In their efforts to scuttle a ballot referendum that would eliminate primary elections, drastically diluting the value of party labels, the state Democratic Party has been sounding warning alarms about the rise of demagogues.
The party’s leaders note that amending election law to create nonpartisan races in the city has been a top priority for radical activist Lenora Fulani, who has been accused of anti-Semitism and is a frequent candidate for office. They accuse Mayor Michael Bloomberg of kowtowing to Fulani by pushing the initiative through a charter revision commission.
"New Yorkers know that Lenora Fulani is the driving force behind the mayor’s Nov. 4 ballot proposal," said Herman Farrell, the state Democratic Committee chair in a statement.
For her part, Fulani has done everything she can to fuel that perception, boasting that she brought the matter to the fore and insisting she made the issue a priority to anyone seeking the endorsement of her influential faction of the Independence Party.
Bloomberg had the party’s nod in 2001, and the number of votes on that line exceeded his slim margin of victory.
The city’s Jewish organizations, however, donít seem overly concerned about the proposal, which would create a single Election Day for all citywide and local offices, with a runoff for the top two vote-getters.
"A candidate like Fulani still has to appeal to the entire electorate," said one communal official. "You have to be in the center to win, and the emergence of centrist candidates has always been positive for the Jewish community, as well as the rest of the city."
No Jewish organization has taken a public position on the referendum. The Jewish Community Relations Council, an umbrella group, says there is no consensus. But none of the groups seems to fear the bleak scenario painted by the Democrats.
"I’m not sure where the bogeymen in this are," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "When you adjust things, you donít necessarily know what the result will be. It could be that less mainstream parties will have an opportunity, but you won’t know until it happens."
Foxman’s preference is to "leave things the way they are. [The current system] has served the people of this city and I’m not aware that it has impacted on anyone’s rights or opportunities," he said.
Bloomberg’s communications director, Bill Cunningham, said Tuesday that Farrell "is using Lenora Fulani to scare people." Cunningham added that Bloomberg had raised the issue of nonpartisan elections before he was voted into office, citing the process in his hometown of Medford, Mass., as an example.
"The mayor believes that if you open the process it gives more people a chance to run," Cunningham said. "And if you create two elections in November there will be more voter turnout."
Noting that nine City Council members will go unchallenged in November, Cunningham said "that’s the equivalent of the entire Bronx being told they don’t have to go and vote."
The Democrats and their allies in opposing the measure (the labor unions, good government groups and the Working Families Party) have been pressuring Bloomberg not to spend his own money to promote the proposal, believing that Fulani’s group will mount a concerted effort to see it pass. Bloomberg hasn’t said whether he’ll spend the money, which would tie his political fortune to the measure’s success or failure.
Bloomberg is believed to have proposed the measure initially to improve his re-election prospects, since he is a Republican in a heavily Democratic town. But the charter revision commission recently amended the measure so that it would not take effect for six years.
"They are groping for a graceful exit strategy," said the Republican minority leader of the City Council, James Oddo of Staten Island, who opposes the measure.
Although he concedes that nonpartisan races would bolster the prospects of Republicans in conservative districts, Oddo believes a nonpartisan race would simply take the place of a primary, which in New York City is almost always a Democratic contest, thus attracting the same voters.
"In citywide races, what it does is ensure that the two people left standing are the most left-leaning candidates," said Oddo. Under such a system, "in 1993 the two people left standing would have been Ed Koch and David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani would never have been elected."
Another referendum on next month’s ballot hasn’t generated much attention but will be closely watched by nonprofit social service groups. The measure would require the city to refund any costs laid out by private agencies that don’t receive their allocations on time, plus interest. The nonprofit world hopes the city will act more expeditiously to repay such costs to avoid the extra charges.
"This is something that will help restore and repair the confidence that many city contractors have in doing business with the city," said William Rapfogel, director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
Speaking of Ed Koch, the former mayor (a Democrat increasingly drawn to Republican candidates) says he is so impressed with George W. Bush’s support of Israel that he’s willing to stump for the president’s re-election campaign.
"On the issue of Israel, I think Bush is even better than Reagan," Koch volunteered after an interview on an unrelated topic. "I don’t think supporters of Israel appreciate how much he’s done."
Although he agrees with not a single White House domestic policy, Koch said heíll vote for Bush because "the No. 1 issue that makes other issues pale in comparison is the fight against terrorism. You can’t enjoy domestic policies if terrorism dominates the life of a country."
Koch praised Bush’s "doctrine" that the United States will engage "not only terrorists but the nations that harbor them," adding: "I don’t think any Democrats who might win have the stomach to take on international terrorism."
But just to show Koch hasn’t completely abandoned his party, he’s supporting Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri in the presidential primary.
"I served in Congress with him," said Koch, who represented a Manhattan district from 1969 to 1978.