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Friday, November 11, 2005

thoughts on the New York Mayor's Race

I showed up at the cafe yesterday to find a lively discussion of the NYC mayor's race. Friends who grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn echoed what another friend of mine, a Manhattanite, had told me months ago: Michael Bloomberg was a shoe-in for reelection because he'd been good for "all of New York City." Bloomberg was essentially a Democrat with an "R" behind his name who'd proved himself in his first term to be worthy of a second by being a hard-working reformer who brought a no-nonsense, inclusive, meritocratic approach to running city government.

Further, my old school New Yorker friends at the cafe were insistent that New York Republican mayors like Fiorello La Guardia and John Lindsay and Senator Jacob Javits represented a longstanding positive trend in New York City politics that Republicans have stood for reform against the Democratic Party's association with Tammany Hall, machine politics, and more recently, in the words of the New York Times, "racial and ethnic politicking."

Clearly, Michael Bloomberg won, and won a clear majority of New York City's voters who turned out on Tuesday. That's significant. From the linked NYT article:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg forged his historic re-election victory on Tuesday by drawing roughly half of New York's black voters and about 3 in 10 Latinos to the Republican line, even though he faced a Hispanic challenger who sought to capitalize on ethnic pride, an analysis of voting returns shows.

The mayor's wide support among minority voters is a sign that the strategy of the Democrat, Fernando Ferrer, to build on a dependable base of black and Hispanic votes fell victim to emerging political realities: that blacks and Hispanics no longer vote reflexively as a bloc, and that a middle-class coalition can trump traditional ethnic-based appeals. The winning multiethnic coalition turned out to be Mr. Bloomberg's....[snip]

His victory - 59 percent to 39 percent - defied the conventional political calculus in what was projected as the first mayoral race in which non-Hispanic whites would be a minority of the electorate. Most analysts said it was too early to draw long-term implications from this campaign for several reasons, including that Mr. Bloomberg spent more than $70 million on his campaign. In addition, not only was the mayor an incumbent in a city that typically gives first-term mayors the benefit of the doubt but also a lifelong Democrat until he first ran for mayor as a Republican in 2001, in contrast to his Republican predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

"He changed his party registration, but not his values," said Robert Shrum...

That's a powerful argument and a powerful sum of money, ahem. The voters and their votes, however, speak for themselves, including the fact that large swaths of voters of color saw Bloomberg as the better choice for New York's future. Bloomberg, a Republican, won almost half the African-American vote and the traditionally Democratic boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn that he lost to Mark Green in 2001. That's significant and huge. An honest rewriting of the NYT's middle class, multi-ethnic coalition, however, might have mentioned the obvious reality that Mayor Bloomberg won 69% of the white vote, as well. That's the core of the base that delivered Bloomberg's victory:

He won a second term by wooing liberal defectors from Democratic ranks and by carrying every Assembly district in which white Catholics or Jews predominate. He also carried the only district in which Asians outnumber others.

So, yesterday, when the conversation turned to me...I had to fess up to my friends that, while I concede Michael Bloomberg's strengths, and they are many, and the validity of his victory and the strength of his coalition, I didn't see his defeat of Fernando Ferrer, or this election, as necessarily being a good thing. First there's the fact that Bloomberg is very much a pro-corporate, pro-big development mayor, as this essay, Where Have all the Fighters Gone?, by columnist Juan Gonzalez had pointed out:

A report last week by the non-profit Economic Policy Institute, for example, revealed that the city granted more than $1 billion in property tax breaks to corporations and developers during Bloomberg's first two years in office. That was an astonishing 40% increase over the last two years of Giuliani, who himself was known for giving out generous tax breaks to major corporations.

Many of those tax breaks are guaranteed for 20 or 30 years, and often the discounted Payments in Lieu of Taxes (or PILOTs) that the developers agree to pay are then earmarked to finance new mega-projects, to pay off bonds for new sports facilities or to spur more luxury housing or high rise office buildings, and those revenues are inevitably assigned to new quasi-public agencies that can resist public scrutiny. By siphoning off those tax streams for decades to come, Bloomberg, like Giuliani on a smaller scale before him, is effectively dismantling the tax base that future mayors and city councils will need to pay for basic city services.

Now, Gonzalez couched his argument in a charged "clash of ethnicities" and class struggle frame, the "two New Yorks," and that will rankle some...but he has a point...a point that didn't get addressed in an election that was more about a rush to proclaim victory than addressing and debating the issues. Gonzalez asks a good question: after sixteen years of GOP politics in New York, what will be left of the city for its working majority many of whom are working poor?

...during the past few years I have heard the same refrain from local leaders in scores of working class neighborhoods around the city: the land is being given away at fire sale prices to huge developers. The list of such mega-projects and land rezoning initiatives under Bloomberg is truly breath-taking: the $5 billion plans for a new Jets Stadium, luxury housing and office buildings on Manhattan's West Side; a huge project for luxury condominiums along the Williamsburg waterfront; a giant new Nets arena and high-rise luxury development in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; a big-box retail complex in the South Bronx near Yankee Stadium: hundreds of of millions of dollars in tax abatements for Wall Street's Goldman Sachs to build a new corporate headquarters near Ground Zero. The frenzied construction of luxury housing has been accompanied by the decontrol of more than 200,000 rent stabilized apartments in the past few years that provided affordable housing for the working class; by the conversion of thousands of middle class Mitchell-Lama units to market-rate housing, and by virtually no construction of low-income housing. In every neighborhood, local leaders tell me the same story: City Hall is circumventing established mechanisms of public oversight and community control, making backroom deals with developers and bankers, steamrolling any opposition to its wholesale land giveaways.

Already more than 500,000 New York City households are paying more than 50% of their income for rent. The poor and working class are literally being pushed out...

That's a salient point. And if Michael Bloomberg's ability to both mollify critics by doing just enough "gentle development" (like including, under community pressure, higher percentages of affordable housing in that Williamsburg mega project)...and then overwhelming voters by spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money on advertising...preempted a full on debate about these issues, then all New Yorkers are the poorer because of it. It is surprising that Bloomberg's spending never became an issue. It is striking that it was deemed "okay" that a billionaire seemed to buy an election, or at least overwhelm it with advertising overkill, when that billionaire was widely seen as benevolent; but what message does that send to future candidates? What does it say about the state of democracy in New York City?

And, in fact, the election itself left something to be desired. Early results show a very low turnout. Something like 1.2 million voters went to the polls...lower than the already anemic 1997 Giuliani/Messinger turnout by 100,000 votes...and far fewer than the 1.9 million voters who voted in both of the Giuliani/Dinkins contests, or the 1.5 million voters who came out for the Bloomberg/Green race, post 9/11, in 2001. Simply put, admitting that New Yorkers tend to skip "cake walk" mayoral elections, that kind of low turnout, for whatever reason, is a bad sign for small "d" democracy in New York.

Much has been made of the Republicans four-term lock on City Hall in NYC. An even greater deal has been made of Ferrer's specific weaknesses as a candidate. It's worth a look then, for context, at the results that paved the way to that record, including the last year the Democrats won, with Dem percentages in bold: (Source: Wiki + Blythe.org)

  • 1989: Dinkins (48%) def. Giuliani (46%) w/ 917,544 votes
  • 1993: Giuliani (49%) def. Dinkins (46%) w/ 930,236 votes
  • 1997: Giuliani (57%) def. Messinger (41%) w/ 757,564 votes
  • 2001: Bloomberg (50%) def. Green (48%) w/ 744,757 votes
  • 2005: Bloomberg (59%) def. Ferrer (39%) w/ 723,635 votes

  • Turnout has gone steadily down and Democrats have failed to win a majority of New York City's voters in a mayor's race since Ed Koch (who was markedly DINO at that point) rolled the opposition twenty years ago. Fernando Ferrer is hardly alone in failing to turn out voters willing to vote Democratic: Ruth Messinger won 540,075 votes, Mark Green won 709,268 votes and, now, Ferrer won only 478,335 votes, barely more than half of what either Giuliani or Dinkins received in their two contests. In New York City, for a Democrat, that's pathetic. For three elections running New York City Democrats have failed to create the context for a high turnout election about the city's future, and Democratic candidates have failed to win the low turnout contests that they found themselves in. I don't think any Democrat can see this trend, and especially how Bloomberg built his new and successful coalition to cement it, and say that it is anything but bad news.

    Politics is not just about power, but what you do with that power. Results are the best political argument, and coalitions coalesce around results. Simply put, New York Democrats now will have to fight a coalition that has delivered two decades of GOP results in trying to convince voters to give them back the mayor's office. And, as Juan Gonazalez points out, even if a Democrat breaks through and wins, the playing field has now been shaped by pro-corporate fiscal policy, tax breaks and "big box" retail for decades to come. Low-income New Yorkers can work for retail employers who will spend thousands on ads that dominate the city's billboards...but don't provide health insurance or a living wage. And Democratic politicians can look in vain for revenues from those very same employers and developers to try to change that situation. These are some of the opportunity costs to the GOP's dominance of the mayor's office.

    Is it too much to ask where is the Democratic vision for the city? Is it too much to ask what a Democratic mayor might have done? For me, it is too easy by half to claim Bloomberg is "really a Democrat" when the real question is: where was the Democratic mayoral candidate with a vision for New York City as bold and reform-oriented as Bloomberg's? Where is the Democrat who could put together a coalition that would generate turnout and compete with the GOP? In a nutshell, where is the Barack Obama of New York politics, and why haven't New York Democrats cultivated a voice like his to take on the Giuliani and Bloomberg?

    One further and related note troubles me, and it has national implications.

    1993 witnessed the first attack on the World Trade Center...adding terrorism concretely to the crime-fighting duties of the mayor of New York. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, whatever the merits of the claim, have won recognition and praise as mayors committed to "keeping New Yorkers safe". It seems to me that the Democrats being locked out of the mayor's office has something to do with the "heightened" law and order politics of the threat of terrorism. This, too, is an opportunity missed.

    A Democratic mayor who could prove to the nation that he or she could "keep New Yorkers safe" would be a powerful symbol to the nation that Democrats can be strong in defense of our nation's citizens. That is a profound opportunity missed as well. In some ways, there is a kernel of warning in this to Democrats across the nation looking at 2006 and 2008. Michael Bloomberg's national equivalent is someone like John McCain.

    The question for Democrats is how do we compete in this environment? What is our vision? Who are our strong reformers? Feranando Ferrer in his own way, sadly, has proven, like Messinger and Green, that the "same old" won't cut it in the new political environment. What's a shame is that so many Democrats, in embracing Bloomberg, don't pay attention to what that's telling us about ourselves.



    • Some minor comments on this:

      --Your friends at the coffeeshop don't seem to have much in the way of class politics, but I'm just going off this one post, so what do I know?

      --Bill de Blasio, the potential next Speaker of the Council, has, I think, what it takes to be the progressive standard bearer countering Bloomberg.

      --The only political organization with a clear vision for what we used to call Democratic politics in NYC right now is the Working Families Party.

      --Unions, which account for most of the Dem turnout, were split on Bloomberg since they have been able to win numerous and sizable concessions from him. This split also hampered the WFP turnout effort. In fact, it killed it since WFP member unions that had endorsed Bloomberg refused to allow the WFP to endorse Ferrar unless the WFP agreed to not mount a GOTV effort.

      --Buiness unionism is strangling the long-term efforts to build a progressive political machine.

      --Your points on the economic restructuring of the NYC tax base are well taken and important for progressive leaders to understand if they hope to govern once they win.

      --Found you through Leftyblogs (I think) and love the fact that you like in Oakland as well. I can be found at nathanhj.livejournal.com and my stuff is a mix of personal stuff and political stuff.

      By Blogger NathanHJ, at 12:41 PM  

    • Part of what we have here is simply that any Black or Brown politician has be as good as Barack Obama to get significant white votes -- and that is a high bar. Merely pedestrian ones lose to the white guy.

      As far as New York City politics goes: is there a basic political divide between owners, including some with coop rights (Rep.) and renters (Dems)? There was when I lived there over 30 years ago. What have Republican-spawned development patterns done to this divide -- that is, are renters being forced out?

      We see that in the little city I now live in and the result fundamentally changes power -- bluntly, progressives and people of color lose because eventually, we're gone, priced out. Is this happening in New York? I would assume yes.

      By Blogger janinsanfran, at 12:13 AM  

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