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?)
Thompson’s campaign believes it can make an issue of Bloomberg’s spending and wealth. “There was a different economic landscape during the 2005 election,” says Thompson campaign manager Eddy Castell. “No one resented an out-of-touch billionaire; everyone wanted to be a billionaire. Now it’s all Madoff, AIG, and Bloomberg saying he loves rich people.”
The mayor’s billions are at the core of his political power. But Bloomberg is exploiting fundamental weaknesses on the Democratic side that have nothing to do with his riches. That’s vividly apparent when it come to another main thrust of Thompson’s campaign: He’d be … nicer than Mike. Thompson, for instance, supports mayoral control of the schools, but with more input from parents. After the Dinkins-endorsement press conference, in which the former mayor said he was backing Thompson because the candidate supports “Democratic values,” I asked Thompson how he defined those values for New York in 2009. “It’s caring about the interests of middle-class and working New Yorkers and understanding that people are suffering,” Thompson said. “It’s about wanting to help small business and the self-employed. More than anything, it’s a belief in people.”
No one is against believing in people. But the core philosophy of the city’s Democratic Establishment has evolved little since the late eighties: It still revolves around identity politics and social services. We may be more enlightened, tolerant, and humane than other cities, but we’re also more highly taxed, with a rapidly eroding business sector and an inequitable public-education system. If Democrats want to win City Hall ever again, those are the kinds of issues they need to tackle. Unfortunately, there’s nothing resembling a local Democratic Leadership Council, the nineties outside-the-mainstream group that shook up Democratic-policy orthodoxy and gave the world Bill Clinton. The Drum Major Institute is the rare New York outfit to have wrestled with what a revamped progressive agenda might look like; in February, its executive director took a new job—on the Bloomberg campaign.
The local Democratic malaise, however, may be indicative of a larger shift. Perhaps we’ve entered a new, less partisan, two-tiered era of government. “The party structure produces legislatures, but it can’t groom executives—at the city, state, or federal level,” says a political strategist who has worked on both sides of the party aisle. “It’s not that people don’t want Democrats as mayor. They want someone who can positively affect their life. Rudy capitalized on a lot of Democratic ideas. It was Ray Kelly and others who’d talked about ‘broken windows.’ But Dinkins and the Democratic structure fought those ideas. The party continues to fight education reform that would make their candidates acceptable to a broader audience. Neither Obama nor Bloomberg came up through the ranks, and when it comes to executives, voters don’t want the organization man.”
There are some stirrings about remaking the organization. Scott Stringer, the 49-year-old Manhattan borough president, is no radical, but he recognizes that his party has gone stale. “One thing that Bloomberg and Spitzer—before the fall—changed was the notion that doing ‘good enough’ was enough,” he says. “Those days are gone. You have to grab issues instead of just taking issues that come to you. As New York Democrats, we have numbers in our favor, but we could lose it all if we don’t stand for something. We have not shown real leadership.” Other less-entrenched Democrats—like Brooklyn state assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, 38—are showing encouraging signs of restlessness. Eric Gioia, 36, of Queens, running for public advocate, has wonky potential. The spiky Eva Moskowitz, 45, is just offstage, commanding charter schools. Stringer, who may challenge Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in a 2010 primary, sees nontraditional candidates jumping into the Democratic mayoral field in 2013. “Unless,” he says with a dark laugh, “Bloomberg decides he needs a fourth term.”