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NY Mayor's Push for Nonpartisan Elections Sparks Debate - 2003-07-25


The mayor's call to transform New York City elections by making them nonpartisan, or not connected to political parties, is spurring a heated debate among members of the political establishment.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a lifelong Democrat who switched political parties and ran as a Republican in 2001. He won election in the heavily Democratic city, becoming only the fourth Republican mayor in 100 years.

Now, Mayor Bloomberg is pushing hard for the city to adopt a nonpartisan election system, one that would eliminate the current process of selecting party nominees through party labels on the voting ballot. Nonpartisan elections exist in many US cities. Mr. Bloomberg has agreed to have the system, should it pass, take effect in 2009 when he is ineligible to run for office.

The Mayor says nonpartisan elections can increase voter participation by encouraging people to do their own research about candidates, instead of voting along party lines. He and other proponents also claim that nonpartisan elections could help minority candidates and lesser known political aspirants to get on the ballot. Mr. Bloomberg says candidates could list party affiliation if they want, a practice that is prohibited in most other cities that have nonpartisan elections.

Tempers have flared over the question in recent weeks.

For some the logic is simple. City issues, like when garbage is picked up, or which streets need repair, are problems that do not require partisan leadership.

Opponents of the nonpartisan reform proposal, which is expected to appear on city ballots this November, want to be able to spend money to influence the public through advertising and campaign brochures. They do, however, want to ban spending on television ads, which are both high profile and expensive.

"The ban we are proposing has the advantages of being verifiable and has the advantage of allowing all sides to engage in the kind of get out the vote activities that people actually think are what's right about politics, " said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic consultant.

The mayor wants zero money to be spent from either side. He says if those who want to keep the partisan system in place begin spending large amounts of money to promote their objective, they are effectively stifling the public's ability to make an unbiased decision.

"If they start to spend a lot of money, it seems to me they're saying they don't want the public, once again, to be in control of their own destiny. They don't even want the public to be able to say whether they want to be in control of their own destiny," said Bloomberg.

But opponents say abandoning the partisan system could cause spending to spiral out of control, bringing the exact opposite result of what the proposal intends.

They say existing campaign finance regulations already control spending and allow more fairness in the political process by monitoring the contributions politicians receive and by providing matching funds to those who disclose their funding sources.

Nicole Gordon, Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Board, was appointed by Mr. Bloomberg. But she opposes the idea, saying the current program of campaign finance regulation is sufficient.

"We are trying to make sure that nothing is proposed to the voters that is going to hurt a program that has been extremely successful has contributed very, very strongly to competition throughout the city, meaningful competition to opportunities for people who did not have access to wealth," said Gordon.

Many Democrats contend that Mr. Bloomberg won office in large part due to the record $75 million of his own money that he spent during his campaign, and that nonpartisan elections could make it easier for tycoons like Mr. Bloomberg to get elected.

Ms. Gordon says eliminating the Democratic or Republican party affiliations could allow the dominant Democratic and Republican parties to actually spend more on a given candidate, and cause spending to skyrocket.

"Once the elections are nonpartisan, then the parties, the political parties don't necessarily have the same link to the candidate as they do now.If that link is broken, will the elections board, will any city law be able to control party spending? That's the bottom line question," said Gordon.

The likely ballot initiative will ask voters to eliminate primaries, in which voters select a nominee according to the party to which they are registered. New York state law currently forbids political parties from spending money during primaries, although special interest groups that support the parties can contribute to the primaries. Without primaries, the spending restriction on political parties would no longer exist. By way of a compromise, some Democrats have called for a spending cap to be included in the ballot initiative for nonpartisan elections.

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