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Ballot Fight Breaks Out in New York

Angered by the mayor's power to decide which measures survive, many voters who once mocked California's initiatives aren't laughing now.

October 27, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — So much for East Coast gloating.

As New Yorkers watched California grapple with recall politics in recent months, many chortled over what they called democracy run amok. But now a controversy over ballot measures and voting procedures is giving the Big Apple its own electoral black eye -- a case, some say, of democracy under wraps.

It started during the summer when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican in a heavily Democratic town, placed an initiative on the city's Nov. 4 ballot that would ban partisan local elections. The mayor has contributed $2 million of his own money to pass the measure, which would reduce the traditional clout of the Democratic Party in New York City politics.

He also took steps to block voters from considering an initiative signed by 115,000 residents that would compel the city to form a commission on chronic overcrowding in public schools. Bloomberg, like other mayors before him, invoked a little-known state law that bars other initiatives from appearing on a municipal ballot once a charter-reform measure is placed on it.

New York's powerful teachers union challenged the decision, saying the law was unconstitutional. But the state's highest court upheld the exclusion last week, effectively killing the issue for next week's election. In their arguments, city attorneys contended that voters might be confused by too many measures on a ballot at once.

"It's as if we have no right to direct democracy here, and some people think we're probably too stupid to focus on more than one issue at once," said Wayne Barrett, a New York historian and journalist. "Those of us who believe in real democracy would have to say Californians are now way ahead of us. At least they're alive out there."

Unlike California, where disparate ballot measures seem to blossom each election season, the process of putting initiatives before voters is rarely seen in New York. But it's not due to a lack of grass-roots energy. Activists have been complaining for years about the crucial "home rule" law, passed decades ago, which gives New York City mayors power to decide what will appear on a ballot.

Like other mayors, Bloomberg used the vehicle of a Charter Reform Commission to exercise these powers. He formed a panel this year to study the idea of banning partisan local elections -- a move that would prevent candidates from running as the nominee of a particular party -- and to no one's surprise the panel voted to put the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, along with two other city reform proposals.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who preceded Bloomberg, used a similar strategy in 1998. He formed a charter commission at a time when City Council leaders had backed a ballot initiative opposing Giuliani's unpopular plan to build a new stadium in Manhattan for the New York Yankees. The panel placed several measures before voters, thus knocking the baseball measure off the municipal ballot.

"We should know by now that mayors will always use this charter commission strategy to control the ballot," said Doug Israel, political director of the Citizens Union Foundation, an activist group that opposes Bloomberg's nonpartisan proposal. "And what's really undemocratic is that a mayor could spend unlimited amounts on a proposal, while keeping other initiative proposals away from New York City voters."

Stung by criticism of his campaign for nonpartisan elections, Bloomberg told a news conference last week that he was determined to eliminate decades of party-based corruption at City Hall. He said nonpartisan elections would pave the way for more minority candidates, freeing them from the need to win party nominations.

"This has nothing to do about me," he said, rejecting criticism of his willingness to devote huge amounts of personal funds to the campaign, as he did in spending $75 million to be elected mayor two years ago. "Nonpartisan elections is something I have believed in for a long time. We've seen scandal after scandal in the newspapers of party bosses taking away the public's choice. And that's not democracy."

A Quinnipiac Poll released last week suggested that New Yorkers are evenly divided over the proposal. But 55% said the voting should be delayed because people have not had enough time to consider the measure; a majority of voters also told pollsters they were critical of Bloomberg spending his own money on the campaign.

To be sure, Democratic activists have also raised funds to fight the measure, and top party officials say Bloomberg's proposal would hurt minority candidates, who have been heavily backed by New York's Democratic organizations in past elections.

The mayor has also drawn fire from Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, who backed the initiative on classroom size. She was incensed when Bloomberg argued that the teachers union -- locked in bitter wage talks with the city -- had mounted the grass-roots campaign as a "publicity stunt."

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