Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to replace New York’s party primary elections with nonpartisan primaries, whose top two winners will then face off in the general election, is (as you may already have concluded) trivial, but it has one important, if unintended, by-product. The measure, which will appear on Gotham’s ballot in November, casts an especially brilliant spotlight on how seismically New York’s effective political system has changed from the days when party bosses and political clubhouses ran city hall. As a result, the proposal makes crystal clear just what ails Gotham’s politics and what kind of reform New York voters really need.

Bloomberg is touting nonpartisan elections—a nostrum first advanced by the Progressive reformers at the beginning of the twentieth century—as a way to weaken the party bosses in New York and thus open up public office to energetic and capable candidates, much like himself, who are not creatures of a party. But the mayor is trying to solve the problems of 50 years ago. Stuck in a time warp, he seems to think that we are still living in the days when Tammany bigwigs like Carmine DeSapio or Boss Tweed chose candidates based on party loyalty, without regard to merit or local support.

In fact, New York City’s political system has been utterly transformed since those days. Now, instead of party bosses running city hall, it is powerful public-employee unions and community nonprofit groups living off government money that control the city’s political process and political agenda. Yes, these groups are aligned with the Democratic Party, but they are not subservient to the party; the party is their instrument, a tool of their convenience. Nonpartisan voting will do nothing to wrest control from these groups but may instead help them solidify their political dominance at the expense of the city’s taxpayers and businesses. By weakening political parties still further, Mayor Bloomberg and the supporters of nonpartisan elections may inadvertently destroy the only potential vehicle for true reform in a New York City whose politics are increasingly under the thumb of public servants.

The movement that reshaped New York politics—eroding the power of party bosses and paving the way for greater influence of public-sector factions—began in the mid-1950s, when an alliance of middle-class Jewish Democrats and the WASP elite, led by the likes of Herbert Lehman and Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to unseat the Irish and Italian conservative Democrats who ran Tammany Hall. These chieftains had long wielded power through a network of neighborhood political clubs that served as the eyes and ears of the party and that provided useful services to constituents, from getting a traffic light fixed, to lobbying for a new neighborhood school, to bringing complaints of local businesses to the attention of city hall. In return, the club expected constituents’ loyalty on Election Day. The clubs also were the conduit through which the party machines dispensed patronage, with each club generally granted rights to several dozen city jobs at any one time, which the head of the club gave out as rewards to successful district leaders and their relatives.

When the reformers ousted the last Tammany boss, Carmine DeSapio, in 1961 and systematically attacked the machines in other boroughs, the neighborhood political clubs began disappearing, leaving a void in many communities, which the reformers showed little interest in filling. “Liberals are not neighborhood people,” wrote Daniel Patrick Moynihan about the transformation of the Democratic Party in the city after Tammany’s demise.

Into the vacuum stepped several new-style groups that rapidly accumulated political power but had a very different agenda from the neighborhood clubs, an agenda that focused on bigger government, more spending, and ultimately higher taxes. One new power appeared in the form of unions representing public-sector employees, who won the right to organize in New York City in 1954 and to bargain collectively with the city in 1958. Almost immediately, the unions began throwing their weight around, demanding higher wages and better benefits and work rules, and within a decade they had staged a series of debilitating strikes against Gotham to achieve these goals.

Government-employee union leaders quickly saw that political power was essential to their success: elections were a way for them to pick their members’ bosses and to influence who would sit across the bargaining table from them. They began mobilizing heavily in support of candidates who pledged to protect their interests; and soon that era’s union leaders—men like Victor Gotbaum of District Council 37 and Albert Shanker of the teachers’ union—became political heavyweights and kingmakers. So successful were these groups that by the mid-1960s, political scientist Theodore Lowi observed that the public-employee bureaucracy in New York was emerging as “the new machine.”

This modern Tammany Hall introduced a new kind of patronage that proved far more destructive to the city than the type fostered by the original party machines. Even in Tammany’s heyday, patronage only accounted for a few thousand municipal jobs. But with the rise of public unions—whose entire raison d’être was to boost their own membership, to protect workers’ interests, and to thwart efforts at downsizing government or making it more efficient through privatization and other means—the city’s workforce numbers bolted upward and continued on that arc with only brief interruptions over 40 years, so that today New York’s government employs about 100,000 more workers than it did in the mid-1960s, a 30 percent increase, while its population has remained essentially unchanged.

Not long after public-sector unions became a force, another new political power arose in neighborhoods: government-funded, community-based social-services organizations. Spurred by Mayor John Lindsay’s efforts to decentralize government, and lavishly funded with government dollars by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, activists formed organizations that built subsidized housing, ran day-care centers, operated health clinics. From practically nothing in the early 1960s, by 1967 there were more than 400 federal grant programs providing $15 billion to these local groups around the country, with a heavy concentration in New York because of the influence of Mayor Lindsay, whom Washington policymakers touted as one of urban America’s new leaders. Spurred by this government largesse, social-services organizations grew in New York City from a few hundred, employing fewer than 50,000 people in the mid-1960s, to more than 4,000 today, employing 185,000 people.

Over time, these groups have become a new kind of neighborhood political clubhouse, running and successfully electing their own members to political office. Activists like Ramon Velez, who ran a network of social-services agencies out of his base in Hunts Point in the Bronx, or Pedro Espada Jr., who built a single health clinic in the Soundview section of the South Bronx into a sweeping public-services empire, used the influence they gained in neighborhoods as a launching pad for political careers. And rather than focusing on ensuring that the neighborhood got clean streets, adequate policing, and good schools, the new clubhouses advanced a social-welfare agenda more concerned with bringing the latest government-funded halfway house, drug-treatment center, or job-training program to a neighborhood—to be run by Velezes, Espadas, and their counterparts, and staffed by loyal supporters—whether the community needed the service or not.

Today these community activists and government careerists dominate the politics of New York City in a way that borough bosses and the neighborhood political clubs of Tammany once did, making New York’s public servants in effect the city’s political masters. Working both within the Democratic Party and outside it, they have created a coalition of public-sector interests—of tax eaters—that has arrayed itself against the interests of taxpaying individuals and businesses in the city. Irrespective of the public interest, their interest is always more: more city workers with more pay, more social services, more pensions, more benefits—and more job-killing taxes.

You can see the extent of their dominance in the way these forces took advantage of the city’s most recent election-law change, which instituted term limits. Although term limits were intended to open up the political process to outsiders (just as Mayor Bloomberg expects nonpartisan elections to do), when the law went into effect in 2001 public-sector insiders and activists swarmed into the Democratic primary races. A perfect case in point is a City Council race in a solidly middle-class black section of southeast Queens. The seven candidates who ran for the Democratic Party nomination included two members of the United Federation of Teachers (one of whom was a union delegate), two professors at (unionized) city-run colleges, a former New York City high school principal, an assistant commissioner of the city’s Parks Department, an executive at a publicly funded substance-abuse clinic (who was the local Democratic organization’s candidate), and an administrator of a publicly funded welfare-services organization, who ultimately prevailed against the party organization’s candidate.

The lineup was much the same throughout the city, so that more than six in ten of the newly elected city councillors had backgrounds in government or in publicly funded social services. Moreover, in several crucial districts these new councilmen had trounced opponents backed by the Democratic Party organization—belying the Bloomberg notion that a cabal of bosses runs the city.

Increasingly these days, public-sector candidates, nominally Democrats, are simply using the party as a flag of convenience. Nothing illustrates more clearly how the Democratic Party has become the tail on the public-sector dog than a recent Democratic primary in the Bronx, pitting two social-services powerhouses against each other. The battle took place in Soundview, ruled for years by Pedro Espada Jr., one of the earliest of the social-services kingpins. Espada’s publicly funded empire of health-care clinics and programs for welfare mothers and senior citizens, serving about 100,000 residents a year, made him one of the most recognized figures in the community and helped both him and his son get elected to various public offices, at first with the support of the Democratic Party, but later as rebels, powerful and independent enough to thumb their noses at the party.

After several unsuccessful efforts by the Bronx Democratic Party to oust the renegade Espadas, the family recently suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of another power within the social-services community, the 1199/SEIU health-care workers’ union. Sensing an opportunity to defeat Espada’s son in a City Council race, because more than 4,000 members of 1199 live in the district, one of the union’s organizers, Annabel Palma, enlisted the support of her bosses and other union activists for her candidacy, and then leveraged that into an endorsement from the Democratic Party. The move left young Espada complaining, understandably if inaccurately, that the party was “hiring” a union to defeat him. Union members helped pour more than $90,000 in contributions into their candidate’s war chest, a hefty sum for a first-time City Council candidate, and hundreds of health-care workers fanned out across the district to support her bid. “[She] has a million foot soldiers out there with 1199,” Bronx state assembly member Rubén Díaz marveled. The result was a smashing victory for the union-backed candidate in an election in which the official Democratic Party’s support was largely inconsequential and almost an afterthought.

The Democratic Party, as these recent elections make clear, is hardly the all-powerful force that the mayor and other nonpartisan-election fans believe it is. In fact, if there is a significant overarching force behind the city’s public-sector politics today, it is the Working Families Party—which, with fewer than 7,000 registered voters, is not at all a political party in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a union instrument of electoral politics, mobilizing the membership of its affiliated public-sector unions and union-boosting activist groups like ACORN to support its preferred candidates, as in the Palma-Espada race. Using New York State’s unusual election law, which allows minor parties to endorse candidates from other parties, the WFP has been able to work both with the Democratic leadership and at times against it to elect candidates hewing to its agenda of bigger government and higher taxes.

This strategy has worked smoothly. In 2001, for instance, 19 candidates endorsed for various municipal offices by the WFP won their Democratic primary elections—with several of the victories coming at the expense of candidates backed by the Democratic Party’s official county organizations—and they then went on to win the general election. In the City Council, where 15 WFP-backed candidates won, those victories gave the WFP the kind of voting bloc that no other minor party has ever had. The WFP has used that new voting power to introduce and pass a host of significant legislation in the new council, some of it over the mayor’s veto, including an expansion of the city’s living-wage laws and the toughest predatory lending bill in the country. The party’s success, smacking of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has prompted even the New York Times to note that the WFP has emerged as “a significant policy-making force,” an extraordinary statement about a “party” with a tiny handful of registered members.

More and more Democratic candidates are now recognizing the WFP’s power. Up to 30 Democratic City Council incumbents have sought and received the WFP’s endorsement for the 2003 elections. That’s certain to give the WFP a majority on the City Council, which, if recent history is any guide, it will use with more purpose and effectiveness than the Democratic Party has used its majority to push legislatively for the tax-eater party agenda of higher taxes—including a stock-transfer tax and a wealth tax on rich New Yorkers—an expansion of the city’s union-strengthening living-wage law to cover more workers, and a greater burdening of city businesses with still more regulations and requirements.

Switching to nonpartisan elections would do nothing to mitigate the power of the Working Families Party, which is merely the political face of the public-sector unions. It might actually increase the political influence of the WFP and its pro-union activist allies. That’s because any switch to nonpartisan voting, by eliminating party primaries, would further weaken the ability of already weak Democratic county bosses to select candidates and sway elections, just as Mayor Bloomberg intends. When that happens, as the experience of nonpartisan voting in other cities demonstrates, other well-established groups will fill the void.

While in some cities, that group could be a business or civic organization—as in Dallas, where a business group has elected 15 of the last 17 mayors under nonpartisan voting—in Gotham, where business or taxpayer-led civic groups are weak and ineffective, it is the public-sector-oriented organizations that will benefit. “In New York City, groups like unions, politically active churches, and community organizations would dominate in a nonpartisan environment,” says Ted Arrington, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a longtime observer of nonpartisan voting. These groups, after all, have all the necessary infrastructure of a political party: a strong organization, a host of workers to campaign and get out the vote, and the ability to raise money—as well as a powerful motive of self-interest. For these reasons, the WFP’s chief, Daniel Cantor, isn’t worried about the impact of nonpartisan elections on his organization. “We’d still have our grassroots support to use,” he remarks.

The city’s Democratic Party officials, by contrast, are understandably apoplectic over the prospect that nonpartisan voting could remove their last vestiges of power, which is why they have led a vicious attack on the mayor’s plan by playing the race card. Nonpartisan voting, they claim, would hurt minority candidates, because minorities have prospered within the Democratic Party, and any system that weakens the party’s influence thwarts their political opportunities. But this cry is a cynical bid by the party leadership to hold on to what little power it has in the rapidly changing political landscape. A close look at the history and experience of nonpartisan voting in other cities shows no evidence whatever that any racial or ethnic group gains or loses under nonpartisan voting.

The real losers in nonpartisan elections won’t be minority candidates, but those few candidates who try to represent taxpayers instead of tax eaters. By eliminating party primaries, nonpartisan elections will only further reduce the already dim prospects of Republican or Conservative Party candidates, whose voices, so muted in the city, will get drowned out in primary elections in which hordes of public-sector candidates will be running simultaneously. Today, a Republican is assured of a place on the general election ballot, come what may; and in the last three mayoral elections, those Republicans have been avowed champions of the taxpayers (though Michael Bloomberg later reneged on his no-new-taxes stance). In the proposed new system, a taxpayers’ candidate will almost never make it to the final balloting. In fact, the charter-revision commission’s own detailed analysis essentially concludes that, under nonpartisan voting, the 2001 general election would have been almost entirely free of GOP candidates—including candidate Bloomberg.

What New York politics needs most is a viable two-party system that offers taxpayers and private-sector employers candidates who will represent their interests against the overwhelming political clout of the public-sector special interests. Such voters made themselves heard in the city’s last three mayoral elections, when candidates running on the Republican line assembled a classic coalition of outer-borough, ethnic, middle-class voters—the kind who used to be the soul of Gotham’s Democratic Party before it veered sharply left—and used it to defeat candidates heavily backed by public-sector unions and community activist groups. But no one, neither Giuliani nor Bloomberg nor the state GOP’s leadership, has made any effort to assemble that coalition permanently. In numerous districts throughout the city where both Giuliani and Bloomberg won handily, candidates representing the tax-eaters’ agenda have triumphed in City Council or State Legislature races because they ran without taxpayer-interest opposition.

Although the odds against creating such an effective organization to represent taxpaying interests seem steep, the numbers give hope. In the last mayoral election, for example, 48 percent of Hispanics voted for GOP candidate Bloomberg, up from the hefty 43 percent they gave GOP candidate Giuliani four years earlier. In a recent New York Times poll, black and Hispanic voters were even less favorably disposed toward higher taxes, and more inclined to demand that public-sector workers do more to help solve the city’s budget crisis, than white voters—an indication that the city’s growing minority middle class is ripe for something other than the public-sector-oriented candidates now dominating the landscape, and evidence that the Democratic bosses’ expectation of automatic minority allegiance also belongs to a bygone political reality.

A revived GOP, tenaciously advocating in every city race the proven Giuliani urban agenda—fiscal restraint, effective policing, and school choice—could begin to present an alternative to the public-sector domination of the city. But nonpartisan voting, promoted by a mayor who seems to have little clue about the true nature of the city’s contemporary political culture or even the forces that elected him, would bury any prospects, however slim today, for such crucial reform.


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