one form or another, I have been interviewing politicians and commenting
on the world of politics since shortly after I learned to walk. My
political science degree from Queens College, my father’s scholarship in
the areas of government and history, my own personal inclinations and the
good fortune of winding up in this business, have enabled me to meld
vocation and avocation. I participate, analyze and share with passion, the
game of politics — here in Queens, the City and occasionally beyond.
motives are simple: First and foremost I enjoy writing and politics.
Second, but primary, is my belief that an informed citizenry is essential
to the democratic process of government and a progressive, inclusive
society. My offerings are my heart and mind’s honest analysis. Please
note that I do, with some frequency, modify intellect with compassion —
that’s where the heart part comes in. Without getting into a long-winded
debate about political spectra, it is that quality that I believe places
me to the left of center. That is not to say that only “progressives”
or “liberals” — as we used to be proud to be called — have
feelings or hearts, it just seems ours are more sensitive than those on
all of that is to say I have been running our interview sessions looking
for just (fair), compassionate, hardworking, driven people who understand
the process of government and want to improve their community, our society
and the life of their neighbors.
to periodic suggestions, we do not go outside the newsroom to determine
which candidates (or issues) to support.
There are those rare occasions where we could go either way and
when I’m uncertain and a divided newsroom unpersuasive, we’ve sought
counsel from those whom we respect.
it rarely happens.
a matter of fact, I usually conduct brief postmortems after the interviews
and it is obvious to all of the editorial staff present which candidate
emerged as best for the people. As explained previously, there are other
considerations but more often than not, our interview sessions bring out
the disparity between the top public servants and the rest of the bunch.
are only five primaries out of fourteen Queens seats — nine incumbents
are being given a free ride. This indeed is a sad commentary on New
York’s electoral system. While our City has as progressive a public
campaign finance program as anywhere in the nation, its administration has
been problematic and, at times, mean-spirited. We’ll leave that subject
for another time.
we lead the country in campaign finance, our ballot access procedures are
as archaic as any and discourage and limit participation. Reform is
term limits have brought new and talented people into the game, but the
power of incumbency and party politics continue to result in too few
choices for the people. After the Primary, only one of the Queens seats
faces a serious challenge from the opposing party — and we’re
stretching it, at that.
must demand change. But a non-functioning State Legislature offers little
hope of improving our system.
none of the above criticism is aimed at the quality of the City Council
members, all of whom face reelection this year. We’ve sung their praises
since they came into office nineteen months ago as a unique class created
by term limited vacancies. We continue to be impressed by this Council.
That does not mean all of its members deserve to be returned to office.
look this week at the five contested primary races. We offer by edition,
localized reports of our interview sessions if they pertain to your area,
as well as our endorsements and this column. I assume if you’re reading
this, you have already read our endorsements which precede this column by
two pages in the Trib and six in the Press.
The words below are the words of this political junkie and do not
necessarily reflect the paper’s endorsement. As a matter of fact, this
column is being written before endorsements are decided.
one postmortem, I pointed out to Aaron Rutkoff, – a new reporter sitting
in for the first time, – that at that moment, my vote and endorsement
might differ. As an individual, my heart and personal feelings might
influence me to go in one direction, while careful thought and analysis
wearing the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief hat might moderate my sometimes more
radical personal reactions — I wasn’t sure.
have, for our own purposes, been keeping an ongoing informal evaluation of
each council member based on their effectiveness at both City Hall and in
their district. We reiterate
that the class of fourteen from Queens is superb, so when we compare
members to a class “norm”, please accept that norm as superior in
the five contested seats, one belongs to a Council star. Leroy Comrie in
has proven himself a leader, a consensus builder and a moderate yet
enlightened voice for the minority (read “race “ not “party”) in
the Council while maintaining an active district office and tending to
district needs. Leroy sits with a handful of members as the top performers
in the Council. He showed this in his interview session where, despite
being less than charismatic, Comrie shined as a bright, well-informed
master of the process and a compassionate advocate for the needs of the
people. His challenger has an understanding of government, but neither the
ability nor issues to deserve consideration.
John Liu, the first Asian elected from Queens, has performed well over his
nineteen months in the Council. His challenger was also clearly outclassed
other three seats are held by Councilmembers performing below the high
quality average of their Council class — remember, the bottom of this
talented class can still be quite impressive.
at or near the bottom, the disparity in knowledge and judgment between
incumbent and challenger comes shining through. The challengers this time
were not up to the level of the top half of the some 65 people who came
through our interview process when the seats were vacant due to term
Monserrate’s opponent was sadly ill informed about the role and powers
of a Councilman, while Hiram has grown in his short tenure.
Gennaro faces two challengers. One clearly is not up to the task of
legislating — she has failed to demonstrate a grasp of anything deeper
than hot button issues. While David Reich, – Gennaro’s other opponent
— is bright and has a sincere desire and grasp of government, he
demonstrated no knowledge of the incumbent’s performance or votes. He
was unable to define any difference he would make. Sadly, he has run twice
for City Council but has never found the time to attend a Council meeting.
No, neither gave us any reason for the people to look further than the
we came down this past Friday to the one race where we felt change was
needed and perhaps likely — the 28th Council District. Incumbent Allan
Jennings has been the odd man out – more often than not – in a united
Council. His strange antics have been an embarrassment to himself and
perhaps to others. Yet he is bright, very hard working and dedicated to
serving. His opponent Yvonne Reddick has a two-decade long record of fine
service as a Community Board District Manager. She has also been a
Democratic District Leader for 13 years.
was a difference here. Jennings voted against raising property taxes by
18.5 percent and offered to us the idea of across-the-board cutbacks of
every City agency as an alternative. Reddick supported the tax increase.
Jennings called for reform in the selection process of judges while
Reddick blessed the very questionable and well publicized, troublesome
the issue of term limits — passed by a referendum of the people —
Jennings promised to oppose any further attempt to modify term limits
without going back to the people even though he previously flip-flopped on
the term limit “tweak” allowing the Speaker and others to run for an
additional two years while denying his predecessor the right to challenge
him. Reddick, was all over the place on this issue, at times echoing the
cry of the self-serving Council members who three years ago tried to
extend their own terms: “The people didn’t understand what they voted
for.” But finally, under great pressure from this interviewer, offered
that she would support the effort to overturn term limits by going back to
we’ve battled with Jennings. At times, he’s refused to return newsroom
phone calls. We’ve encouraged others to consider challenging him. Allan
Jennings is not our ideal council member. However, he is fiercely
independent and advocates for the good of the people without regard for
party or politics.
Reddick knows the game and knows how to get along. She seems to be another
politician who will turn on the weather forecast to make sure she knows
which way the wind is blowing.
is a difference.
won’t embarrass us.
won’t make waves.
I know how I’d vote.
Would Non-Partisan Elections
people, or agencies, give up power voluntarily and political elites are no
exception. The requirement of prior party enrollment for
participation at the polls in a primary precludes people who are
politically independent, and have not enrolled in a particular political
party. The process is called a “closed primary”... it is similar
to a closed shop where workers have to be union members even before they
are hired, therefore excluding everyone not selected by the union leaders
as worthy of admission. Since union membership is sometimes awarded
on a hereditary basis, this policy has the effect of keeping desirable
jobs in the family, either genetic or extended.
case for this preference was once explained to me by a union officer as
follows: Mr. Rockefeller can leave his millions of dollars to his
children and that gives them a great advantage in life. My main
asset in this world is my union card, so why can’t I leave that to my
wiser than I can explain why this unionist’s position is unjustified.
It is, however, usually true that the necessary burden of eliminating
discrimination in education, housing and employment falls far more heavily
on the middle and working classes than it does on the rich.
people claim that they do not like party politics or insider domination of
City government. The proposed charter will somewhat weaken political
parties, although they will still exist because of the natural human
desire to band together for protection against enemies and advancement of
friends, and to nominate and elect state and federal officials. But
it is also true that while many people dislike politics, they are
satisfied with their own officials.
saw this most vividly years ago at a small recreation building in Bay
Ridge, where the citizens complained to Mayor Giuliani and cited examples
of what they called rampant lawlessness in their neighborhood. When the
Mayor asked the people their opinion of the captain of their precinct –
who was present – they all replied that he was a wonderful police
officer and that they liked him. The captain was shortly transferred
out of the precinct by Commissioner Bratton, who felt that if the officer
were so competent, there would have been fewer crimes for the people to
may well be the same with the Charter. People don’t like politics, but
they like their own representation. They may be inclined to vote to
keep them in office and not to make it more difficult or inconvenient for
them to be re-elected. On the other hand, term limits won twice,
thanks to Ronald Lauder. The issue could come down to how much each
side spends on the campaign.
political and labor establishment will attack Mayor Bloomberg if he spends
even one per cent of the money he has earned over the years in support of
charter reform. But they will use the treasuries of their organizations
and the members they control to defeat the new charter and preserve the
status quo which has brought them such rich benefits in power, wealth and
prestige over the years of their domination.
the other hand, in a predominantly Democratic city like New York, there
are problems with nonpartisan elections as well. The first round
would become the substitute for the Democratic primary, and the two
front-runners in November could well both be Democrats. Indeed in
many if not most of the 51 Council districts, this is likely to be the
case. Therefore Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals would not
have a candidate of their own party to vote for in the November election.
They would, however, be able to choose between the top two vote-getters,
which would be a good thing, because Republicans might support the more
conservative Democrat while members of the Working Families party could
support the more radical.
September candidates might have to reach out to different constituencies
to win votes in November, especially in moderate districts. Voters would
have a second chance to pick a winner, even if their choice did not
prevail in September. Since the Council today consists of 48 Democrats and
three Republicans, people who are not enrolled Democrats have much more
limited influence in choosing their Council member than those who are.
his third term, Mayor Edward Koch was criticized because of the corrupt
activities of the Bronx and Queens Democratic leaders...Stanley Friedman
and the late Donald Manes. Koch did not appoint either of them to
public office, they were elected to party office in their respective
counties before he became Mayor. Friedman and Manes controlled the
City Council delegations from their boroughs. If the Mayor wanted
any significant legislation to be adopted by the Council, their approval
was necessary. As a result, they had certain leverage, which they
tried to exert in personnel recommendations.
were often rebuffed, as in 1985 when Manes sought control of the
Department of Transportation and the Parking Violations Bureau (for
reasons not known at the time, but later revealed, setting off a chain of
events which culminated in his suicide). His repeated requests were denied
by Mayor Koch, who appointed a non-political career manager, Barbara Gunn.
link between elected puppets and county leaders is unquestionably a
corruption hazard. Imagine if the since-convicted Angel Rodriguez, who was
Clarence Norman’s candidate for speaker in January 2002, had been
selected. As in 1986, it was the Bronx and Queens organizations that
combined to defeat Brooklyn. Manhattan was always too fragmented and too
full of candidates to be of much use to anyone and Staten Island was too
enemies of non-partisan elections oppose the new charter because of
self-interest. They rely on their lawyers’ intimate familiarity
with the existing process. Even if the power of political leaders
would not, in fact, be significantly diminished, they are fond of the
rules as they are, with all their built-in unfairness, such as: onerous
requirements for ballot access, lawsuits knocking candidates off the
ballot for technical reasons, harassing elderly petition signers with
subpoenas, impressing jobholders to do battle with insurgents, etc.
a non-radical reformer, I have serious problems with the way the big guys
play politics in New York State. Existing conditions and practices
– sometimes widespread – include executive, legislative and judicial
patronage, court appointments of attorneys based on influence and
contributions to the party in power; nepotism, cronyism and favoritism;
private law practices on public issues; pork barrel appropriations;
poverty pimping; padded expense accounts; double billing for expenses;
multiple constituent mailings; influence peddling and purchasing; judge
selling; log rolling, buck passing, grandstanding, gerrymandering to
insure eternal tenure; as well as yet undetected schemes of pillage and
privilege, have made state and local government somewhat less worthy of
New Yorkers’ respect than might be the case if the people had real
choices to make when they vote.
If nonpartisan elections would lead to curing some of these evils, they would be worthwhile. No one can be sure how politics would be affected, but it is hard to imagine how the system would become worse.
Sometimes, when complex issues are raised, people decide by voting on the side of people they like and respect, or against those who have irritated them. But the charter vote should not be a referendum on Mayor Bloomberg. Opponents will try to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with City conditions to protect their interest in political domination. That is a problem the campaign must face. But to retreat from the struggle would be to abandon a major initiative to try to depoliticize municipal government, or at least to alter the balance of influence between party bosses and the rest of the people of New York.
Henry Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner for fifteen years and a Council member for nine. He is founder and director of NYCivic, a good government group. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com