A surprise visit by Carl Paladino, millionaire Buffalo developer and newly-announced candidate for Governor, provided some media candy at Tuesday evening’s NYC Charter Revision Commission public hearing at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. Paladino’s open disdain for New York’s partisan electoral politics brought passion to the dominant message voiced in Tuesday’s public testimony: Make NYC elections non-partisan.
The call for non-partisan elections — pitched by speakers representing the NY Independence Party, such as former Presidential candidate Lenora Fulani — is certain to be a recurring theme as the 2010 charter hearings move around the boroughs. It’s an idea that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly endorsed; his 2003 charter commission focused on non-partisan elections but was rebuffed by the city’s voters — despite Bloomberg’s personal $7 million campaign donation to promote the commission’s proposal.
Why the odd-couple marriage between the populist Independence Party and Billionaire Mike Bloomberg? In New York City politics, two groups perennially compete: the municipal-labor-union-backed Democratic Party, which uses DC37 phone banks and local political clubs to mobilize middle-class and working-class voters, and the much smaller Republican Party, which lacks the same number of ground troops, but which, with the help of Wall Street and the real estate community, can buy the media time that re-elected Mike Bloomberg last November and can elect a future mayor like him.
The group with the most to lose if NYC elections go non-partisan is the Democratic Party, which depends on party primaries to hold together the local clubs that deliver votes on Election Day. Without such primaries, which non-partisan elections would eliminate, the Democrats would lose much of their cohesiveness, and a Republican-Independent coalition could prevail.
If this scenario were to have a chance of succeeding in 2010, it would be because the demographic group swelling the ranks of the Independence Party, mostly younger voters weaned on the Internet, don’t find traditional Democratic Party politics attractive. The zeitgeist of a dysfunctional and scandal-ridden Albany is adding to their estrangement from traditional party politics. Independence Party leaders know this and use such organizations as the Castillo/All Stars Project to attract the young people who were in Tuesday’s audience of about 140 persons.
As the hearing opened, commission Chairman Matthew Goldstein announced the appointment of key staff members, led by Lorna B. Goodman, Executive Director. Ms. Goodman is a former Nassau County Attorney and a 25-year veteran of the NYC Law Department. She will be paid an annualized salary of $160,000.
Apart from this, the charter testimony by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and Assemblyman James Brennan, focused heavily on the limitations of the charter commission’s current timetable, which contemplates putting proposals on the November, 2010 ballot. Other speakers proposed proportional representation, a stronger land use role for community boards, and the predictable restoration of two-term limits for NYC elected officials.
Most appreciated by us on Tuesday evening was the eloquent — and compelling — testimony of Queens Civic Congress President Patricia Dolan, whose support of community boards and community input into municipal decisions set the tone for most of the other 14 speakers during the evening. Dolan’s testimony is available here in its entirety.