The recent debate in New York about whether to adopt nonpartisan elections rested on a myth that local Republican leaders still wholeheartedly believe: that politics in this town is controlled by the Democratic Party.
Hewing to that myth, most of the state’s top Republicans, including Governor Pataki and former mayor Giuliani, supported Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign for nonpartisan elections, because they absurdly seemed to think that the only way to break the Democrats’ grip on the city was through a change in election laws that would weaken both parties (though why it would weaken the Dems more than the GOP was never clear). Republican leaders’ strategy was yet another indication that they don’t understand how politics is changing in the city and consequently don’t realize that, rather than meaningless election reforms, what the city needs is a revived Republican Party that represents the interests of taxpayers against the growing power of the public-sector unions and government-funded nonprofit groups. These special interests have captured the Democratic Party and emerged as the true powerbrokers in New York, continually lobbying for higher taxes and more government spending.
Failing to understand this new reality, Republicans advocate for electoral changes rather than trying to reenergize their own party. They mysteriously believe that GOP ideas are a nonstarter in New York, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They complain that the city is too liberal, that the national party’s agenda, with its focus on conservative social issues, is electoral poison in New York, and that Gotham’s changing demographics make it all the more difficult to elect GOP candidates.
Evidence of these defeatist GOP attitudes abound. Governor Pataki needlessly tacked to the left in his 2002 reelection campaign against a Democratic lightweight, buying off the politically powerful health-care union leader Dennis Rivera with massive infusions of public dollars into the state’s already wasteful public health-care system. And last year the head of the Republican-controlled State Senate, Joe Bruno, abandoned any pretense of fiscal responsibility in the state budget debates because of fear that Republicans would lose seats in Albany.
But the notion that Republican ideas can’t gain traction in New York defies recent history. After all, Republicans have now won three successive mayoral races in Gotham, supposedly the state’s most liberal bastion. At the heart of those successes is an agenda articulated and carried out so successfully by Rudy Giuliani—built around activist policing, tax cuts and fiscal restraint, and education reform, including school choice. A diverse coalition of New York voters has embraced that agenda, ranging from outer-borough working class whites to members of the city’s growing Hispanic and Asian middle-class. Polls suggest that these voters are looking for an alterative to the big-government, increasingly radicalized candidates being put forward by the public-sector interests who dominate the Democratic Party these days. And that base of disaffected voters is certain to expand in some future recession, as tens of thousands of Manhattanites who have become co-op owners in the past decade come to understand they have a greater stake than ever in the future economic prosperity of the city.
But unfortunately, the city’s atrophied GOP, for too long run by elected officials who are afraid to admit that they are Republicans and staffed by hacks, has done little to reach out to these new voters. In advocating for nonpartisan elections, for instance, Mayor Bloomberg observed that in many New York City elections winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to being elected. But that’s because the GOP doesn’t bother to put up candidates in many of those races, including in districts where Republican mayoral candidates have run well. Indeed, in Bloomberg’s own election campaign of 2001, he won handily in a number of districts where the GOP didn’t field a candidate on the city council line at the same time. In one of those districts, the Democratic nominee, who won the general election with 95 percent of the vote against token opposition from the Green Party, freely confessed to me that he was “more progressive” than most of those who voted for him.
In the wake of the nonpartisan election debacle, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki should re-evaluate their strategy. Rather than waste time, energy, and money on mailings and phone campaigns advocating unpopular electoral reforms, the GOP’s leaders ought to focus their resources and their best political minds on boosting their own party to take advantage of the growing strength of the national GOP and the prospect of a popular president being re-nominated right here in Madison Square Garden next year. The governor and the mayor might start by making the case for an appealing agenda for all of those voters disenfranchised by free-spending, radicalized public-sector candidates.