Voters Reject Incumbents in Low Turnout Primary

margaret_chin.jpgMargaret Chin, rallying an anti-DOT crowd last December, defeated Lower Manhattan council rep Alan Gerson in one of several losses for incumbents yesterday.

The biggest news from last night’s primaries has to be the ouster of no fewer than four sitting City Council members in a vote marked by low turnout. A fifth incumbent, Maria Baez, looks extremely likely to lose her seat, trailing by 100 votes. In these local primaries, where several winning candidates failed to clear the 2,000 vote threshold, that pretty much qualifies as a solid mandate for challenger Fernando Cabrera. A sixth, Queens rep Thomas White, leads by six votes — with 1,849 to his credit in the un-certified tally.

The Times’ Sam Roberts called yesterday’s results "the greatest repudiation of incumbents in a generation." So what do the defeated Alan Gerson, Helen Sears, and Kendall Stewart all have in common? For one thing, they all voted to extend term limits last October. If you’re Mayor Bloomberg, the backlash potential on November 3 seems a little more real today. For livable streets activists, the risks of counting on one administration to do the important work of bringing our transportation system into the 21st century feel a lot more acute.

That’s a big reason why it was so important to lay some groundwork during this campaign — to make sustainable transportation and planning policy a politically relevant issue. Thanks to Transportation Alternatives’ candidate survey, we now have several council members on the record, some more specifically than others, talking about things like street safety, congestion pricing, and Bus Rapid Transit. We know that freshman council members Brad Lander, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Daniel Dromm will bring a more progressive outlook to City Hall than their predecessors or their primary opponents.

In the critical Manhattan DA race, all three candidates produced strong platforms to make streets safer following TA’s June debate. Robert Morgenthau may have passed the baton to Cy Vance, but there’s every reason to believe the new DA will do more to deter deadly driving on our crowded streets than his mentor.

It would be foolishly presumptuous, however, to say that livable streets supporters played a decisive role in determining the outcome of any race. The get-out-the-vote factor is still missing. Nowhere was this more apparent than in District 33, the Brooklyn council seat vacated by David Yassky.

Jo Anne Simon and Evan Thies each brought strong progressive transportation creds and real track records to their candidacies. You can hypothesize that they split the vote in a crowded field. But in the end they were beaten by a 28-year-old former aide to party boss Vito Lopez with no discernible accomplishments to his name. Winner Steve Levin swayed the New York League of Conservation Voters enough to win their endorsement (read some of his positions in this PDF), but whether he’ll prove to be his own man and represent the best interests of his district — the ultimate doormat for free-riding car commuters — is a totally open question.

The most impressive display of boots-on-the-ground power, meanwhile, didn’t come from Lopez. That distinction belongs to the Working Families Party. WFP City Council candidates upended at least three incumbents, probably four. Other WFP-backed contenders, including Levin, Lander, and Van Bramer, won hard fought campaigns for open seats. One can only imagine the wonders that an all-out WFP campaign for congestion pricing or bridge tolls would work for New York City transit riders.

In the big citywide campaigns for comptroller and public advocate, WFP candidates John Liu and Bill de Blasio also came out on top. Because neither cleared 40 percent of the vote, both of these races are now slated for run-off elections in two weeks. Comptroller hopeful Yassky slightly outperformed expectations with a 30 percent showing, and Mark Green placed a surprisingly lackluster second in his bid for a reprise as public advocate.

If you have a dog in those races (and I suspect you do), here’s the thing. Sure we’re talking about citywide campaigns, but turnout on September 29 is going to be even lower than yesterday’s abysmal showing. Call ten of your friends, get them to the polls in two weeks, and try your hand at power brokering for a day.

  • Four incumbents standing for re-election lost. There are 51 seats. How many incumbents stood for re-election?

  • There seem to be plenty of people out there who care about these issues, given the growing popularity of cycling, this blog, TA, etc. What we don’t have is any kind of organization that can turn that constituency into political power. By having Bloomberg take a sudden and unexpected interest in a sound transportation policy, we have succeeded far beyond what the current state of transit advocacy can sustain. If Bloomberg loses, or has a change of heart, or JSK gets called up to the Obama administration, we’re out of luck.

    We are severely limited by the 501c3 status of the city’s major transpo groups–they cannot have a set of endorsed candidates, nor can they make any effort to gotv for or against any candidates. In short, there are no electoral consequences for crossing us. I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but we need to have an organization to do transportation organizing, not just advocacy. TA could add a PAC on the side, or we could build something new, but it needs to happen. I mean, many transit activists would think that VAN is a motor vehicle? Also–the TWU would be a natural ally for such a coalition, but we’re too busy fighting over the scraps given to public transit to see it.

  • Josh

    District 33 not-voter here. There were like 8 candidates for this seat. None of them did hardly anything to differentiate themselves. Sure, I would have voted against the machine candidate, but it was winner take all. Perhaps next time an alternative machine can show up to throw support behind one alternative candidate, as opposed to letting us all get worthless paper marketing materials on our morning commute from paid not-volunteers.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    There seem to be plenty of people out there who care about these issues, given the growing popularity of cycling, this blog, TA, etc. What we don’t have is any kind of organization that can turn that constituency into political power.

    Yeah, but we have the Zozo. Don’t forget.

  • Gwin

    In the critical Manhattan DA race, all three candidates produced strong platforms to make streets safer following TA’s June debate. Robert Morgenthau may have passed the baton to Cy Vance, but there’s every reason to believe the new DA will do more to deter deadly driving on our crowded streets than his mentor.

    I certainly hope so! Morgenthau has been a disaster when it comes to prosecuting drivers who kill/injur pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Greg

    I live in District 33. We most definitely need to learn from this one. I was essentially voting for anyone but Levin, but it was hard to know whether to vote for Simon, Thies, or even Boviano. A split field for sure, and the people of our district definitely lost.

  • JK

    The transportation reform movement is “severely limited by the lack of a 501c3.” Really? It seemed like TA did a great job educating candidates and highlighting the issues with their surveys and forums.

    Do you really think that a one-issue, sustainable transportation lobbying group would have either a GOTV operation or endorsement potent enough to sway a meaningful amount of primary voters? That’s interesting. How many council districts would this group be able to change an election result in? How many in this primary for instance? In Park Slope, Brad Lander won his primary without such a group — incidentally, in a primary full of sustainable transportation types, who do you support? In downtown Brooklyn (Yassky’s district)the Brooklyn machine/mafia candidate, Steve Levin, won with the endorsement of NYCLV. Would the GOTV of the sustainable transportation C4 trump the clubhouse turnout, green washing, and well financed mailings of the machine? In Lower Manhattan, the dismal Gerson lost, but his successor isn’t particularly great. I’d be interested to see an analysis of how many races a single issue, transit/transportation c4 could be expected to effect and how much it would cost to do so. Among the many challenges are the numerous layers of elected office in NYC and the size of the city. Take congestion pricing. Imagine the size of the operation needed to get candidates on the ballot, and to support them with GOTV, to challenge assembly members from Manhattan districts who opposed pricing. Picture too the constituent mail from the incumbents with all of their other green endorsements. Hard to see what this group would look like and how it would work and sustain itself.

  • I give $20 a month to the “Climate PAC” which is attached to NYLCV. I was very disappointed that they didn’t endorse Melissa Mark-Viverto despite having a perfect score on their scorecard and then they endorse some hack in Brooklyn. I’ll have to reconsider that donation, but really there are few places to turn to support the kind of candidates we need. Politics is messy and candidates inherently imperfect…

    There’s no city-wide group that could do what some of you are asking. Everyone needs to do their part across the board. Go to community board meetings, talk to staffers of elected officials, form small local groups to push specific issues, donate/volunteer for candidates you believe-in.

  • You seem to be giving those straw men a good thrashing, so I should probably leave you to it. And ultimately, I’m defending an entirely hypothetical organization that I lack the connections, executive experience, and funds to launch. But I’ll go ahead and bite.

    The fact that a lot of pro-reform candidates won this year was largely coincidental. These candidates (Dromm, Van Bramer, Lander) had heavy union support. But there’s no reason that the interests of unions will always and everywhere match up with those of the transportation reformers.

    Right now, TA can get (most) candidates on record about transportation issues, then get that information to a group of motivated, high-information, tech-savvy voters. That’s not nothing. But holding candidates to their words, reaching out to people who agree with us but lack the inclination to do the research, and herding the more motivated to keep from splitting our power–these are jobs that really cannot be done by a 501c3 without running into seriously murky territory.

    I’m not saying that, by adding an affiliate with a more permissive tax status, we could remake the City Council or (shudder) State Senate. But we could give support to the good guys, make the worst offenders pay at least some price, and make those in between think of us as a constituency to be courted (or at least avoid irritating) with more than just soundbites.


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