What We Think About Runoffs,
With an Idea to Save $15 Million
By Henry J. Stern
September 30, 2009
Yesterday’s sparse runoff was not a transformative event in municipal politics; but we have made some observations on the process and the players which we want to share with you. Your comments are welcome, and we have made a New Year's resolution to respond to all within a few days. The answers may be brief, so as to enable us to continue to write and send you articles..
The vote was so light that it could have been a local school board election, which were held for about 30 years before they were abolished, along with the Board of Education, in 2002. Participation in these elections had steadily declined over the years. When the percentage of people actually voting dips into single digits, it is important to keep in mind the 90 plus per cent who did not bother to vote. Ask what impact that may have had on the result.
The smaller the vote, the greater the influence of the political machines and special interests who canvass voters and bring them to the polls. Since Mayor Wagner defeated the five Democratic organizations in the 1961 primary, a turning point in city government, there has been a steady decline in the membership and influence of local party-affiliated political clubs. Forty-eight years later, party bosses have considerably less influence in both nominations and government decisions involving local communities than they once did. Clubhouse choices can count in local judicial races, where nobody knows who the candidates are. Even there, however, the clubs trail gender and ethnicity in defining voter choices.
Bill de Blasio won the Public Advocate nomination decisively because of his own appeal as a vigorous, fresh face on the scene, and because voters were just tired of Mark Green. Even though Green had done a fine job as public advocate for eight years in the 1990s, that was history. One way politics is like theater is that all shows, no matter how good they may be, close when the public tires of them. That fate awaits people, like politicians, who live on the grace and favor of others.
The de Blasio result was settled September 15, the moment the relative unknown ran two points ahead of Green in the primary. Supporters of the third and fourth place candidates, Eric Gioia and Norman Siegel, had the opportunity then to vote for Green, who had held the office twice. They passed on it. In the runoff, most chose de Blasio. Siegel had previously lost twice to Betsy Gotbaum, and was no longer a fresh face. Like Leslie Crocker Snyder, Siegel did better against the incumbent than he did in a new field of contenders.
The expense of the runoff, $14 million or more, should make people consider whether New York City should use instant runoff voting (IRV is its acronym). Under that procedure, voters select a second choice if their first choice runs last. It would save the trouble and expense of conducting another election. It would save the taxpayer-provided matching funds for the candidates to denounce each other. In the 2009 runoffs, the results would in all likelihood have been the same if IRV had been used. On the other hand, there are cases in which that might not be so. A runoff election does provide a clearer choice between two candidates, but at what cost?
The influence of the Working Families Party was again demonstrated. It has to some extent replaced the declining political clubs in terms of local field operations, some of which are conducted by the WFP’s for-profit subsidiary. This funding device has had an unanticipated impact on campaign finance regulation, which the Campaign Finance Board should evaluate carefully and, if it to be permitted, promulgate rules for oversight.
We long ago learned from life that if people, corporations or unions want to spend money on candidates, it is very difficult to restrain that behavior. Subterfuges and loopholes are easier to establish than to abolish. The donors, voluntary or not, need only stay one step ahead of the regulators. In that regard, politics is like finance.
The Working Families Party has a specific agenda on public issues which they want the Democrats they endorse to follow. It will be interesting to see how this agenda fares when it conflicts with fiscal constraints, such as the city’s inability to print or borrow money to balance its budget. The left will find that it is easier to elect than to govern, as people from President Obama down have hopefully discovered.
The New York City runoff was established after the 1969 election, where City Comptroller Mario A. Procaccino, the only conservative candidate in a five-man Democratic mayoral primary, won with 32.8% of the vote. He was defeated in the general election by Mayor John V. Lindsay, running on the Liberal Party line. The Democrats did not want to nominate another candidate who represented a minority of the party, so they passed a law, which only applies to the three city-wide offices, that if no candidate receives 40% of the vote, a runoff would be held between the top two
The law does not apply, however, to borough presidents or city council members; perhaps it should. Scott Stringer, in a nine-person field, came in first, receiving 26 per cent of the vote for Manhattan Borough President. There was no provision for a runoff, so he was nominated as the Democratic candidate, which is tantamount to election in Manhattan. Stringer would probably have won a runoff, since his views are relatively mainstream by the unusual standards of New York City politics. But even if he were an extremist, he could still become Borough President in a one-party borough with one-quarter of the primary vote.
All the candidates except David Yassky voted no on the extension of term limits. Although Yassky was endorsed by the newspapers, he was attacked for his vote. Some people felt it was an abandonment of principle, others were not surprised. In the Council, Yassky and Alan Gerson had introduced an amendment to decide term limits by referendum, a noble idea. But when that was defeated, as it was known it would be, the pair voted for the extension.
Analysis of the runoff results indicate that Yassky was not damaged substantially by his vote to extend term limits. Despite all the huffing and puffing on the issue, which we happen to believe was fully justified by the intrinsic unfairness of allowing a body to overturn a decision the voters had made regarding their tenure, the public did not seem to regard the question as a deal-breaker for any candidates in the primary or the runoff. Voters had ample other reason(s?) to oust the four Council members who were terminated on Primary Day.
Politically incorrect as it may be, one should never underestimate the role of race and religion, now euphemistically referred to as ethnicity, in determining voting behavior. In 2005, five Jewish candidates lost for city-wide office, in part because of their profusion. For Comptroller, there were Yassky, Melinda Katz and David Weprin. John Liu beat them all. For Public Advocate, there were Mark Green and Norman Siegel, and Eric Gioia, who is Italian-American but is short (especially when compared with DeBlasio), with a four-vowel name and appearance less clearly defined than his rival.
A disturbing fact about politics is that no matter what you say on the issues or have done in the past, some people vote as if they were choosing a class president in junior high school. We remind them of the oft-quoted (by us) Rule 29-B: “This is the business we have chosen.” The words were spoken by the real Lee Strasberg, playing the fictional Hyman Roth, a character based on the real Meyer Lansky, who said he was a businessman.
CORRECTION AND AMPLIFICATION: The Democratic-Liberal candidate for Governor, defeated by Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1962, was Robert M. Morgenthau, former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, appointed by President John F. Kennedy. Morgenthau did not give up on public service, but ran and was elected District Attorney of New York County nine times, from 1964 to 2005. He retired in 2009 and Cyrus R. Vance, Jr, will be elected to succeed him. (There is no Republican candidate.) The Democratic candidate for Governor in 1966 was New York City Council President Frank D. O’Connor, whose running mate was Howard J. Samuels. They lost.
StarQuest #602 09.30.2009 1402wds