OP-ED: The Return of Voter Dissatisfaction In NYC

BY HENRY STERN

It has been some months since we last wrote about New York City’s shifting political tides. During that time, there have been a number of reversals of fortune with regard to candidates and their prospects for reelection. There has been a greater willingness by the public this year to turn the rascals out than there was in the recent past. Reputations rise and fall. Reelection once appeared to be perfunctory in New York’s gerrymandered, machine controlled one-party districts. That is no longer the case, but there is still a long way to go on the road to fair and competitive elections.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark Federal law, was adopted a generation ago to offset attempts to suppress the popular vote or create obstacles for those who tried to vote. For many years this pattern of unofficial
discrimination kept minority voters from the polls, thus diluting their political influence. In districts with substantial minority populations, election outcomes did not necessarily reflect the will of the majority of the voters.

There are no intentional extra-legal restraints to voting in New York City. The relatively low percentage of citizen participation here has been prompted in part by popular disillusionment with the political process. There is a perception of the futility of reformers’ efforts to change the existing institutions which determine the size and shape of districts, often shaping the electoral outcome to meet their political objectives.

The reasons for dissatisfaction in the election process have morphed over the years. Today, it comes from cronyism, the establishment and growth of local political dynasties based on blood or marriage. We read dreary accounts of investigations, arrests, trials and convictions of elected officials for scandal, corruption, conflicts of interest and sexual improprieties with staff or social media followers. All of these have a negative effect on public regard for the political process.

In a reflection of general displeasure with local government, Democratic voters displayed incumbent fatigue with Mayor Bloomberg by nominating the candidate who ran stubbornly as his ideological opposite. Even though polls showed a constituency generally favoring Mayor Bloomberg’s initiatives and satisfied with the changes in the City over the last 12 years, they, at the same time, have grown tired of a mayor they believe to be increasingly tone-deaf to their concerns and unsympathetic to them as individuals.

This result should be not be a complete surprise. Mayor Ed Koch was defeated in the Democratic primary in 1989 when he sought a fourth term and Governor Mario Cuomo was defeated by George Pataki for similar reasons when he sought a fourth term in 1994.

This election may also herald a return to political party patronage, which was largely absent for the last 12 years. Mayor Bloomberg clearly saw the parties as an obstacle to his style of governing, which emphasized executive decision making and nonpartisan appointments. He would use the political parties when he needed them, preferring to rent their ballot lines rather than owning them. After winning his last reelection in 2009 by a surprisingly narrow margin, Bloomberg left all the parties behind and pursued an agenda based on his principles for government citywide, nationally and globally.