2004-11-26 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart W. Mirsky


A piece in another New York paper recently decried the loss of democratic competitiveness in this city and suggested the way to restore real competition may actually lie in switching New York’s electoral methodology to a proportional system. In such a system each party gets legislative seats according to the percentage of votes it receives in the overall election rather than through direct election of individuals as is currently the case. In fact, this has been tried before. The city briefly experimented with proportional voting shortly after World War II, only to decide it was a bust when tiny factional parties, including groups like the Communists, ended up with legislative seats. This actually made governance more difficult not less.

Reengineering our voting system, while superficially attractive, is not the answer. You can’t legislate competitiveness. You have to have the right conditions for it and these are precisely what are currently missing in large parts of New York City, leading to the virtual one party system we now have. Indeed, the solution is not to replace current problems with older ones (exchanging a one-party monopoly for a fragmented factionalism). Rather, we must find and restore competitiveness in the places where it naturally arises... at the grassroots, where true democratic politics is born.

A good part of the reason there is such ideological homogeneity (and, consequently, little electoral choice) in local government in this city today can be laid at the doorstep of the main opposition party itself. New York Republicans have relentlessly institutionalized their own minority status by embracing that role in a generational retreat to “safe” bastions for their leaders, at the expense of fielding vigorous opposition across the city’s communities. Here in the borough of Queens the Republican “leadership” has shrunk in on itself over the years, in order to preserve a few precious positions. But public offices held by Republicans grow fewer and fewer each year because of this, as districts fall, one by one, to the Democratic machine.

In a kind of pyorrhic retreat, the Republican leaders in Queens have managed to preserve what little they have left by ignoring, or in some cases actually working against, any real grassroots activity for fear this may result in new people coming to the fore, thereby opening up the possibility that current leaders might actually have to campaign and run for their positions in (shudder, shudder!) open elections. But what are such “leaders” leaders of then, having given up the possibility of developing a vibrant membership within their own party?

In the few “safe” Republican pockets around the city, current leaders manage to hold onto their seats in government by avoiding challenging the stronger Democrats in adjacent and neighboring communities. Many more cling to “appointive” leadership posts, secured through the good graces of the Albany machine rather than via the rough and tumble (and inherent risks) of grassroots competition.

The result is an atrophying Republican Party in New York City that bears little resemblance to Republicans in other parts of the country... a party that is fatally weakened by its own oft-espoused, self-fulfilling prophecy: “avoid challenging the Democrats in hopes they won’t challenge you.” But it’s exactly this decision to accept what is, in essence, a “non-compete” clause with the Democrats, that makes the Republicans in this town as weak as they are.

  If we want to change the look of local governance and see real political opposition again in places like the City Council, then the answer is not to be found in re-engineering elections to create a less responsive proportionalized system where we vote for parties, not people. Rather, the key is to revive politics at the grassroots. This is already happening in some places. In the past six months here in Rockaway a new Republican organization recently raised its head, after being crushed over the years by a system that preferred quietude and job security to giving the voters a genuine political alternative. In our neighboring community of Forest Park the same dynamic has been occurring on a parallel basis for over five years now. There’s ample reason to believe there are other areas in Queens, and elsewhere in the city, where this is also happening.

This year, with a Republican president in surprisingly dire straits, due at least in part to a relentlessly hostile mainstream media, some locally based Republicans have finally been galvanized to raise the flag of opposition. The newly formed Rockaway Republicans recently held two gatherings to support President George W. Bush and saw record turnouts, the most Republicans gathered in one place in Rockaway in some twenty years. They did this without the support, or even encouragement, of the county level organization and with minimum publicity and ballyhoo. Although “leaders” are supposed to get out front in these kinds of things, sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

If genuinely competitive elections and real voter choice is to return to New York City, it will have to start like this, at the ground level, and not depend on reengineering from the top. That’s the only way to turn the tide of oppositional quietism which has made politics in our city as stultified and undemocratic as the worst that the old, and thankfully now extinct, Soviet Union had to offer.

The Politics Of Competition

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