Something bad happens to New York City if Mayor Giuliani runs for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and wins: Public Advocate Mark Green becomes mayor for the remaining year of Giuliani's term. As the entrenched incumbent, Green then gains a leg up in the ensuing race in 2001 for a full four-year mayoral term. As mayor, Green doubtless would seek to restore the welfare state, to ratchet up taxes, and to reintroduce a racial spoils system—in short, to return Gotham to 1993. Perhaps New Yorkers want to return to Dinkins-era policies and the discredited, far-left criminal-justice strategies of Ramsey Clark, whose two Senate campaigns Green managed; but if they do, it should happen in a fair election, not through the back door of an undemocratic succession.
That's why it's a good idea to amend the city charter to mandate a special election if the mayor vacates his office, as City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a probable Democratic mayoral contender, has been arguing. Amendment opponents, Green included, contend that this would be an unfair, eleventh-hour change of the constitutional rules, clearly aimed at Green himself. But this argument ignores the fact that the useless office of public advocate owes its existence to the undemocratic back-door dealing of the 1989 Charter Revision Commission.
The commission, remember, grew out of a federal court "one man, one vote" decision that killed the old Board of Estimate, a body that shared power with the mayor and City Council over the budget and land-use issues. In reassigning the board's powers, the charter commission was set to junk the office of city council president. This official ceremoniously presided over the City Council, but he was not a city councilman and had no vote in the body. His real function was his voting membership on the powerful Board of Estimate, a function that vanished with the Board's demise.
In a compromise deal, though, the office mutated into the public advocate, with vague new duties as a government ombudsman. Almost as an afterthought, the commission left in place the 167-year-old provision that stipulated that the city council president—now the public advocate—should become mayor if an elected mayor doesn't finish his term. When the Board of Estimate existed, this made some sense, as the council president was the second-highest official elected city-wide; today the city Comptroller is the second-highest elected official.
Many commission members feared that, with such a vague definition of its duties and without clear-cut governing responsibilities, the public advocate's office would quickly degenerate into a taxpayer-funded, $3 million-a-year permanent election campaign—exactly what happened during Andrew Stein's last term as public advocate as he prepared to run for mayor. Mark Green, too, has used the office to run campaigns, first for the Senate and now for mayor.
Though City Journal can't pretend to have an impartial view on the subject—our opposition to Green's destructive old urbanism is a matter of record—the larger picture is clear: no occupant of this permanent campaign office should become mayor without going through a real campaign, a special election to fill out the departing mayor's term. On the local level, after all, New Yorkers don't vote for a chief-executive-in-waiting—like a vice president or lieutenant governor—supposedly committed to carrying on his chief's policies should the need arise. The mayor thus should appoint a charter revision commission to change the succession rule in time for the voters to approve it before the 2000 election. That way, New Yorkers can get a new mayor democratically rather than by accident and default.