For years, New York's pundits have missed something crucial for understanding the city's electoral politics. For them, race is the key fact in all New York elections—so that, seen through this lens, Fernando Ferrer's strong showing in this year's New York City Democratic primaries represented a tectonic shift in the city's politics: the emergence of a new black and Hispanic voting block that constituted half the electorate.
But race isn't what drives New York's politics—economic self-interest is—and many of those who participated in the Democratic primaries did so not out of ethnic pride but because they were there to elect their next boss. Exit polling commissioned by City Journal found that 41 percent of voters in the October 11 Democratic runoff worked directly for government or the heavily government-subsidized nonprofit sector. In the end—counting spouses of those who work for government, or retirees with pensions from public-sector jobs—it's possible that a majority of all those voting on October 11 in some significant way depend on public spending for their livelihood.
By contrast, just 38 percent of those who voted worked in the private sector. These numbers are nothing short of astounding, since three-quarters of all jobs in the city are in for-profit firms. Nationally, only about 15 percent of the workforce is employed by government, and perhaps another 4 percent in nonprofit social services.
The poll further suggests that the surge in minority turnout this year resulted primarily from those with government or government-related jobs, belying the notion that ethnic pride was at the heart of the increased turnout. For instance, 36 percent of black primary voters worked directly for the government, while only about 11 percent of voting-age blacks in the U.S. population are employed by government. Among Hispanics the gap was even greater: one-third of primary voters were government employees, compared with just 6 percent of voting-age Hispanics in the U.S. who work in the public sector.
These numbers should not be that surprising to anyone who has watched the growing influence of municipal and social services unions in Democratic primaries, and the way candidates must pander to them for support. The powerful hospital-workers union, which represents 210,000 employees at New York's voluntary hospitals (which derive more than half their revenues from public sources), boasted that it would use its computerized database that tracks union membership and the race of registered voters to urge as many as 250,000 voters to get to the polls and support Ferrer. His strong showing suggests that Local 1199 may have come close to achieving that ambitious turnout—and that 1199 understands what drives voter choice.
The story these numbers tell has profound significance for the city's future. Voters who work for the public sector and for organizations heavily indebted to public funding are naturally more inclined to back candidates who support big government and greater public spending. Such candidates, after all, will be the most likely to deliver the plum pay raises, to swell the public workforce, and to ignore calls to improve the productivity of government workers. These government-dependent voters won't warm to candidates whose message is smaller government, fiscal austerity, and heightened productivity.
With the primary vote so skewed to government and nonprofit workers, the two most liberal, big-government candidates among the original Democratic mayor field—Ferrer and Green—finished in a near tie in the initial primary on September 25. During the campaign, each proposed a vast new government program—Ferrer's costing $2 billion and Green's $1.2 billion, according to an analysis by the Manhattan Institute's E. J. McMahon. After the bombing, Green appointed an economic advisory panel filled with left-wing policy makers from the tax-and-spend Dinkins and Cuomo years, including one of the authors of a 1993 report on the city's budget crisis that Rudy Giuliani, upon taking office, dumped in the garbage because it recommended tax increases on page 1.
In the runoff, Ferrer pulled in 56 percent of the votes of government workers, nearly giving him the win. His refusal to back off his big-government agenda—including the possibility of higher taxes—after September 11 undoubtedly helped him with these voters. But it probably scared off private-sector employee voters: 60 percent of them went for Green. That vote, combined with some continued support among government and nonprofit workers, was enough to give him victory.
The data suggest that the true alignment in city politics may be not white vs. minority, or Democrats against the Republicans they outnumber five to one, but government worker vs. those who toil in the private sector and generate the taxes that support public spending. And this reality points to an opportunity, now that New York's economy faces a crisis in the wake of the September 11 bombing, for Republican nominee Michael Bloomberg to forge a coalition of private-sector voters with a platform based on smaller government, less taxes, more efficient services, and a business-friendly city hall. None of the candidates in the Democratic primary attempted to woo moderate Democrats with this kind of a message, so many probably just sat out the primary. It's Bloomberg's challenge to get those private-sector citizens—Democrat and Republican alike—into the voting booth in the general election.