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Bloomberg's Idea of Nonpartisan Vote Is Drawing Powerful Opponents


July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TMES. All rights reserved. 

For the last few months the topic of nonpartisan elections has percolated just below public consciousness, drawing the interest of those New Yorkers who always show up at small community meetings or who have a personal stake in its outcome. But that is changing.

In recent weeks, the issue has been attracting more discussion and much outcry, and forces are starting to amass to try to block an electoral change that many say can affect city politics as much as term limits did in the late 1990's.

The latest people to be heard on the electoral shift are members of the New York City Congressional delegation. Led by Representative Charles B. Rangel, they have started to attack the charter revision panel that is likely to recommend this summer that a referendum on nonpartisan elections be put on the ballot, perhaps as early as November. Nonpartisan elections would mean that candidates for local office would not run in a primary and would appear on the ballot without a major-party affiliation.

Like other Democrats who have spoken on the issue, the Congressional members are growing more pointed in their arguments and more direct in linking the issue to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, its champion, whom they fear will use his wealth to sell the idea to New Yorkers.

"I don't want to get caught asleep and to have this thing happen without doing anything about it," said Mr. Rangel, a Democrat from Manhattan who said recently that he intended to be heavily involved in the fight against nonpartisan elections.

"And knowing the power of Bloomberg dollars, and knowing how effective those dollars can be in a television campaign, I don't want to be asleep at the wheel," he said in an interview.

Other large cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have nonpartisan local elections, but the concept has been anathema in New York, which is dominated by Democratic Party politics and party rule. While parties in general have weakened, party leaders in New York continue to influence who is nominated for elected positions.

Mr. Bloomberg, a former Democrat who became a Republican to break out of the party pack and run for mayor, has said since taking office that he would like to change the system and that he was willing to put his money behind the effort.

The proposal now being discussed would affect the three citywide elected positions — mayor, public advocate and comptroller — the five borough presidencies and the 51 Council seats.

Mr. Bloomberg has said his proposal is intended to lessen the grip of political parties and encourage more people to participate in electoral politics. His plan has opponents shuddering, largely because in an age of widespread voter dissatisfaction, particularly with the performance of the major parties, the idea has public appeal. It could actually happen.

A New York Times poll taken in early June, for example, found that 64 percent of New York City residents surveyed favored a switch to nonpartisan elections, while 22 percent opposed it; 14 percent had no opinion. The results held across racial lines.

The opponents argue that party labels help voters identify candidates ideologically. They argue that the system has worked well for a century or more and that there is no compelling need to change things.

In addition, more and more, Mr. Rangel and other Democratic leaders are making an argument based on race. They say a party affiliation helps the emerging crop of black, Hispanic and Asian candidates and protects the power of the party leaders, who are more likely nowadays to be members of one of those minorities.

"It was good for the white Anglo-Saxon, it was good for the Irish and Germans and the Italians; it was good for the Jewish politicians," Mr. Rangel said. "Now, when it becomes good for the blacks and the Puerto Ricans, who would have thought that we would have a mayor who would say, let's pull this thing apart and start all over again?"

Representative Jose E. Serrano, a Bronx Democrat, also raised the race issue. "I've been around long enough to know how hard it's been for minorities to become a strong part of the Democratic Party," he said. "Now, all of the sudden, he's saying that this structure is no longer needed? Come on."

Their argument could galvanize opposition to nonpartisan elections, but it could also have the secondary consequence of inciting opposition to Mr. Bloomberg. The mayor is already suffering in the polls from the disapproval of minority groups and the white ethnic non-Manhattan residents who elected him.

William T. Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, called the statements of Mr. Rangel and others "scare tactics."

Any claims that minority candidates would fare badly in a nonpartisan system ignore the victories of black and Hispanic candidates in mayoral elections in San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, all cities with nonpartisan municipal elections, he said.

"Raising race in this matter is designed to scare people without looking at the merits of opening up the process and giving voters more choice," Mr. Cunningham said.

"The primary process and clubhouse system is dominated by the party apparatus. Nonpartisan elections in and of themselves will not stop any minority or any gender from getting elected."

In any case, the issue seems likely to be placed before the voters either this year, during the elections for Council, or as a part of next year's elections for legislative and Congressional positions.

Many Democratic leaders have criticized the charter revision commission, insisting that it made up its mind before it held any public hearings. They point out that when the commission members were announced by Mayor Bloomberg, the chairman, Frank J. Macchiarola, announced that a proposal to establish nonpartisan elections would be placed before the voters, although he did not indicate whether it would be this year or in 2004. (The City Charter states that any measure recommended by a charter commission must be placed on the ballot within two election cycles.)

Administration officials say the commission's review will include two rounds of public hearings at which anyone opposed to the idea can make a case. That second round is now going on at local colleges and schools in all five boroughs, and will continue until the end of the month. The panel's recommendations are to be announced by Labor Day.

Commission officials dismissed any suggestion that the mayor or the panel would ignore the concerns of minority candidates, pointing out that 6 of the 11 member of the commission are black, Hispanic or Asian.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have begun to prepare for a battle. They have hired Howard Wolfson, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2002 and an adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, to help plan their strategy for defeating the measure. (Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Senator Charles E. Schumer has spoken on the issue.)

Democratic leaders are planning a grassroots campaign, and have prepared fliers for Democratic candidates for Council to hand out to voters as they collect signatures to qualify for this year's ballot.

Some council members have also proposed a bill that would prevent Mayor Bloomberg from using his personal fortune to promote nonpartisan elections.

"I think we still have a great deal more work to do," said Representative Gregory W. Meeks, a Democrat from Queens who opposes nonpartisan elections. "It's an issue that's starting to get more attention. But so far, we Democrats haven't done enough yet to fight this thing. We've got a lot of work to do."

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