Look for the Label

Finally, there’s something that Staten Island Republicans and I can agree on.

They too are concerned about the consequences of nonpartisan citywide elections—but they fear that a stealth liberal could win a tight race.

Ballot proposal #3, if passed on November 4, would completely change how we elect city officials. Starting in 2009, political primaries would be replaced by elections where all voters choose among all office seekers in a preliminary contest. If no candidate receives a clear majority, everyone votes again in November to choose between the two top vote getters.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities in all five boroughs have nothing to gain––and three decades of grassroots political work to lose––with nonpartisan citywide elections.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal, the determination on who is a Democrat, Republican, Independence Party member, etc. is completely up to the candidate and not the political parties. Any candidate can adopt any label they want to list on the ballot.

Political affiliation and a party’s endorsement often say everything one needs to know about a candidate. An LGBT endorsement says even more about a candidate. The most effective way for the LGBT community to leverage its endorsements comes in Democratic primaries.

By removing the party labels, candidates are free from the shackles and responsibilities that go along with a Democratic, Republican, Independence, Working Families, Conservative, Green, or Marijuana Reform endorsement.

For example, we know the Conservative Party is unashamedly homophobic and refuses to endorse any candidate who is pro-LGBT.

We also know that New York City Democratic candidates are generally LGBT-friendly, and that the New York State Democratic Committee unanimously passed a resolution supporting same-sex marriage. This resolution, in turn, should serve as one of the guiding principles for Democratic candidates and elected officials.

Taking away the political primaries would be a detriment to other communities and minorities, as well. A close Democratic primary race, especially in Manhattan, is often decided by which candidate has gained the endorsements of the LGBT political clubs. More importantly, successful LGBT candidates never win on a single issue, but often win when supported by coalitions of other organized groups such as people of color, senior citizens, and disabled people, for example. However bitterly fought Democratic primary contests might be, the primary winner is a person who Democrats—made up of these key voting groups––have determined is the best candidate to run for elected office.

And primaries are not just for Democrats.

The same principle applies for the primary winners in other political parties’ contests. For example, rather than appointing candidates at a state or local convention, Republicans recently held primaries for several City Council seats.

The Independence Party itself had a freewheeling fight in September 2002 which pitted billionaire Tom Golisano against the team of Lenora Fulani and George Pataki for the gubernatorial nomination.

Nonpartisan voting invites mischief by allowing political operatives, freed from the need to resolve their own party’s nomination, to engineer disruption among candidates from other parties. The result can be an obfuscation of the democratic process. With proper organizing, it is conceivable that an open nonpartisan race could be compromised by “target voting” for a weaker, less desirable, or controversial “second-place” candidate. Straw horse candidates can also be run specifically to siphon support from a strong contender.

Proponents of nonpartisan elections for New York City point out that “there is no Democratic or Republican way of collecting the garbage.” That depends on one’s viewpoint. I’ve noticed that Republican mayors prefer putting garbage transfer stations in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn as opposed to Beekman Place, and are willing simultaneously to cut street pick-ups in poorer neighborhoods.

LGBT issues are like “collecting the garbage.” Frank Macchiarola, chair of the Charter Revision Commission that brought this referendum to the voters, may have been right when he told me that “No one can ignore the lesbian and gay community and win a citywide race,” but voters need to know specifically how a candidate intends to deal with our community’s pressing issues.

Take another look at California. A misogynistic body builder proclaimed himself a gay rights supporter, an image reinforced by the media’s characterization of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Republican with liberal social viewpoints. Does anyone remember Schwarzenegger at an ACT UP meeting in 1988, or carrying a candle to pay his respects to Matthew Shepherd in 1998? Exactly what were Schwarz-enegger’s assurances to the LGBT community that distinguished him in a positive way from outgoing Gov. Gray Davis, possibly the most pro-gay governor in the U.S.?

In New York, under a nonpartisan system, any well-financed candidate with no background of community organizing could announce LGBT-friendly intentions and stage a photo op at the Big Cup under the pretense of fighting for our equality.

Fortunately, our current system offers the LGBT community the opportunity—through political clubs and community groups that have an impact on the Democratic Party––to scrutinize candidates and sort out truth from mere lip service.

Most of the debate about nonpartisan elections has centered on its potential effects on mayoral races. The most important consequences, however, would be felt in the 51 City Council district elections. In a close race with five or more candidates, someone who never interacted with, or perhaps has even blatantly shunned the LGBT community could be elected to the City Council due to the flawed process by which the two November finalists would be chosen.

In the long political history of New York City, the LGBT community is a relative newcomer to partisan politics. But queers have quickly evolved from the radicals of 30 years ago yelling at the back of the auditorium––and often being escorted out in handcuffs––to the responsible and dependable political partners and leaders we are today. For all of us, the “B” and “T” on “LGBT” only became politically acceptable within the past five years after a long struggle.

Now that we’re seated at the table, we shouldn’t chop the legs off of it.

There is no proof that nonpartisan elections will create stampedes of excited voters. Chicago and Los Angeles, the two large cities most often mentioned as recent converts to nonpartisan elections, have not experienced significant increases in voter turnout. And if nonpartisan elections generate greater voter participation, why haven’t states like New York, Texas, Florida, and California, which have major clout in presidential elections, adopted nonpartisan elections statewide?

On Tuesday, we should tell Mayor Bloomberg that he should have spent his $2 million on a project where he didn’t have to hide his name.

Democrats should choose Democrats, Republicans should choose Republicans, and Lenora Fulani should confine her activity to steering the Independence Party to whatever tactical choice they see fit––whether Patrick Buchanan or George Pataki.

Even Filene’s Basement learned long ago that consumers don’t want manufacturers’ labels ripped out of the sweaters on sale.

Tim Gay is the male Democratic District Leader of the 75th Assembly District Part A, serving the Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods in Manhattan. He is also chair of the New York County Democratic Committee.

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