Fasten Your Seatbelts, Brooklyn, Its the City Council Electionby Jonas Salganik
Continuity is the rule in politics: when you win a seat of power you hold on to it as long as you can. And it has been a relatively easy game to win for incumbent politicians since they have at least two clear advantages come election time. They actually get to set many of the game’s rules, like districts and such, plus they already have ongoing relationships with all of the game’s major players, giving them a clear advantage over newcomers and fundraising endorsements. In fact, incumbents were almost unbeatable in New York before the idea of term limits swept across the nation. New Yorkers, who had previously appeared happy with their own elected officials, judging by the fact that they continually reelected them, clearly established their low regard for politicians in general by voting for term limits twice, once in 1993 and again in 1996. Of course, many local politicians remained characteristically bent on hoarding their power. In fact, it would have been weird if they all just gave up their seats, with the $90,000 a year they get for sitting in them, and walked away quietly without a fight. So this past March, five years after the last time voters clearly demonstrated their support for term limits, and less than three months before the filing deadline for the upcoming election, the City Council’s Government Operations Committee came within one vote of killing the term limits rule. Generally, the protectors of term limits in the Council were members already running for their next office; they knew intuitively that to undo the rule at the last minute would alienate the large block of people who voted to limit officeholders’ terms. Council Speaker Peter Vallone led the defense of term limits. He had begun campaigning last summer for a new job, having calculated that with Guliani also out by term limits, this year might represent his best chance to become Mayor. Even after the Committee’s four to three vote, Vallone still had to block a last minute parliamentary maneuver by Manhattan Councilman Stanley Michaels designed to bring the bill for a vote before the entire City Council, two-thirds of whom were facing unemployment in a matter of months. Councilman Michaels expressed confidence that, had Speaker Vallone not blocked him, his side would have had the 34 votes needed to kill term limits and overturn Mayor Guliani’s promised veto of the legislation.
The prospect of 35 open seats (out of the 51 Council seats citywide) has local activities and second tier politicians salivating. The New York City Board of Elections is expecting a record number of candidates to run for City Council this year: more than 10 candidates in some districts and over 100 total for 16 seats from Brooklyn alone. Where a crowded race used to be four candidates per district, each representing one of the four main local parties, this tune there is no telling how many budding politicians will gather enough signatures to qualify for their district’s ballot. Come September you can expect an average of eight candidates per open seat, each representing one of the eight parties currently operating in the city. This flood of candidates has the potential to overwhelm New York City’s decrepit election system much the same way some districts in Florida were overwhelmed last winter. The spokesperson for the Board of Elections, Naomi Bernstein, acknowledged that the average New York City voting machine is over 40 years old and was not designed for large numbers of candidates running for single offices but reassures that the Board is “working to get this taken care of in time.” Recently, Baruch College hosted a series of weekend forums—with titles including “Your First Days on the Council” and “Your Role with Lobbyists”—where Ed Koch and David Dinkins offered advice to the newbie politicos.
The logic behind former Assistant Attorney General Lettia James’s decision to run for Brooklyn’s 35th Council District (covering Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, and Fort Greene) underscores the thinking of most of the new candidates: “I would not have run had the incumbent run again,” she admitted. The incumbent in the 35th district is Democrat Mary Plinkett, who might have been a serious obstacle for Ms. James since she has held that Council seat for the last 26 years. As it happens, Ms. Plinkett’s case is telling of the position in which many current seat-holders find themselves: boxed in by the desire to stay in office on the one hand and the popularity of term limits on the other. All through the series of public hearings Plinkett did not publicly declare her position on the term limits. The tenor of her questions and comments seemed to suggest a potential vote to overturn the limits. She demonstrated some partially toward the opponents of term limits, especially toward their argument that such a large turnover of Council members could seriously threaten the Council’s ability to make legislation. By contrast, Plinkett was all over the representatives from New Yorkers for Term Limits who testified at the hearings leading up to the vote. Plinkett expressed a particular hostility for the group’s founder, cosmetics mogul and failed mayoral candidate Ron Lauder. Lauder financed New Yorkers for Term Limits and their two successful ballot referendums, spending well over $4 million of his personal fortune. He even paid for television commercials that ran over the weekend of the Committee’s vote to pressure them not to kill the term limits. Plinkett seemed to feel that Lauder’s motivations were more vindictive than principled, growing more out of his own frustration over previous election failures than out of any real concern for the people of New York City. She went so far as to call on New York voters to boycott Estee Lauder products to protest Lauder’s interference in the matter. In the end, Plinkett said that after a sleepless night she only made up her mind about 10 minutes before she voted against overrunning the limits.
Besides the rare opportunity to run for open seats there is another recent change in the law driving the increased interest of budding politicians, namely a generous new public financing scheme for campaigns enacted by the City Council. Under the scheme, championed by government reform groups like N.Y.P.I.R.G., the independent and non-partisan New York City Campaign Finance Board would match every dollar of individual contributions to participating local candidates with four dollars from city funds. According to N.Y.P.I.R.G.’s Dept. Press Secretary Frank Berry the idea of these reforms is to achieve a more locally representative government. “I think that the four to one matching rate makes it more feasible for local candidates with grassroots support to mount competitive campaigns,” says Barry. The conditions for participating in the program are that the candidate raise $5,000 from 50 people within the district, accept spending limits of $137,000, make a full disclosure of his or her donors and cooperate with an audit of their campaign finances, along with agreeing to repay whatever monies are unspent. The maximum payout per campaign by the Board is $75,350. Under this new system, candidates who wish to participate have until June 1st to join the program.
State Committeeman Steven Cohen, who is running to fill Ken Fisher’s seat from the 33rd Councilmatic District (covering Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope) supports public financing “for those who need it.” Cohen, by contrast, feels that he has the ability to raise funds based upon his track record in local politics so that the public financing is not that important for him. “The open seat was the most important part of my decision to run; that and the encouragement of my family, community leaders and other elected officials,” says Cohen. Mayor Guliani sought to kill the financing plan because of its huge cost to the city. The Campaign Finance Board’s projection is for $63.3 million dollars in payouts from the city’s coffers for the coming election cycle, but there is no present spending cutoff point for the program. In addition, the C.F.B. will spend roughly $4 to $6 million on their Voters’ Guide and an undisclosed amount on administrative costs. Notably, taxpayers do not have the option to earmark part of their tax payment for the C.F.B. the way they can earmark some of their federal tax payments to finance presidential elections. In N.Y.C. the money is automatically drawn from the city treasury whether or not the taxpayers personally support the program. As if in response to the democratizing effects of public financing and term limits there seems to be either a relative or hand picked successor to the current seat holder running to fill the slot. In Brooklyn alone we have Noach Dear and Harold Lasher’s wives each running for their husbands seats, Priscilla Wooten and Martin Malave-Dilan’s sons each running for their former seats, Una Clarke is pushing her daughter Yvette to replace her, and even Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hinkind’s sister-in-law is running for the City Council on nearby Staten Island. How powerful can a family be? Well, in a special election on February 20th in the Bronx Joel Rivera won the seat of his father Jose Rivera, who was elected to the State Assembly last November. At the time Joel Rivera was a 22-year-old undergrad at Fordham University with no political experience of his own.
Some challengers argue that the practice of running a relative for the seat which term limits have forced one to surrender is a scam designed to hold the seats in the family until the current Council member can run again in two years. However problematic, the fact is that most people understand intuitively the impulse to pass the family business on to one’s children and seem to like the sense of continuity the practice produces; witness the elections of George W. Bush and the Kennedy dynasty to name just a few. But such candidates inherit more than just the incumbent’s name recognition; they also receive their financial support networks and even loyalties based upon old favors. As such, these political offspring have a dramatic advantage, particularly under the new reforms, in getting the signatures they need to get on the ballot and in raising the necessary local donations to qualify for the matching funds. Others, like candidate Steven Cohen, are not concerned. Says Cohen, “I think it is good to have everyone put their credentials and experience before the electorate, and on September 11th the voters will choose who they feel will best represent them.”
Jonas Salganik is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail