Oyster Bay, N.Y.
By Sophia A. Niarchos
A New York City election without party politics? A New York City mayoral election involving John Catsimatidis…without party politics?
Though several U.S. cities have switched to non-partisan elections over the last two decades, and it’s been months since NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed the change…and expressed his willingness to put his own money into making it happen … only in recent weeks has the possibility received press and Congressional leadership attention and comment. The proposed change is currently being discussed by the New York City Charter Commission, which is holding hearings on the topic, including a public forum held in May and involving academicians and city and state government officials, as well as members of the Independence Party. Changes involving non-partisan elections made to the charter would involve the offices of mayor, public advocate and comptroller, all borough presidencies and the 51 City Council seats. A decision is expected to be announced in early September.
For the Greek-American community, which currently has no representation in those offices, the only possible candidate who may be affected by such a change is Red Apple Group CEO John Catsimatidis, who is contemplating a run for mayoral office. GreekNews spoke to Catsimatidis soon after the public forum to get his views on the various aspects of this issue.
GA: The Charter Commission Chairman, Dr. Frank Macchiarola, described the end-result of the forum discussion as showing elected officials to be opposed to non-partisan elections and not wanting to have the issue on the ballot while activists and third-party people do. What do you think?
JC: This should be on a ballot, people should have a choice and be well-informed before they decide. However, placing it on this year’s ballot is a problem; because it is a non-important (non-presidential, gubernatorial or mayoral) election day and there is usually very low turnout, it would not give us a fair perspective of people’s opinion.
GA: At the May forum, two professors gave opposing views on the effect of such a change on party-machine control. Baruch Political Science Professor Doug Muzio said that while it seems non-partisan elections do lessen control of the party machines, “that’s not necessarily a good thing. Parties work to get the vote out, and while the system needs to be changed, there is a place for parties in the system.” He also feared that without a party affiliation, voters “will not be well-enough informed to make an intelligent decision and voter turnout will actually be lower.”
On the other hand, MIT Professor Phil Thompson said non-partisan elections would increase ballot access and voter turnout and elected officials would also have to work harder to stay in office. He added “non-partisan voting links electoral outcomes to the underlying civic structure of a City more than a partisan election,” and gives civic groups, minority groups, new immigrant groups and unions more of a say in the future of the city than they do now. He also disagreed that voters need parties to help them “figure out who to vote for.” Do you agree?
JC: A non-partisan election will merely add to the confusion.
GA: Then how can the partisan component and the partisan activities surrounding elections be improved upon? In your opinion, what changes should be made to the current campaign system?
JC: We should make it easier for people to vote by having regular polling booths, an easier system for absentee ballots, and possibly incorporate – as an addition, not a replacement – a system where people can vote on the Internet. This will increase the number of people that participate.
GA: What other problems do you foresee with non-partisan elections?
JC: You may end up with ten people running and a non-qualified person getting elected with only 19 percent of the vote. That’s very dangerous for our system.
GA: Though the proposed changes do include not having a primary, which could result in the results you predict, a minimum-signature requirement for a candidate to appear on the ballot and a run-off for candidates receiving a certain percentage of the general election vote are also included in the changes being considered. Does that cause you to reconsider the issue?
JC: In that case, no one should be able to take office with less than a 40 percent consensus.
GA: I also wonder what you think of how non-partisan elections in the city might affect the relationships between officials in city, state and federal governments.
JC: Unless it was a national thing, which it’s not going to be, the local people would lose influence in state and federal governments.