The Battle for Borough Hallby Jonas Salganik
The office of Borough President (BP) is the brass ring of Brooklyn politics, the top of the borough’s political food chain. Brooklyn’s outgoing BP, Howard Golden, has held that seat for the last 25 years, but the new term limit rules prevent him from running again. Golden’s history of electoral success seems to result as much from the voters’ recognition of a job well done as from the advantages of incumbency. In general, NYC’s five borough president offices have been precisely the sort of anti-competitive political power bases that term limits were designed to address. It is clear that accumulation of political influence inherent in such offices is the most important factor responsible for the ongoing single party domination of each borough. A BP’s primary duty is to manage a borough’s budget and set its land use agenda. Each BP also gets to make a slew of appointments: one seat on the New York City Planning Commission, one member to NYC’s Board of Education, as well as numerous appointments to the community boards that run each borough at the neighborhood level. And—as if these duties were not enough to attract friends and scare off challengers—one of the BP’s more endearing ancillary functions is to serve as special advocate for the delivery of municipal services like street paving and garbage pick-up. (Got a problem that needs fixing? Call the BP.) In fact, the powers of Borough President are so pervasive that after 25 years every neighborhood as well as entire generations of politicians must owe Golden some kind of debt or favor.
The great irony of Howard Golden’s career is that, no matter how much he thinks otherwise at the moment, term limits may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Rather than inevitably losing an election—as a victim of shifting political winds (or the changing racial make-up of Brooklyn)—he is being pushed out now, thus ensuring his place in history as the Father of the Brooklyn Renaissance, the man who transformed Dodge City into the new home for large hotels and serious art. Golden’s actual recent history is not quite as epic, however. Besides the BP’s standard official appearances at street fairs and award ceremonies, Golden surfaced only recently in the city-wide media while he fought some of Mayor Giuliani’s less palatable initiatives. Golden had a decidedly mixed record against Rudy, successful in his efforts to prevent the creation of garbage rest stations in Brooklyn but unable to block the Mayor on other flanks such as transportation service cuts or the highly polluting power plants on the waterfront. Fortunately for Brooklyn, it is highly unlikely that the next BP will have to deal with as contentious and adversarial a mayor as Rudy has been.
While Brooklyn in years to come may miss Golden’s incomparable level of experience (and soothing low-key style), his exit does open up the election process to greater competition. This competition could potentially make Brooklyn’s local government more responsive to the borough’s emerging ethnic groups as well as its other evolving needs in the future. This election season, however, only three candidates are running to succeed Golden—and they are all Democrats. What is intriguing about the race is that each of the contenders has special advantages that could lead any one of them to victory. More ominously, the three are so evenly matched that the race could quickly degenerate into blood sport much earlier than normal.
Golden’s chosen successor is Jeanette Gadson, who served as his Deputy BP for several years. Though currently not as well known as her opponents, Gadson can draw on both the support of the big party bosses as well as Golden’s veteran advice. More importantly, Gadson has the distinct appeal of being the only African-American in the race. No black has ever been elected BP in Brooklyn, even though the borough has the largest black population in the city (848,583 in the last census) and blacks comprise an equal ratio of the borough’s electorate to whites (each one-third of the total population). Gadson’s campaign calculates that it can win with as little as 10 percent of the combined white and Asian votes, based upon the amount of black and Hispanic votes they expect to draw. Currently, one in five Brooklynites is Hispanic (487,878 in the last census), while about 185,000 Asians live here.
New York voters do not automatically vote according to skin tone, however, as was evident in last fall’s contest for United States Congress in an overwhelmingly black district in the Bronx, pitting white incumbent Eliot Engel versus black challenger State Senator Larry Seabrook; it was one of the ugliest races in recent memory. For a while Seabrook’s main platform simply stressed the need for the Bronx to elect its first black congressman. Local party leaders, including Fernando Ferrer and Al Sharpton, cut ties with Engel and shifted their support to Seabrook. Engel, though, had raised enough money and had enough labor support to appeal directly to the people in the district, without the help of his borough’s Democratic machine. As the campaign progressed, scandalous details emerged about Seabrook’s taxes and his marital status, thus casting doubt on his individual integrity. Faltering in the polls, Seabrook returned to the race issue with a vengeance, but he still lost going away. The lesson here is that race-based appeals can backfire horribly if they are perceived as race-baiting by the voters. Given both Gadson’s more wholesome image and her support from Brooklyn’s Democratic machine, it seems unlikely that she will need to make direct appeals to her race to draw voters, but if Gadson’s numbers are lower than projected as Election Day approaches, her camp may start pushing the race issue all out.
The pundits’ early favorite in the race for Borough Hall had to be long-time city councilman Ken Fisher of Brooklyn Heights. With an impressive record on the Council (like getting the city to end its non-functional fire hydrant parking ticket scam) and good machine pedigree (his father was Treasurer of the local Democratic Party for years), Fisher had been raising money for the last three years for a planned run for mayor this season. The pragmatic decision to run instead for the BP seat gave Fisher a huge fundraising advantage over the other two candidates. By early May, Fisher’s campaign had raised over $700,000, far more than had his two opponents combined. Some observers felt that Fisher’s connections and huge war chest might help him steal some major endorsements away from the machine’s candidate, Gadson, but thus far this has not yet happened.
To date, the biggest surprise of the election at this early stage must be the surprising strength that State Senator Marty Markowitz of Flatbush has shown in pulling exactly some of these coveted endorsements. Markowitz is a wonderfully charismatic politician, famous for organizing popular concert series in his district, who lost to Golden in his last bid for the BP seat back in 1985. Markowitz’s greatest coup thus far has been winning the endorsements of Brooklyn’s leading Lesbian, Gay, Bi, and Transgender Democratic club, the Lambda Independent Democrats, even though he is on the wrong side of their professed “main” issue, gay marriage. (See the accompanying piece by Jason Jones in the Express section of this issue.) While already pulling club endorsements that Fisher’s campaign had been counting on, Markowitz also threatens Gadson because he has a long history of support from blacks in his Senatorial district.
Ultimately, the greatest danger for both Markowitz and Fisher is that they will split their white voter base, thereby handing Borough Hall to Gadson. Yet thus far none of the candidates has a decisive advantage, so the race is definitely one to watch closely over the summer.