumbents, with two others in races too close to call.
Yesterday’s primaries also contributed to the diversity of the City Council.
The Asian caucus went from one to three, with the election of Margaret Chin in Manhattan (Greenwich Village and Chinatown), who defeated Alan J. Gerson; Yeo Hung, who took John Liu’s seat in Flushing, Queens; and Kevin Kim, in Bayside, Queens, who succeeded Tony Avella.
The gay and lesbian caucus went from two to four, with the addition of Jerry van Bramer (who took Eric Gioia’s open seat, defeating Dierdre Feerick) and Daniel Dromm (who ousted Helen Sears). Returning are Christine Quinn (Chelsea, Manhattan) and Rosie Mendez (Lower East Side Manhattan).
The straight white male Democrats, who used to be a huge preponderance of Council members, are now down to twelve or thirteen out of 51.
The Working Families Party and its for-profit political subsidiary, Data and Field Services, increased its influence, defeating two Queens organization candidates, and showing strength in other districts. Their rise reflects the decline in activity and influence by traditional political clubs, as well as their emphasis on get out the vote operations..
There is a reasonable case for a three-term limit, particularly for the Mayor, where the voters have had, over eight years, ample opportunity to scrutinize his strengths and weaknesses and to compare him with other candidates, and to make a judgment as to whether his third term would be better than someone else's first term.
In the twentieth century, New York City has had three mayors who served three terms: LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch. Mayors Lindsay and Giuliani held office for two terms, and Mayors Beame and Dinkins were one-termers. Giuliani was prevented from seeking a third term by the City Charter, which went into effect at the 2001 elections, two months after the attack on the World Trade Center.
There is a much weaker argument for three terms for Councilmembers. They are often the products of local political machines, their districts are gerrymandered decennially to protect them from challengers, and in many cases, voters cannot identify their own Councilmember. Incumbents are propped up by mailings at taxpayers' expense, and in some cases are out of touch with their districts.
If they desire to remain as elected officials after two terms, they could run for the state legislature, borough presidency, or city-wide office (mayor, comptroller, public advocate). In 2009 seven Councilmembers sought higher office: Mayor – Avella. Comptroller – Katz, Liu, Weprin and Yassky. Public Advocate – DeBlasio and Gioia.
In prior years, City Councilmembers were re-elected at a rate close to 99 per cent. The only member defeated for re-nomination in 2005 was Allan Jennings of Queens, who had been censured by the Council after two female subordinates accused him of sexual harassment. Jennings sought renomination in 2009 for the seat he formerly held, but came in third in Tuesday's primary, with about 16% of the vote.
Yesterday we witnessed an unprecedented and somewhat unanticipated substantial uprising against Councilmembers who had voted to extend term limits for themselves. The irony here is that most of those members were first elected in 2001, only because the previous incumbents were prohibited from running again. It was the beneficiaries of the term limits law referendum, the Class of 2001, who, when their time to depart was about to arrive in 2009, attempted to over-rule the prior referenda and rescind the very Charter provision that had led to their own election.
Although there was some public indignation at the time the Council acted last October, there was doubt as to whether voters would remember in September 2009. The press was silent on the subject, since the owners supported term extension.
As it turned out, most of the Councilmembers who voted for the extension were challenged by insurgents, many with the support of the Working Families Party, which had taken a strong stand against term limit extension. It is noteworthy that the newspaper publishers, who were instrumental in the passage of the extension, did nothing to assist the poor devils on the Council who had voted with them, but instead in many cases endorsed the men and women who ran against them.
In general, the insurgents were of superior quality in their education, at least, and in any event were fresh faces, untainted by records as absentees, poverty pimps, lightweights or dunces. On the merits, change was desirable in many cases. Incumbents who had compiled substantial records, were well known in their community, or ran against multiple challengers, were usually re-elected. Three quarters of them did win third terms.
Tuesday did not see a massacre of the innocents, but for only the second time since 1961 and the Wagner v. Levitt mayoral primary, substantial political blood was spilled. The first shake-up came in 1982, just after redistricting and the abolition of Councilmembers-at-Large.
The most prominent victim of his own judgment was Alan Jay Gerson, Councilmember from Greenwich Village and Chinatown, who had served eight years. Last fall, Gerson engaged in a political maneuver, seeking with David Yassky to send term limit extension to a referendum. After that move was predictably defeated, he and Yassky both voted for extension, deeply disappointing their reform supporters. Gerson lost by over a thousand votes to Margaret Chin, one of two Asian rivals. The other, P.J. Kim, of Korean ancestry, came in third..
Also defeated was Kendall Stewart of Brooklyn, two of whose aides had been indicted for stealing money from a nonprofit named for the Councilmember’s deceased daughter. Although there was no proof that Stewart had profited personally from the $180,000 defalcation, there was clearly an issue here of failure of supervision. Stewart lost to Jumaane Williams, a tenant organizer of West Indian descent. Williams has a master’s degree from Brooklyn College in urban policy and administration.
Other incumbents who lost were Helen Sears of Queens and Kenneth Mitchell of Staten Island. Ms. Sears, who had been active in Queens politics for generations, lost to Daniel Dromm. Mr. Mitchell, whose Council service was brief, lost to Debi Rose, who had challenged him unsuccessfully in February. This was the Council seat previously held by Michael McMahon, who was elected to Congress in 2008 to succeed Vito Fossella, who had serious personal issues and did not seek re-election.
Absentee incumbent Maria Baez of the Bronx is currently 90 votes behind Fernando Cabrera, and Tom White of Aueens is just six votes ahead of challenger Lynn Nunes. At this time, those races must be considered as in doubt.
Finally, for complete coverage, we link to the dailies, which covered the primaries extensively today. Adam Lisberg, the Daily News' City Hall bureau chief, reports the mayoral primary in his p9 article IT'S BILL VS. BLOOM: MAYORAL RACE KICKS OFF TODAY AS THOMPSON CLEARS BIG WIN. On the facing page, Frank Lombardi covers city council election results in CITY COUNCIL INCUMBENTS FEEL THE VOTER'S WRATH IN PRIMARY.
Sam Roberts of The Times also discusses those races in his article VOTERS REJECT 3 COUNCIL MEMBERS BACKING LONGER TERM LIMITS on pA29. In the same section, David Chen writes about the Manhattan District Attorney race. His article is VANCE IS WINNER IN PRIMARY VOTE TO REPLACE MORGENTHAU.
On p19 of The Post, see CY FLIES HIGH IN RACE FOR DA, by Jennifer Fermino. Maggie Haberman's article STILL AIN'T OVER - KEY CONTESTS SET FOR RUNOFFS, on p18, reports on the two city-wide positions which will be decided by run-offs.
A look into the future is offered by AP reporter Sara Kugler in today's Newsday: NYC MAYORAL RACE KICKS OFF DAY AFTER PRIMARY.
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