Voter Participation Takes the Spotlight

John Banks and Matthew Goldstein

This week’s charter revision commission forum on Voter Participation will take place at Lehman College in The Bronx at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, June 2. With live webcasting in place, it’s a fair bet that relatively few residents of Brooklyn or Staten Island will make the journey to personally attend —- except for members of the Independence Party and its youth affiliate, the All Stars Project.

The Independence Party — now New York State’s third largest — perennially pushes for non-partisan elections: a voting change that in NYC would weaken the dominant Democratic Party and make it easier for well-funded media campaigns to trump grass-roots voter organizing at the polls.

In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw $7.5 million behind a charter revision initiative to make city elections non-partisan. Voters soundly rejected it. This year, his charter commission will try again, and is likely to cite every recent episode of Democratic and Republican misfeasance in Albany and City Hall (and there are many) to argue that New York’s two-party system breeds corruption — and should be ended.

Cathy Stewart

The Independence Party of NYC, which just feted Bloomberg at its Spring Chairman’s Reception, will give his 2010 charter commission the cover it needs to put non-partisan elections on the ballot again this November. Its leaders (we’ve spoken with Manhattan Independence Party chair Cathy Stewart and Independence Party blogger Nancy Hanks) are unswerving in their conviction that non-partisan elections would empower voters who today feel excluded by traditional Democratic and Republican organizations.

When questioned, Stewart rejects the premise that non-partisan elections would confer a disproportionate advantage to Republicans in New York, where registered Democrats greatly outnumber them. She also rejects any suggestion that, by weakening local political clubs, non-partisan elections would increase both the power of the mass media and the influence of those who can afford to buy expensive media time.

Harry Kresky

The panelist representing the Independence Party will be its NYC counsel, Harry Kresky, who previously served on Mayor Bloomberg’s 2002 charter revision commission. The other panelists will be David R. Jones of the Community Service Society, J. Phillip Thompson, an urban planner currently at MIT, and Lorraine C. Minnite, who recently co-wrote (with Frances Fox Piven) a eulogy for ACORN, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

While we’re interested in the play that non-partisan elections and other voter participation reforms get in the mainstream press, we’re more concerned about the lack of discussion in the media about the charter revision commission’s subsequent issues forums: Government Structure, Public Integrity, and Land Use.

Those subjects may fly lower than term limits or non-partisan elections on the public’s radar screen. But they too can profoundly affect the course of government in NYC over the decades to come. Should the Public Advocate be in the line for mayoral succession? Should that office even exist? Should it be the mayor who continues to appoint the members of the Conflicts of Interest Board, which may have to rule on the mayor’s business relationships? Should the scope of the City’s Environmental Quality Review be narrowed, thereby excluding some smaller projects entirely? Should the public review portions of the ULURP calendar be shortened, challenging community boards?

Whatever the specific issue, the underlying theme this year is the same one that informed the 1989 charter commission and every one since: How to elect and empower a mayor who will support the priorities of real-estate developers, the construction industry, Wall Street, the good-government civics, and major foundations.

In the zero-sum equation that apportions power in NYC, every concession made to political clubs, community boards, grass-roots civics, the Public Advocate, the borough presidents, the City Council, or Albany, is a challenge to mayoral domination.

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