With New York City, more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, suffering hard times, it’s natural for people to number the days until Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term is over and a new mayor takes the helm. It’s tempting to think that electing a better leader will repair all the damage. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A series of reforms to New York’s political and electoral system, undertaken in the name of expanding democracy, have essentially had the opposite effect. In the mayoral election of 1953, 93 percent of registered voters came to the polls; in 2017, that figure had fallen to less than 22 percent, with just over 1 million New Yorkers casting ballots. The last time that so few people voted for mayor was 1917—before women’s suffrage doubled the electorate.
New York City was once run by political machines that rewarded supporters through patronage in the form of jobs. In the years leading up to the First World War, Progressive reformers instituted changes in government staffing. Before the Progressives came along, a change in political leadership could mean that anyone who worked for the government might lose his job, from teachers to sanitation workers to actuaries. This manifest inefficiency led to the introduction of the civil service and the advent of professional, apolitical administration.
Letting councilmen pick the local dogcatcher and lamp lighter was a corrupt way to handle municipal hiring, but it forged a responsive relationship between elected officials and their constituents. Voting mattered, because if your man lost, you could lose your job. Even after the decline of the most blatant forms of patronage, local political clubs—which persist today in some neighborhoods as a shadow of their old selves—retained significant power and bound elected officials tightly to their communities.
Today, most New Yorkers don’t know who their local representatives are. They don’t care, either—and for good reason, because most elected officials effectively win their seats in primary elections, which attract much lower turnout than the general election and focus on narrow issues that most potential voters would find baffling or meaningless.
Many Americans complain about our two-party system as constraining, but at least a two-party system provides for some give-and-take. Democrats and Republicans may run to the extremes in their party primaries, but they know that they will have to answer for these fringe positions or statements in a general election, so they tend to modulate their voices accordingly. That’s not the case in New York, which—like most big cities in the U.S.—operates as a de facto one-party state. Out of 51 council seats, Democrats occupy 48; perhaps one or two would be considered swing seats. Of 65 state assembly seats filled from New York City, 63 are held by Democrats. Out of 24 state senate seats from the city, 23 are Democrat-held. And out of 11 U.S. congressional seats from the city, Democrats solidly hold all but one, which swings back and forth.
What this means is that, in New York, the primary election is usually the real contest, though the primaries produce even lower turnout than general elections. With no reason to be concerned about alienating centrist voters or activating the other side in November by being too extreme, candidates appeal to the party fringes. In New York, that means the far left. Candidates leapfrog one another in staking out ever-more radical positions to appeal to an activist base more ideologically attuned than the average voter and more likely to punish candidates who deviate from extreme positions.
For example, until recently it would have been outlandish to suggest that prostitution—“sex work,” in the now-common euphemism—should be legalized. But in a November 2020 forum, five of seven mayoral candidates, including two of the leading contenders, agreed that it should not carry criminal penalties. And the so-called Nordic model—which views prostitutes as victims and prosecutes their clients—is now viewed as regressive and unduly harsh, because how can prostitutes make money if their clients are afraid to hire them? Hence, the candidates favored non-prosecution of all involved.
With crime soaring and quality of life plummeting, one would expect candidates to run on restoring law and order. But, in line with a seemingly inexorable national pattern, most of the candidates want to keep as many people out of jail as possible, even for serious crimes. In cities across the country, a coordinated effort is afoot to decriminalize supposed “crimes of poverty,” which means non-prosecution of “low-level offenses” that result from addiction, homelessness, or being poor.
A tough-on-crime candidate could run a no-nonsense campaign advocating for victims and safer streets, of course. But the nature of the Democratic primary system is that anyone who runs even slightly to the right of the field gets cast as a right-winger. The number of people in jail in Manhattan is at a historic low—but not low enough, say almost all the candidates. This is the logic of “progress” as a political principle: we aim at perfection, and since our prior efforts have been insufficient toward that goal, we must redouble our commitment. The nature of the dynamic encourages everyone to shift the median position further to the left. Yesterday’s radical firebrand becomes today’s tepid centrist; today’s moderate will be tomorrow’s reactionary.
This same dynamic works regarding the electorate. The Curley Effect, named for four-term Boston mayor James Michael Curley, describes how politicians—as Bertolt Brecht once put it—“elect a new people.” Curley was an Irish Catholic who found the legacy WASP elite of Boston a hindrance to his goal of establishing perpetual rule. He used tax revenue to build playgrounds and other amenities in Irish neighborhoods and permitted burlesque houses to open in traditionally Protestant districts, whose potholed streets went unrepaired. He widely expanded public employment among his preferred constituents and slashed the pay of school doctors and other elites. Curley specialized in insulting the legacy Anglo-Saxon population of Boston, while praising the “newer and better America” represented by more recently arrived Irish immigrants. The strategy worked. The Brahmins moved out, and Boston has not had a Protestant mayor—in fact, only one non-Irish mayor—in almost 100 years.
The Curley strategy has been put into effect—with different players—in many cities. New York City’s racial politics are complex, but residents of any race who prefer not to live in a city with high taxes, significant homelessness, and politicians who favor dismantling the police may find it easier to leave than to stay and fight. Those who find tolerable the politics of racial resentment, onerous business regulations, and a school system dedicated to equity over excellence stick it out. Over time, the electorate is shaped by the elected.
Term limits, touted as a way to open up a sclerotic system, have only encouraged this leftward drift. The 2021 election will clear out the city council almost en masse—40 out of 51 councilmembers are term-limited. This creates a mad rush of candidates jockeying to distinguish themselves as more radically committed to social justice than their rivals. Again, there’s no objective reason why candidates running on safer streets and improving the business climate couldn’t emerge as leaders in New York—it’s just not likely to happen at present.
One reason why is that most elected officials in New York City get their training, funding, and institutional support from working as political staffers, in government, or from the nonprofit world. As such, they pass their adult years in a culture of faith in government to answer all of life’s fundamental problems. They spend their professional and social lives among similarly minded activists, consuming the same media and aligning themselves along similar channels of progressive Democratic politics. Their colleagues in the hothouse of community board politics, Democratic clubs, community education councils, state party committee conventions, and protest-march planning sessions are acutely attuned to deviations in acceptable opinion, and aspirants in that world quickly learn self-discipline in how to speak and what not to say.
Few elected officials in New York City today have much private-sector experience. Many, like Mayor de Blasio, spent their formative professional years as staffers to elected officials or working on campaigns. They learn about inter-governmental relations; the importance of cultivating friends and allies in the labor movement; how to associate with powerful political consultants; and the ins and outs of election law, including petitioning to get on the ballot and—just as important—how to get your rivals thrown off the ballot. Owning a business, achieving professional distinction, or simply working as an employee for a company may inform most people about real life, but it will not teach them anything about how to run for office.
To understand how these forces play out in the real world of city politics, consider the profiles of some of New York’s most prominent Democrats.
Scott Stringer, a leading mayoral candidate, currently serves as city comptroller. He signed off on all of de Blasio’s inflated budgets. As the supposed financial watchdog for New York City, he spent two terms criticizing the mayor for not spending more money or expanding social services rapidly enough. He issued a report in September 2019 called “Fees, Fines and Fairness: How Monetary Charges Drive Inequity in New York City’s Criminal Justice System,” demanding waivers on fines based on inability to pay. Stringer, who is Jewish, has played up his support for Israel while also seeking the endorsement of hardline socialist anti-Zionists in the Democratic Socialists of America group. And Stringer also supported the effort to “defund the NYPD,” demanding substantial cuts at a time of rising crime.
Maya Wiley was Mayor de Blasio’s counsel for three years. She devised the “agents of the city” dodge to protect powerful political/corporate consultants from disclosing their communications with the mayor. She also organized a deal with Google to let the tech giant install enormous surveillance monoliths called “kiosks” around the city. These purportedly would provide free Wi-Fi to disadvantaged people, closing the “digital divide,” though their only practical use was to let vagrants watch porn or YouTube videos, until that feature was disabled. Wiley’s father founded the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s, the precursor group to Acorn, and for years she worked for the Open Society and other left-wing activist groups. She is a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter and protested the NYPD’s efforts to arrest Derrick Ingram for, in her words, being “at a Black Lives Matter rally with a bullhorn, expressing himself.” In fact, Ingram assaulted a cop by placing his megaphone against her ear and shouting into it, causing the officer severe pain and hearing loss. Wiley demanded that the NYPD commissioner resign for sending the police to arrest Ingram.
One might imagine that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD detective, would prioritize public safety. But he, too, has encouraged massive cuts to the police budget. During summer 2020, when New York City was flooded with illegal fireworks, Adams encouraged residents kept up all hours by incendiary explosions not to call the police. “This is a nonviolent act, so those three numbers that we always dial—911—get over that,” Adams counseled, explaining that the point of the George Floyd protests was to end “over-aggressive police action.”
Instead, Adams advised, people bothered by late-night fireworks displays ought to extend a neighborly hand to the unauthorized pyrotechnicians. “Go talk to the young people or the people on your block who are using fireworks,” he suggested. “Maybe we should say ‘good morning’ to them. Maybe we should say, ‘Hello, how was school? Do you need a summer job?’” One Brooklyn resident, Shatavia Walls, took Adams’s advice. She asked a man to stop lighting fireworks outside the Pink Houses projects in East New York. Offended by her request, he shot her eight times, killing her.
Contrary to the commonly held idea that police invariably escalate tension and conflict, cops in fact spend most of their time defusing quarrels in which they have no personal stake. Their ability to maintain public order in an impersonal manner is exactly why people call them. Adams, a former cop, ought to understand this better than most.
Is there any hope that a beleaguered New York might get a more promising candidate to replace de Blasio? Perhaps Ray McGuire, a genuine outsider to city politics, is it. McGuire grew up poor in Dayton, Ohio, attended Harvard, and went on to a successful financial career. Tapped to run by the city’s business community, McGuire, who is black, is seen as a candidate who might appeal to minority voters while promoting pro-growth policies. He has said some predictable things about police reform expected from someone running in a Democratic primary, while also implying that he would prioritize public safety over wide-ranging criminal justice reform.
McGuire has raised a lot of money so far, but he’s no billionaire capable of pouring $100 million into his own election, as Michael Bloomberg did. Still, his presence on the scene offers a suggestion that at least some within New York City’s one-party world sense the need for a change of direction toward a more moderate, pro-business, and pro-law enforcement candidate. How broadly that instinct extends remains to be seen, but New York’s 2021 elections will surely be a test of where the city is headed.
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