MTA Woes Continue + Tips for Avoiding Competitive Elections!

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In-Depth: Avoiding Competitive Elections

Legally speaking, every politician in New York City must face voters every two to four years and prove once again that he or she is fit for office. Practically speaking, that’s not quite how it works. Insulated from Republican challenge in an overwhelmingly blue city and protected by incumbency advantage in the primary, NYC politicians can go decades without facing a genuinely competitive election.

Thus the only competitive election many of them ever do face is their first one: the Democratic primary for an open seat. Such races are often mobbed with numerous challengers, since they present virtually the only real opportunity for political outsiders to challenge the New York political establishment.

This is a serious problem. It’s a problem for establishment candidates, who are rarely the sort of charismatic world-beaters who fare well in competitive elections, and for departing incumbents, who would rather leave their seats to protegés as a reward for loyal service than leave things up to chance, and for the New York political establishment as a whole, which would rather keep the government in safe hands than leave control up to the arbitrary will of the people. For this reason the art of avoiding competitive open-seat primaries has received considerable attention from New York politicos, and a number of solutions have been devised.

The Special Election: One of the easiest ways to avoid a competitive election is to simply retire or switch seats in the middle of your term, triggering a special election. There are no primaries for special elections; for state legislative elections, the Democratic County Committees simply award the Democratic ballot line to their favored candidate and thus grant that candidate, in New York City at least, near-certain victory. (This capacity is a source of enormous power for the party apparatus.) The convenience of this maneuver explains why nearly one third of Assembly reps (48 out of 150) were first elected in special elections. The rules are significantly fairer in City Council, where no one gets the major-party ballot lines and everyone must run on a new ballot line, and City Council special elections are accordingly rarer.

The Petition Headfake: To get on the primary ballot in New York, a candidate must collect hundreds or even thousands of signatures from voters in the course of little more than a month in the summer preceding the election. Marshalling the resources to do this requires significant time and money. A candidate who waits to announce her decision not to run until immediately before petitioning begins can leave her campaign apparatus to her chosen successor while leaving potential challengers with the near-impossible task of putting together a campaign in barely a month, thus virtually guaranteeing that the chosen successor will get on the primary ballot and no one else will.

The Vacancy Theft: A candidate who sees even this as too big a risk may choose to drop out of the race after petitioning is already over, thus making absolutely sure that no challenger will have time to mount a campaign. In this situation the decision as to who will take the incumbent’s place on the ballot falls to a “committee to fill vacancies” appointed by the incumbent himself, and succession is guaranteed.

This last move is so shameless it’s rarely used; the most memorable recent example is ethically challenged Queens Democratic County Committee boss Joe Crowley’s election to the US House of Representatives in 1999, when his predecessor, Thomas Manton, withdrew from the race on the last possible day and virtually appointed him. Crowley has not faced the indignity of a serious challenger since, though that may change with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s run this year (UPDATE: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley.) A similar move put Bronx DA Darcel Clark in office when her predecessor, Robert Johnson, withdrew from the race only a week after winning the Democratic primary.

And last week another name was added to the list: City Councilman David Greenfield of Borough Park, chair of the powerful Land Use Committee, announced that he was taking a job with the Met Council, a Jewish charity recently embroiled in a corruption scandal when Sheldon Silver’s chief of staff’s husband stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from it, not to be confused with the wonderful tenants’ rights organization Met Council on Housing.

Greenfield announced his decision after the close of petitioning and designated his protegé Kalman Yeger to replace him on the ballot; Yeger will run unopposed in the primary and is almost certain to win a seat on the City Council next year. Before this maneuver, Yeger, whose name was recently linked to Greenfield’s real estate slush fund, was running against Chaim Deutsch in an adjoining district; now Deutsch, too, will not have much to worry about this year.

Greenfield claims that he wasn’t offered the Met Council job until recently; it’s impossible to know whether that’s true. What is certain is that voters in his district will not get a genuine choice about who is to represent them this year. And whatever Greenfield’s intentions, the situation demonstrates how insiders can use New York’s partisan elections and restrictive ballot-access rules to keep voters out of politics and turn city government into a backroom deal.

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