Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Way We Were

NOTE: While waiting for Mayor Bloomberg's budget proposals, due tomorrow, we thought we might delve into some of the city's political history, considering that many of you were not yet in existence when these events occurred. We are prepared to answer your questions on any matters we discuss, realizing that some of them raise issues more complex than those we relatively briefly enumerate here.

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Unions Took Place Of Political Clubs

By Henry J. Stern
January 27, 2010

The most important year in New York City politics in the postwar era was 1961. It was on September 7th of that year that Mayor Robert F. Wagner, seeking a third term, defeated State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, who was the candidate of Carmine DeSapio (the Tammany leader) and the Democratic Party leaders in the other four boroughs.

Along with Wagner, Comptroller Abraham D. Beame and Council President Paul Screvane were elected, having defeated the Democratic party leaders' choices in the September primary. Beame at the time was the city's Budget Director, and Screvane was Sanitation Commissioner, having risen through the ranks of that department. They campaigned as career civil servants, not clubhouse politicians. Certain political rules pertaining to ethnicity and geography were nonetheless observed: Wagner, of Irish and German ancestry, was from the Yorkville section of Manhattan, Beame, who was Jewish, came from Brooklyn (at least politically; he was born in London), and Screvane, an Italian-American, lived in Queens.

At that time, 48 years ago, the three dominant voting groups in the city were the Irish, the Italians and the Jews. Today they would be whites, blacks and Latinos. One effect of the diminution in power of political bosses is the disappearance of slates: candidates for various offices running together with the same political sponsorship, but with varying ethnic and geographic roots. BTW, in 1965, when Screvane lost the Democratic mayoral primary to Abe Beame, his unsuccessful running mate for Council President was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Beame was defeated in the general election by John V. Lindsay, the Republican-Liberal candidate. In that race, the talented William F. Buckley, Jr. ran on the Conservative Party line.

The Democratic county leaders remain, however, important in the selection of judges, both by county-wide judicial conventions for Supreme Court justices (a practice recently upheld by the United States Supreme Court) and by local district elections (for Civil Court judges). Criminal and Family Court judges are appointed by the Mayor. The county leaders' inability to dictate the result of mayoral elections by no means indicates that they are out of business. The Republican county leaders have the power to decide whether Democrats or independents (like Mayor Bloomberg) can seek their nomination. All parties can exclude non-party enrollees from their primaries.

By voter registration, New York City is overwhelmingly Democratic. Yet, hard as it is to believe, the Democratic organization has lost the last FIVE consecutive mayoral elections, two to Mayor Giuliani (1993 and 1997) and three to Mayor Bloomberg (2001, 2005 and 2009). The Democrats have tried all types of candidates in their effort to retain or regain the mayoralty: Mayor Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, Mark Green, Fernando Ferrer and Bill Thompson. All lost.

One reason for this strange result in what is essentially a one-party town is that the voters make independent judgments on mayoral candidates, based on their opinions of the candidates, which derive in large part from media reporting over the years. But beyond the mayoralty, Republicans and independents have not contested other city offices vigorously. In 2001 and 2005, at Bloomberg's direction, the Republican party did not name any candidates for Comptroller and Public Advocate. In 2009, when the Republican county leaders insisted on slate mates for Bloomberg, the party picked unknowns whom Bloomberg promptly said had no chance to be elected, which was true but scarcely encouraging.

One good thing about the City of New York is that it cannot be gerrymandered. Its boundaries are known and defined, and have been the same since the first mayoral election in 1897, which was won by the Tammany candidate, Robert van Wyck, who is now an expressway to Kennedy (ne Idlewild) airport. The runner-up in that election was the Citizens Union candidate, Seth Low, who had been president of Columbia University and Mayor of Brooklyn. The Republican candidate, Benjamin F. Tracy, who had been secretary of the navy during the administration of Benjamin Harrison (1889-93), came in third. In the next mayoral election, in 1901, Low, running on the Fusion party ticket, defeated Democrat Edward M. Shepard, for whom the main building of City College has been named.

United States Senate seats from every state also defy the gerrymander, as do the state-wide elected officials, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Comptroller and Attorney General. The Congressional districts and the state legislature are redistricted every ten years, following the Federal decennial census. This gives the legislative leaders considerable power over other elected officials, whose districts can be shaped without their consent. When the state loses Representatives in Congress as the result of the census, as has happened in the seven censuses since 1940, and will happen again in 2011, the question of whose seat to abolish is particularly difficult to resolve, as is the issue of which party will bear the loss.

Most people do not realize today how different city government was as recently as fifty years ago, when many positions in city government, especially those which were not overly taxing, were filled on the basis of recommendations from Democratic county and district leaders. When an official died, retired or resigned, the political club from which he came was often asked to recommend a successor, the job being regarded to a greater or lesser extent as the property of the club. This system flew in the face of the concept of meritocracy, selecting the person best able to do the job. But doing the job was the duty of the civil service, and the political appointees in an agency were not subject either to competitive examinations or performance evaluation. Many were no shows, appearing only on pay day. This was before direct deposit.

I will never forget what one Parks employee said to me in 1966, when I was executive director of the department during the administration of Mayor Lindsay and Commissioner Thomas Hoving. "Newbold Morris (Mayor Wagners parks chief) was a good commissioner. He never interfered with the Department."

The transition from political to mayoral control of city departments has not occurred in all departments at the same pace. At the old Board, now Department of Education, it took state legislation in 2002 to give the mayor control of the board and its most important function, the selection of a chancellor. Before then, the Borough Presidents appointed the majority of the board, and the chancellor was subject to more parochial and political interests, including board involvement with personnel selection and promotion. In addition, the power of the teachers' and supervisors' unions was difficult to overestimate.

The role of unions and their political influence has increased enormously throughout the city. Unions influence employee discipline because they represent accused wrongdoers. That is their assigned task, but it creates friction between agency heads and union officials, who generally do not want to see their members punished. To some extent, the intensity of union representation can depend on the employees activity or participation in the union. On the other hand, if the union did not represent the employees, one would have to create another agency for that purpose, which would mean additional expense. The union does have an interest in seeing that employees' rights are observed. It is part of an (not the) American dilemma to protect people without contesting every case, rather than having the outcome depend on the skill of the advocate. Yesterday on C-Span, we heard a new word "Mirandizing". Is that happening here?

To sum up the last half century: Apart from the enormous expansion of the budget, in part caused by inflation, in part by additional services, the most important change has been the decline of clubhouse politics and the rise of union power, sometimes affecting the day to day operations of agencies. In some departments, this is not a problem at all. In others, the relationship is comparable to that of landlords and tenants. The challenge of doing more with less resources will not be met without the cooperation of city employees, which will be hard to achieve in the universal me-first culture which characterizes so many workplaces.

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