Mayor Bill de Blasio, proclaims the New York Times, is “the best Democratic choice for New York” in Tuesday’s primary election. This is hard to dispute, for de Blasio is effectively the only Democratic choice for New York—which reflects the cynicism that informs politics at every level in the city.
A stranger to New York might expect that de Blasio—who spent most of his first three-plus years in office underwater in the polls and under investigation in the federal and state criminal-justice systems—would have attracted a platoon of potential challengers. Not so. He assiduously feathered special-interest nests from the outset, and the beneficiaries—unions and real-estate interests, in particular—gratefully tamped down budding insurgencies. So the mayor goes into the primary facing what passes for a happy warrior these days, gadfly former city councilman Sal Albanese of Brooklyn—an energetic chronicler of de Blasio’s shortcomings—and three largely unknown contenders.
Absent from the field are a cadre of better-known potential rivals, content to play New York’s unique game of plateau politics: having won interim offices, they patiently await an opportunity to move up—which typically comes only when term limits force out an incumbent. The archetype may be city comptroller Scott Stringer, the former state assemblyman and one-time Manhattan borough president, who publicly flirted with a run this year before retreating to his current safe space. Others on the list include former city council speaker Christine Quinn, Bronx borough president Rubin Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn congressman Hakeem Jeffries—an uninspiring lot, to say the least, but that’s what plateau politics produces.
The sterility of this environment may best be illustrated by contrasting it with the hyper-productive mayoralties of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who busted down doors to win their elections, and so came to office unencumbered and ready to do the public’s business. This was the antithesis of de Blasio’s obeisant-to-special-interests approach. He, too, is a product of plateau politics—having sat on the city council and serving a term as the city’s public advocate, giving himself plenty of time to be marinated in the system.
Which brings us to former state senator Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn—a Democrat who last winter announced a major reformist effort to “bring New York election laws into the twenty-first-century.” Squadron at the time headed a Senate Democratic committee charged with—let’s be candid here—recommending legislation that would make it easier to elect Democrats to the senate, and he didn’t spare the overheated rhetoric: “At a time when basic American values are under attack, it’s critical that New York lead the way in ensuring voters can exercise their rights.”
Squadron then laid out what he termed “seven shocking facts about New York’s voting laws,” with the state’s embarrassingly low voter-turnout numbers at the top of his list. There’s no question that turnout is pitiful—only 23 percent of the electorate voted in the 2013 mayoral election, and if this Tuesday’s primary election is typical, turnout will be roughly half that. But nobody, least of all Squadron, wants to talk about the principal reason for such numbers: New York’s political leadership does everything in its power to discourage voter engagement.
Exhibit A here could be Squadron himself. He resigned his seat last month to work for what he termed “a fairer and more democratic future” for America. But on the way out the door, the self-appointed champion of electoral integrity turned his seat back to party bosses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, for assignment as they see fit—rather than permitting “voters [to] exercise their rights” in a primary.
The state legislature long ago wrote rules that allow departing lawmakers to time their exits to avoid elections, and Squadron is not the first to do so. Indeed, Assemblyman Herman Farrell of Harlem did precisely the same thing earlier this month—albeit without Squadron’s voter-integrity posturing. Manhattan bosses soon will select his successor, ensuring that the lucky winner’s first allegiance will be to those same bosses—county chairmen, party-committee members, the unions, big-bucks real-estate developers, and so on—and not the voters.
One obvious consequence of New York City’s musty political culture is the city’s shamefully low electoral turnout. When the political class is so openly cynical, is it any wonder that New Yorkers take a pass on the process? Another predictable outcome is the encouragement of risk-averse clone candidacies, which contributes to plateau politics and subverts the point of term limits. Thus two four-year terms have effectively become one eight-year term; voters may not be thrilled with an incumbent—as clearly they are not with de Blasio, judging by three-plus years of dismal polls—but an amalgam of corruption, cowardice, and ennui severely restricts their options.
And four years from now, as current plateau placeholders attempt to leap up one level, voters will face a gaggle of candidates united by ambition but long since bleached of individuality, independence, and integrity. Only one can win, but it doesn’t much matter which one—they are all fundamentally the same person. Democracy is badly served, but the bosses love it.
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