In what may be best remembered as the "shrug of the shoulders" election, New Yorkers in a low-turnout stunner last Tuesday expressed their strong preference for none of the above. With three-quarters of the electorate staying home despite balmy weather, incumbent mayor Michael Bloomberg garnered just 51 percent of the vote even after spending over $100 million on saturation advertising and costly field operations in the most expensive bid for local office in American history.
Under Bloomberg, New York has experienced the collapse of its civic life. In 1989 roughly 60 percent of registered voters turned out in the mayoral election, by 2001--Bloomberg's first victory--it was down to 38 percent, and this year it hit a record low of 25 percent. That translates into 800,000 fewer voters in 2009 than in 1989, even as the city's population has grown by half a million in the same stretch. The civically engaged middle class has either left the city or withdrawn from its politics. Increasingly those that continue to play the game are the city's public employee unions and subsidy seeking real estate developers, two groups with direct financial stakes in government spending.
Call it the Al Sharpton phenomenon. In a decade of runs for city and state offices, Sharpton kept his vote total roughly constant while the Democratic party shrank around him. Bloomberg has extended that trend to the city as a whole--he'll spend what it takes to win, even as he alienates the city government from its citizens.
Gotham's political process has become so meaningless that even politicians don't bother to vote. The State Senate's two most powerful members from the city, Democrats John Sampson and Pedro Espada, skipped the primary runoff election. Less than 5 percent of voters effectively picked who would fill the only other citywide offices--public advocate and comptroller. The winners, Bill De -Blasio and John Liu, immediately emerged as 2013 mayoral frontrunners.
In this mayoral election, New Yorkers were forced to choose between an incumbent of limited accomplishments and unlimited wealth who overturned the city's term limits law--twice ratified by popular referendum--to remain in the spotlight and a challenger in Comptroller Bill Thompson who wasn't able to put together the talking points of his campaign until the week before the election.
When Thompson promised to expand every city subsidized housing program, Bloomberg "countered" by vowing to leverage even more money to create subsidized housing. When Thompson said he would extend a $16 million voucher program used almost exclusively by Orthodox Jews to subsidize their day-care expenses, Bloomberg reversed himself and concurred. And so it went.
Right now the city budget is being propped up by federal stimulus money and the virtually interest-free funds being shoveled by the Fed into the coffers of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. This is an unsustainable situation. During the campaign, the contenders not only ignored the city's weakened economy and the fiscal storm clouds on the horizon but bid against each other to offer individual groups and broad swathes of the electorate pricey promises while saying little about how they'd pay for them with a massive budget hole looming just beyond the electoral horizon.
It's easy to see New York's civic anomie as a local matter. But this election also has national implications that both parties would do well to consider. Democrats in Congress now represent both the most affluent and best schooled districts in the United States and the poorest and least educated districts. It's a head-scratching top-bottom alliance. But what's new for the country is old hat for New York City. Forty years ago New York mayor John Lindsay--like Obama the symbol of a "new" and "transformative" politics--rode to reelection on just such an alliance, leaving the middle class out in the cold.