One Win in Nine Tries

The post-election recriminations and spins are underway, with some spinning Bloomberg weakness in a narrow victory and some decrying Democratic divisions in a narrow defeat. My question is simply this: does the Democratic establishment in this city have any capacity for self-examination? In a city where the vast majority of voters are registered Democrats, where voters waited in line to vote for Barack Obama one year ago, the people have recoiled from electing a Democrat as Mayor, the only other elected office most pay attention to, for five consecutive elections.

But this goes back farther, because a reading of The Bronx is Burning shows that former Mayor Ed Koch gained election in 1977 by running against the Democratic Party establishment, both its machine/public employee union wing and its non-profit wing. He subsequently gained re-election by running as a Republican as well as a Democrat. That means that candidates opposing the New York City Democratic Party establishment have won eight of the last nine elections, a streak interrupted only by former Mayor Dinkins, gaining the votes of tens of thousand of people who gladly vote for Democrats from anywhere else. Will any Democrat give a reason for this that is not just an excuse? How do you explain a record of one win in nine tries, a wining percentage of 11.1%, .111 expressed as a batting average, 1/11?

Thus far, I have only reviewed the elections I am old enough to remember, but history just expands on the theme. Consider the New York Times response to the election of John Lindsay as Mayor in 1965 .  “John V. Lindsay is the next Mayor of New York. The politically incredible has come to pass. This city, weary of twenty long years of plodding one-party rule, has cast its vote for a better future. The people have made it plain that they want a change. They will get it in Lindsay.”

Of course the Republican Lindsay went on to do many of the special interest sellouts that a weary city had come to expect of the Democrats, and left office despised. That is not the case for Republican Fiorello LaGuardia, who famously charged up the steps of City Hall on his first day in office shouting “no more free lunch.” These men were known for their progressive principles, by the standards of the time, and their concern for the common man and the less well off. By the standards of those who proudly call themselves Democrats they might as well have been, but there was no place for them in the plodding New York Democratic establishment.

One can go back even further, to Democrat Boss Tweed, the lead villain of city history, and Republican Andrew Haswell Green, the man responsible for uniting the five counties into Greater New York. Jacob Javits? Republican. RFK and Hilary Clinton? Imported. Trust buster and Bull Moose progressive Theodore Roosevelt? Republican. New Dealer Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt? From the Hudson Valley, not NYC. A few (depending on your point of view) good ones have gotten through, such as Al Smith, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Mario Cuomo. As far as I know, however, only Smith had establishment backing, which Cuomo scorned.

No doubt loyal Democrats could come up with unusual circumstances to explain each of the eight losses for the establishment. In 1977, the city was fed up after a crime wave, economic disaster and fiscal crisis, and Koch tapped into the fury. And the Democratic establishment was divided, because Koch cut a deal with some of the political bosses. In 1981 and 1985, Koch was a popular incumbent. In 1993, a recession and crime wave made city residents desperate enough to vote for Rudy Giuliani. In 2001, 9/11 made city residents desperate enough to vote for Mike Bloomberg.

Ruth Messinger in 1997, Fernando Ferrer in 2005 and Bill Thompson in 2009 were weak candidates who were defeated because outer borough voters in Staten Island and Queens are racist and sexist. Presumably including those who rushed out to vote for Hilary Clinton and then Barack Obama. Bloomberg’s Billions were to be the excuse for 2009. Democratic disunity will now take its place. The reason the Democrats have one once in nine tries, one might rationalize, is because of eight exceptional circumstances.

Actually, it is the 1989 election, the one exception to Democratic revulsion in New York, that had exceptional circumstances. People were sick of Ed Koch after twelve years. A series of racial confrontations turned Blacks and Latinos against him. Koch had been elected as a reformer, but his deals with Democratic political bosses came back to haunt him, as their minions robbed the city under his nose. That’s why Dinkins won.

I don’t think that Messigner, Ferrer and Thompson were weak candidates. They were probably about the most qualified and respectable creatures in the swamp. I don’t think people voted against Thompson personally, despite the smears and some late news. That isn’t it.

Consider this thought experiment. Imagine Mike Bloomberg looked, talked and thought exactly as he has in reality, and pursued all the same policies as Mayor for better and worse, but prior to 2001 had actually been like that of Mark Green – a career New York City Democratic political player whose brother was rich rather than being rich himself. In other words, imagine Bloomberg was who he really was, and did what he actually did, but was with the Democratic establishment, and ran as a Democrat. How would that 25/55 pension deal and those tax increases look then?

And imagine that Bill Thompson looked, talked and thought the same but was an outsider, rather than having a father who was a Democratic grandee. And outsider who got appointed to the Board of Education in an aborted attempt at reform and subsequently compiled the same record of incremental reform within the system that Thompson did in reality. And then was subsequently cross-endorsed by the Republicans and minor parties for Comptroller, promising checks and balances, and subsequently compiled the same record that Thompson did in reality. And then ran against Democrat Bloomberg backed by a Republican/minor party fusion group.

The same people. The same racial and ethnic backgrounds. The same beliefs and records. But with different groups. I’ll bet Thompson would have won. Certainly those 142,000 mostly Democrats who voted for Bloomberg on other lines might have broken differently.

Consider the advantages the Democrats have.

New York City has, as a share of its residents’ personal income, among the highest state and local tax burdens in the country. Yet its schools have failed to educate several generations of children, its parks and libraries are a shadow of what they were on the day Lindsay was elected 45 years ago, and transit improvements promised back then and borrowed for several times since have never been made.

New York has more public, publicly subsidized, and regulated below market housing than any place else in the country. And yet most city residents, and all new residents, face the highest housing costs in the country, with new college graduates packed in three to a room and immigrants four families to an apartment.

It has the most expensive Medicaid system in the country. Yet report after report rips the relative quality of the city’s health care.

Despite those high tax rates, or because of them, New York has more tax deals than any other place, with some paying little or nothing even as those with the very same income pay a great deal.

Obviously, there are lost of people in this city who benefit from these arrangements, who have special deals. And they all show up and vote for, and have their organizations fund, the Democratic establishment. Many of those on the losing end – future generations, immigrants, recent arrivals – can’t vote. Others, the poor and uneducated (perhaps because they grew up here), don’t. Democratic special interests, and people who vote for every office based on their beliefs about God, Gays, and Guns, probably provide 400,000 Democratic votes in any citywide election. There are many fewer one-issue and “getting paid” votes against them.

The losers, perhaps due to apathy for which they themselves are to blame, more likely because the system is rigged and the blame is expertly deflected, often don’t vote at all. That, and the fact that most of the voters are Democrats and don’t want to vote for Republicans, is the reason the Democratic establishment controls the city’s representatives in the State Legislature, City Council, and Borough Presidents.

Where people pay attention, the result is different. Given any alternative New York City residents, including those who are Democrats but not in on the deal, vote against the New York City Democratic political class. They’ll even hold their nose and vote for a Mayor who spat in the face by overturning term limits, on another ballot line if they can’t stand voting for a Republican, in the face of an anti-incumbency hurricane, in the worst economy anyone has experienced. They’ll vote for a billionaire even though Bloomberg’s fellow billionaires have hoisted the Jolly Roger and pirated the economy for nearly 30 years.

Were it not for term limit repeal, if this was an election for a second term, this would have been a Bloomberg landslide. More turnout, I believe, would also have meant a much greater Bloomberg victory. Why? Because all those obnoxious and unfair commercials probably lost votes for the Mayor rather than gained them, but many who would have voted for him didn’t bother to show up. Because he could pay for commercials, but he couldn’t pay them to go to the polls. While many of those voting for Thompson did so because their motive was getting paid.

Much is being made of President Obama’s silence. I think New York City’s Democratic political class embarrasses him. I think he would prefer that Bloomberg become a Democrat, and lots of New York’s Democrats become Republicans. Because the fact is, they mostly careerists, and in a place were being a Republican would advance their career, they would be Republicans. They hold office because of a lack of competition, and are mostly interested in maintaining that lack of competition and accountability. Thus the extreme concern about the Working Families party, and opposition to a non-partisan election proposal that might have seen non-NYC political class Democrats running against the establishment incumbents on Election Day, when everyone shows up.

The Democrats certainly do have a beef in one case: the media was all in with Bloomberg. To the extent that I’m not going to be in the mood to hear from them as competitive elections continue to be done away with along with term limits, and the schools are gutted to pay for 25/55. They are all in with Bloomberg, all the way. But if Democrats continue to hold the other offices only because no one is paying attention, one has to wonder why all the people who are paying attention are against them when they think it might matter most.

So I have a challenge for New York City Democrats: give me the explanation not for just this election, but for one win in nine tries. Why did it happen? Let's hear some Daily Gotham folks chime in here.  You give your explanation, and I'll follow with mine, for those who don't already know.

And a suggestion: increase your enrollment by coming up with a way for Democratic leaning voters in New York City to join the Democratic Party of some other place where it is worth joining.