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Dem Bums

The city has not elected a Democratic mayor in twenty years, and this year’s candidates have an uphill fight. Why can’t the party rise again?


Illustration by Justin Gabbard  

The wayback machine landed on the steps of City Hall one afternoon last week.

There in the sparkling spring sunshine stood David Dinkins, at a cluster of microphones, making rambling mention of Mario Procaccino and Harrison Goldin. True, Dinkins’s hair was somewhat grayer than when he’d had an office inside the building. Otherwise, much was eerily unchanged: The formal locutions, the barely concealed anger at the media, the stubbornly dignified manners. “I’ll not criticize my friend the mayor,” Dinkins said, even though the entire point of his appearance was to rally badly needed support for Michael Bloomberg’s principal political rival, Bill Thompson.

There was also, of course, reference to Dinkins’s place in history: the first African-American mayor of New York. Which is certainly a far happier legacy than being the last Democrat to be elected mayor of the city. Ever.

In November, when Bloomberg wins again, it will mark twenty years since a Democrat won the race for City Hall. Set aside, for the moment, the fact that Bloomberg is a Democrat in everything but his current party registration and all the peculiarities of the individual races since 1989. There is something seriously wrong with a party that goes two decades without winning the contest for the most important, most powerful job in local government—in a city that prides itself on being the bluest of the blue, not just in the stunning 68 percent of voters who are registered Democratic but in its upholding of the true liberal-Democratic faith.

Worse than the losing streak, however, is the complacent attitude of the city’s Democratic Establishment. The post-Bush Republicans are thrashing around, searching for a new vision and new leadership in order to get back on top. Not here. “We have most of the City Council and all the other citywide electeds,” one party operative says, shrugging. “This is still a Democratic town.”

At a time when the city is poised to go through a wrenching transformation, Democrats aren’t even in the intellectual game at the mayoral level. The local party’s top leadership is calcified; its grassroots remain deeply, sentimentally attached to the Dinkins-era policy worldview. The city has been fortunate, mostly, that at the moment the man in charge is a progressive-minded plutocrat. Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, was regressive—and who’s to say that Bloomberg won’t become even more autocratic in a third term? The Democratic void increases the chances that someday soon the city will be run by a less- than-benevolent despot.

There is no Democratic Party of New York City. Instead there is a series of fiefdoms, the county committees of each borough. Denny Farrell has been the chairman of the Manhattan Dems since 1981. He was first elected to the State Assembly in 1974. Recently, Farrell, 77, chose to stay in the Assembly for yet another term—because the city’s term-limits extension meant Farrell couldn’t swap his Albany seat for a more convenient one on the City Council, as he’d planned.

At least Farrell is finally retiring from his New York County committee chairmanship. There has been turnover in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island chairmanships as well; in Brooklyn, the change was inspired by a felony conviction. But Farrell’s attitude lives on: that the local Democratic structure exists primarily as a patronage operation and that the way to move up is to wait your turn.

It’s part of the reason the recent Democratic nominees for mayor have been underwhelming, up-through-the-ranks types: Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, Mark Green, and Fernando Ferrer. Yet instead of shaking things up this time around and recruiting a different kind of candidate, the party’s bosses have been content to watch passively as Thompson and Anthony Weiner (sort of) seek the nomination. Weiner, a congressman representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, is the cleverest of the city’s younger politicians, but his ability to get under Bloomberg’s skin is the most substantial thing on his record. Thompson, the city comptroller, is a smart and thoughtful man, but he’s also a stolid, second-generation product of the Democratic assembly line.

Bloomberg has aggressively co-opted the Democrats, in ideas and personnel. He’s pushed issues like congestion pricing that ought to have been progressive priorities. The mayor has made nice with the labor unions, a major pillar of Democratic electoral support. And he’s been ruthless about spending big money to get his way, whether to overturn term limits or vacuum up Democratic talent for his campaign team or saturate the airwaves with ads. (A digression: The city’s economy is in bad shape and likely to grow worse. Yet a mere seven months after Bloomberg claimed the sky would fall if he didn’t rewrite the rules, the situation doesn’t look nearly as dire and he doesn’t look nearly as indispensable. Think he’ll change his mind and quit politics?)


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