New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has had a pretty bumpy ride in office so far. His current poll numbers are among the lowest ever recorded for a politician. A nominal Republican, he has Democratic challengers salivating for a challenge in 2005, when he is up for reelection. Already, at least three of them have raised $1 million, a benchmark at this point for serious candidacies in the city. Facing crippling budget deficits, Bloomberg has enacted a few modest spending cuts and a blizzard of tax hikes — income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, cigarette taxes. He presides over a city contending with great fiscal and economic challenges, the glacial pace of rebuilding downtown in the aftermath of September 11, and the continued specter of another terrorist attack, and he has responded by banning smoking in bars.
But it might be time to give Bloomberg credit for something. He is pushing a reformist initiative for what he calls “nonpartisan elections.” The initiative would end party primaries and remove the party labels from candidates in general elections for mayor, city council, borough president, comptroller, and public advocate (a bizarre office that is essentially a post for agitators). Cynics think it is motivated by Bloomberg’s precarious political position — a lifelong Democrat, he ran for mayor as a Republican and at this point has few allies in either party. But Bloomberg was pushing for nonpartisan elections during his campaign for office in 2001, so he is motivated by something more than his current difficulties.
Either this November or next, the initiative could be put to a referendum. Bloomberg seems to be leaning toward November 2004, when voter turnout will be much higher for the presidential election. Apparently he feels confident that the referendum will be popular with voters, or else he would try to sneak it in this November, when very little of import is being contested in the city. Whether his confidence is well placed remains to be seen: early polls show opposition.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party in New York is leading the charge against the initiative. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by a ratio of roughly 5 to 1, a stunning proportion in a country that is evenly divided between the two parties. With the Democrats’ funding and grassroots political apparatus, one can readily imagine a major print and broadcast offensive against the initiative over the next year or so. The Democrats will try to convince voters that removing the party’s name from ballots will constitute a sinister attempt to separate ordinary people from the party that always looks out for them. They have suggested that nonpartisan elections will make it more difficult for minority candidates to win office; why this would be the case they do not say, but as Democrats know, saying so is more than half the battle. Democrats also argue that nonpartisan elections will make it easier for wealthy candidates to win elections, since the removal of the party label will favor those with greater name recognition. But the party system didn’t stop Bloomberg, a billionaire who self-financed his run in 2001, from winning the mayor’s office on the Republican ticket against an identified Democrat, Mark Green.
While the Democrats’ opposition to the initiative is self-explanatory, criticism has not been confined to that quarter. The New York Sun, a conservative daily in the city, ran an editorial opposing nonpartisan elections last week. This week, a columnist for the Sun alleged that the initiative will weaken neighborhood political organizations for both parties, which are often involved in benign civic activities like blood drives and picnics. But it is not clear how ending partisan primaries and removing party identifications from the ballot would have such an effect. The city’s overwhelming Democratic core is not going to go away overnight, and will not shrink from the challenge that nonpartisan elections would present. It is entirely possible that nonpartisan elections would stimulate party activity even further, as candidates would make increased efforts to let voters know their positions and connect the dots.
New York City, which likes to pride itself on being advanced and ahead of fashion, is still operating in the 1930s when it comes to politics. Most people know about party machines through the history books, but in New York the Democratic machine is still up and running. A growing scandal in Brooklyn involving bribery and judgeships is just another illustration of the corruption endemic to a one-party town. Nonpartisan elections could, to borrow a memorable phrase from Bloomberg’s predecessor, “blow up” the system and offer some hope for change. Candidates would petition to get on the ballot and would have to run on their message, not their party affiliation. Name recognition would indeed be important — voters would remember the candidates they liked. No wonder the Democrats fear it so.
There is another compelling argument for nonpartisan elections, and that is the poison of political parties themselves. Currently, our national politics are about as partisan as can be imagined. Politicians from both parties routinely defend fellow party members or change positions to be in harmony with the national party. Enormous energy is expended in attacking and weakening the other party, as if Democrats and Republicans were rival cola companies instead of organizations supposedly entrusted with national leadership. The Democrats’ transparently opportunistic attacks on President Bush over pre-war intelligence on Iraq are just the latest example. The concerns that John Adams had about political parties — that party affiliation would inevitably trump patriotic duty — seems to have been borne out a thousand times.
Anything that erodes the hold of political parties on the democratic process, particularly one-party rule in the nation’s largest city, is worth supporting. If the nonpartisan election referendum passes, New Yorkers should light up a victory cigar — on the sidewalk, of course.