Friday, October 30, 2009

Five Days Out

What's Behind
Political Torpor
As Nov. 3 Nears?

Henry J. Stern
October 29, 2009

The mayoral race is fast approaching its finish line. Election Day, November 3, is just five days away. We have not seen a mayoral election which aroused so little excitement since Mayor Robert F. Wagner (Dem-Lib) won a second term in 1957 by defeating the Republican candidate, Robert K. Christenberry, who was postmaster of New York during the Eisenhower administration. Wagner received 1,508,775, or 67.8% of the total. Christenberry received 585,768 votes, 26.3% of the total. There were more Republicans living in New York City fifty-two years ago.

During that campaign, as Sam Roberts recently reminisced in the Times, Christenberry complained that the Police Department was lax on crime and vice. The response was a police raid on a gaming den in the basement of Manhattan’s Hotel Ambassador at 345 Park Avenue, since demolished for the Rudin building. The Ambassador was an opulent hostelry patronized by Rudolph Valentino. Christenberry was its president.

Mayor Wagner, the second mayor in the 20th century to be elected to three terms, (the first was LaGuardia and the third was Koch) was the son of New Deal Senator Robert F. Wagner, author of landmark legislation protecting labor’s right to organize and establishing social security.

The highest recent margins for a mayoral candidate were rolled up by Mayor Koch in winning his second and third terms. Running on the Democratic and Republican lines in 1981, he received 75% of the vote. In 1985, without the Republicans, he won 78%. In the 1989 Democratic primary, he lost a bid for a fourth term to David Dinkins.

This year is highly unlikely to see any of those marks surpassed. The total vote has declined in recent years, as a result of a substantial population of people who are not eligible to vote for various reasons: They may not have not applied for citizenship, possibly because they are illegal aliens (or undocumented migrants), have been convicted of felonies, do not want to be called for jury duty, vote in other states or other countries, or view politicians with such distaste or apathy that they are uninterested in choosing between them. They may be Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion discourages them from participating in secular elections or saluting the American, or any other, flag. Orthodox Jews, however, do vote heavily, often in a bloc for candidates recommended by their spiritual leaders.

We ask why there has been relatively little excitement about this election. An article on that subject appears in this week’s Village Voice, written by Tom Robbins. THE MAYOR’S PRESS PASS: The Unexamined World of Mike Bloomberg. He criticizes his colleagues in the press as well as the mayor. Robbins’ lede:

“One reason for the remarkably charmed life of Mike Bloomberg’s administration as he sails toward re-election has been the waning of the city’s news business. This is an odd blessing for a man who made his fortune as a media mogul. But just ask Rudy Giuliani, or David Dinkins, or Ed Koch, and they’ll painfully explain…”

The irony here is that, because of the very condition Robbins laments, his article is unlikely to gain traction and will shortly disappear from public attention.

Another irony is that, critical as many people are about various things the mayor has said or done over the last eight years, and annoyed as they may be over the term limits extension, they are likely to vote for Bloomberg because this is a race between two men, not between the mayor and an abstract standard of virtue. They may enumerate at length the mayor’s shortcomings and then add that they will vote for him anyway because they feel his rival is far worse. Look, a vote is a vote.

The argument that while many politicians are corrupt because they take money, Bloomberg is suspect because he gives money is hard for people to swallow. According to a David Chen story in the Times on January 26, 2009, Bloomberg was the single biggest individual donor in the United States last year, giving away $235 million. One would think that such behavior would be commended. If he limited his giving to people or organizations whose support he sought it would be a problem, but the scope and extent of his generosity should be appreciated rather than attacked. What he has asked of his beneficiaries is only that they not contribute to his rivals.

Some people believe that it is unfair for one candidate to spend much more than the rivals. First, the Supreme Court has ruled that, in a free country, it is his right under the First Amendment for him to speak out for himself.

Second, there are many other ways to help a campaign than cash gifts. Labor unions provide phone banks and membership rolls to candidates of their choice.

Third, the support of political machines, and their platoons of volunteer workers, can be quite helpful in local elections, or races between people not widely known.

The most expensive campaign will founder if people do not believe the candidate’s message, no matter how often they see it on television. Political history abounds with stories of rich men who ran for office and lost. Ross Perot and Tom Golisano are two. For an earlier example, William Randolph Hearst ran for Mayor of the City of New York, in 1905 and 1909, and Governor in 1906. He had a printing press as well as a fat purse, but he did not win. In the classic film loosely based on his life, Citizen Kane, two stacks of newspapers have been prepared for distribution as soon as an election result is reached. One says "KANE ELECTED.” The other says “FRAUD AT POLLS!”

Wealth gives a candidate an edge, and allows him to bring his message to the voters, but unless the message resonates, and is supported by credible evidence or persuasive argument, it is unlikely to succeed Between two candidates of similar reputation and level of recognition, money is an important factor.

Reported contributions are an early indication of a candidate’s support.. His/her ability to raise money, and gain a better chance of election, stimulates further donations from people who just want to be on the winning side. Whether or not there are financial considerations involved, most people like to support a winner, and to believe they helped the candidate before others did. Some think of politicians as horses, and they want to pick a winner, which would vindicate their judgment. It may sound odd to you, but there are enough people who do that to make a difference in the outcome of a race.

Many voters will support or oppose candidates because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, physical attractiveness or sexual preference. Others are concerned with ability and ideology. Most make their choices for a combination of the categories listed above. That’s the way it is. The jury decides guilt or innocence; the public decides who will hold the highest positions in government.

In most cases, when an incumbent is challenged, people will vote on the basis of whether they believe the incumbent has done a good job, and whether they think that the challenger can do better. When the race is for an open seat, advertising and campaigning is likely to have a greater impact.

One fact not mentioned so far this year is an old belief that African-American candidates do better at the polls than at the voting booths, because people don’t want to appear prejudiced, but have no problem expressing racial preferences in private. For example, in 1989, Rudy Giuliani was reported by polls to be ten points behind David Dinkins, but the result was that Giuliani lost by only two points. If people had known it was that close, they might have done more or given more to help him. He might even have won.

On the other side, Mayor Dinkins was said to have been distressed by the result. Even though he won, the high percentage Giuliani received was, to him, a sharp indication of race prejudice, since he could not understand any other reason so many New Yorkers would vote for a Republican. This influenced his thinking to some extent during his single term as mayor. (He lost to Giuliani in 1993.) Rather than seeing his election as a triumph (New York City electing the first black mayor in its history) he saw it as a narrow escape from bigotry.

Now that we have a black President, and a black Governor, and a black Democratic candidate for Mayor, these matters are looked at differently than they were years ago. But people who grew up in an earlier era remember when race and religion were more important than they are today in matters of employment, housing and access to public accommodations. Politics has changed to promote diversity, along with film casting, movies and television. The older you are, the more you are able to appreciate how this country has changed.

But as some aspects of American life have changed for the better, others have changed for the worse. By measuring children born out of wedlock, prison population, drug addiction, unemployment and underemployment, education and language gaps, the loss of what are viewed as 19th century virtues, and lack of participation in public affairs, we know that social problems remain. We cannot help observing, however, how little elected officials have to do with many of these issues, and how in fact they try to avoid them rather than spending that elusive asset known as “political capital.” Our advice is Rule 20-U: “Use it before you lose it.”

The strength of a democracy is based in part on how much its citizens know.

StarQuest #612 10.29.2009 1627wds

1 comment: