By Bruce N. Gyory | November 11, 2019

I am beginning to wonder if the good government reform movement in New York City is unintentionally falling prey to practicing the political equivalent of gentrification? Most importantly, my hope that they will not follow that path, exceeds my fears that they will unwittingly trigger a backlash among minority voters.

There will be two early yardstick issues for judging the potential underlying my concerns: matching contributions for in-district contributions and the long term reaction to ranked choice voting (RCV) in the minority communities.

My analogy to gentrification is simply this: are Gotham’s reformers taking the time to have a true and sustained dialogue with the leaders of the city’s electoral minority majority, as they advance their reform agenda? If they don’t have that kind of dialogue, the reformers could miscalculate, paralyzing the long term prospects for governmental reform, given that we are growing towards a certain fact: at least 60 percent of New York City’s electorate are now people of color (the aggregate of black, Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial voters).

I believe that New York City and our entire state could have a governing renaissance if the good government reformers as well as the diverse minority communities and their political leaders came together in a coalition of mutual respect, geared to purposeful action.

The first issue yardstick is campaign finance reform. Susan Lerner of Common Cause has long provided steady and stellar leadership on the related issues of ending partisan gerrymandering and campaign finance reform. Common Cause’s advocacy has been at once bold and principled. Furthermore, it appears that the state Commission now at work on campaign finance reform is on the verge of enacting serious statewide reform based upon lower contribution limits and public matching funds. This could be a breakthrough moment for the reform agenda on the campaign finance front.

However, a hurdle may need to be surmounted, before enacting statewide campaign finance reform. New York’s poorer communities, which in our state means rural and rust belt districts upstate and inner city urban districts, have a legitimate concern that the public financing of contributions matching system could overwhelm their districts, if the out-of-district matches had legal parity with the in-district matches. At first, I thought the Commission was fashioning a compromise proposal to allow for out-of-district matches but to also provide for a so called “progressive match system” where there is a higher rate of public match funds attending small dollar in-district contributions. But now, if media reports are accurate, it is beginning to look like the Commission’s recommendation will be centered upon in-district matches to maximize the grass roots basis for public dollar matching funds.

I must confess that I am not an expert in the intricacies of campaign finance matching funds for legislative districts. Therefore, I have no specific recommendations for what the final plan should entail. Nevertheless, fundraising in poor inner city and rural districts is much more difficult than it is in the suburbs or the more affluent urban areas. Not to mention that given the United States Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which bars any limitation on independent expenditures as an infringement on the First Amendment, the concerns of those representing poorer districts (whose residents have dramatically lower levels of disposable income) are neither an abstract nor an irrational concern.

The question becomes will the good government reformers find common ground on behalf of the cause of campaign finance reform to meet the fears of those elected officials representing poorer communities? My hope is that a fair solution is reached by the Commission, which is endorsed by the reformers.

Which brings us to the second relevant issue, the ranked choice voting (RCV) system just passed by referendum in New York City on November 5th. I wrote an op-ed on October 12th, in the Daily News opposing the RCV referendum (RCV asks voters to rank their candidate preferences in order to avoid run-offs in citywide to primaries and to provide majorities in multi-candidate races).

I confess that I was in splendid isolation in opposing the RCV referendum, until the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus came out against the RCV System in Proposition One. I won’t reiterate my opposition here, as the voters spoke resoundingly in favor of an RCV system. But several things stand out in regard to the longer term public reaction to this fundamental change in how NYC will hold elections.

First this referendum was held when everyone knew the city’s electorate would be at low ebb. The 644,477 New Yorkers who voted on this referendum reflected just over half of the voters who vote in a low turnout mayoral general election (e.g., 2013 and 2017) and a mere third of those who come out in a high turnout mayoral year (e.g., 1989 and 1983). An electoral change of this magnitude should have been on the ballot in a presidential year and at the very least in a mayoral year, not in an off year turnout pattern.

Second, no provision has been made to phase in this reform. What happens if a significant portion of voters in the 2021 mayoral election, the first time the RCV system would be used in NYC, chose to only vote for their first choice? Would that not functionally, vitiate the tenets of one person one vote? After all the votes of those who availed themselves of second, third, fourth and fifth choices under the RCV system, would have a greater impact on the outcome than those who chose to vote for only one candidate. Furthermore, what if there were decided socio-economic, racial and age based cleavage points among those who did not avail themselves of secondary choices?

I must confess that I was nothing less than flabbergasted when I read palm card put out by the RCV advocates. It actually encouraged single candidate voting in their lead point: “More choice by letting you continue to vote for just one candidate, or rank up to five candidates for local office”. Unless I am misreading this palm card, the advocates were not only anticipating that large numbers of voters will chose to vote for only one candidate, but are inviting that outcome which will inevitably diminish the value of the single candidate votes. If those single candidate voters wind up being disproportionately older and poorer New Yorkers what kind of system have we created?

I sincerely pray that my analysis that an RCV system in NYC (in practice it will thwart the of aspirations of minority empowerment), proves inaccurate. But if I am right and minority candidates start losing offices they have been winning (e.g., Comptroller in 2001, 2005 and 2009 and Public Advocate in 2013, 2017 and 2019), the long term tension and estrangement between the progressive reformers and the electorate’s minority majority will only grow deeper, potentially reaching the breaking point.

It is perhaps worth taking a step back to assess what underlies all this inchoate political tension. In his seminal study of the progressive movement entitled, “A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America 1870-1920” Michael McGerr provides the historical backdrop. McGerr concluded, “Progressives wanted not only to use the state to regulate the economy; strikingly, they intended nothing less than to transform other Americans, to remake the nation’s feuding, polyglot population in their own middle-class image.”

In truth, there was a reason that progressivism lost steam politically in the 1920’s and the 1930’s. The progressives support for Prohibition and their resistance to the New Deal’s expansion of federal responsibilities in pursuit of social justice, left the progressive movement largely cut off from the explosion of immigrant based electoral voting power into the American electorate. Progressives may have railed against the excesses of the Gilded Age at the beginning of the last century, but their political demise was lodged in their inability to connect politically with the Depression era’s juggernaut of poor and working class voters. Will today’s progressives here in NYC make a similar blunder with minority voters?

A brief recap of the continuing fault lines will prove illuminating. In 1973, Herman Badillo, who would have been the city’s first Hispanic mayor, was poised to advance his surprisingly strong showing from the 1969 mayoral primary. Badillo seemed headed for winning the mayoralty based upon tripod coalition of Puerto Rican, black and white reform voters. But at the last minute, the popular reform Assemblyman from the West Side, Al Blumenthal, entered the mayoral primary and fractured Badillo’s coalition, opening the door for Abe Beame’s mayoralty.

In the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, minority political leaders chafed as they saw white liberals repeatedly peel off to support these Republican mayors. But the wound that cut deepest was the Green-Ferrer run-off in 2001. To the minority community, when the white liberals who pleaded for solidarity with minority voters in statewide and national races, played the race card in that 2001 mayoral run-off, it proved at once unacceptable and embittering.

History will probably show that the Green campaign did not play that race card as their strategy, it was instead played by a rogue element in Green’s campaign which became fodder for the tabloids, but that distinction did nothing to heal the political scar tissue emanating from the political equivalent of an acid attack to the faces of minority voters, which formed back in 2001. That 2001 run-off bequeathed a deep reservoir of distrust within the minority community and their political leaders towards the liberal reformers who now self-describe as progressives.

That tension was underscored last year, when Tish James was designated as Democrats’ Attorney General candidate and Zephyr Teachout came in to become her primary opponent. To minority voters, it seemed but another example of an old and tortured play. Namely, that every time a serious minority candidate has a real chance to make a breakthrough, it seems as if a white progressive tries to jump ahead in line, despite the fact that in terms of hard votes minority communities hold the majority in New York City’s electorate and casts more votes in a statewide Democratic primary than do the progressives.

There is another side to the story. The good government reformers, often feel that too many minority political leaders are not truly responsive to their issue concerns and priorities. That concern needs to be realized and addressed by minority political leaders.

Nevertheless, the weak record of white progressive candidates (except for de Blasio) in securing minority support has been the common thread of the landslide margins by which Sanders, Teachout and Cynthia Nixon have lost recent Democratic primaries here in New York. Not surprisingly, minority progressives have proven far more successful as candidates than white progressives in New York’s Democratic primaries.

In the final analysis, if the good government advocates and their progressive allies want to earn the consent of the governed in New York City politics, they will need to reconcile with the enduring electoral majority which now lies within New York’s minority communities.

But first, both sides must secure trust on the road to coalition building. A good place to start would be that enhanced match for in-district contributions, within the creation of a larger statewide public finance based fundraising system. Then let’s hope that I am wrong about the RCV system, for if I am right, a backlash from minority voters could form proving toxic to finding common ground.

My hope remains that a governing renaissance in New York City can be born of a coalition between good government advocates and minority voters. A coalition lodged in trust, forged in purpose and completely shorn of either condescension or backlash.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an Adjunct Professor of political science at the University of Albany.