By Francis S. Barry, Rutgers University Press, 306 pages, $26.95
Francis S. Barry’s new book, “The Scandal of Reform,” exposes the follies of New York City politics by focusing on the persistent and unsuccessful efforts at election reform during the past 120 years. Barry, who is the chief speech writer for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, narrates the history of repetitive failures as reformers proposed changes in the election law aimed at wrestling political power from political professionals. Somehow, each time the political professionals triumphantly reappeared.
Barry’s readable narrative fills a major gap in New York political history, a history too often glorifying the intentions and good spirits of reformers, but rarely addressing the results, especially the unintended consequences. He emphasizes how elite reformers beginning in the Progressive Era were as concerned about gaining the upper hand at City Hall as they were about rational government and halting corruption. When they prevailed with establishing direct primaries, for example, Barry makes sure we also understand the unintended side effects of primaries that lock in incumbents, empower ideological voters over consensus voters and are still mainly controlled by bosses.
The heart of Barry’s book is an analysis of the debates that culminated in 2003 when New York City voters, by a two-to-one majority, defeated a proposal for nonpartisan election of municipal offices. In Barry’s retelling, liberals and self-anointed reformers killed the proposal, which would have reformed New York City’s patently flawed election system.
Good government groups like the Brennan Center for Justice and NYPIRG supported the status quo because, in Barry’s view, they preferred the policy outcomes of the current system, rather than risking a more robust, vigorous election cycle with more contested elections, easier opportunities for candidates to get on the ballot, and larger and more representative turnouts.
The flaws of the existing system need hardly be retold after the 2009 primary and general election. Still, Barry reminds us that the existing system disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of independent voters, produces ideologically extreme primaries, eliminates the general election as having any significance for most contests, results in embarrassingly low voter turnout, and insures continued political boss influence if not outright control of most offices.
The “Scandal of Reform” presents a persuasive argument in favor of nonpartisan elections, and along the way, at least to my mind, demolishes the arguments in opposition. So the question is how could the good government groups have been so misguided not to see the virtues of nonpartisan elections?
Barry suggests that the good government groups have become less interested in efficient management of government and fiscal controls. In their place, today’s reform groups have aligned themselves with group interests seeking more and more services from government. These groups have a stake in the existing election system, which favors parties and the persons who control those parties. Barry also makes the argument that reform groups were misled into fearing that nonpartisan elections would favor Republicans and fiscal conservatives, produce even lower voter turnout (if that were possible), harm the city’s campaign finance program and create a new way to disenfranchise minorities.
Barry demonstrates with recent studies and original data how unrealistic these fears are. His data shows that with nonpartisan elections Republicans gain no advantage, turnout improves, and that minority voters participation is, if anything, helped. But no matter. These disputes can only be argued, not proved. Barry gives the reader a full critique sufficient to make his or her own mind up.
As one who is inclined to support nonpartisan municipal elections, my only criticism of Barry’s analysis of the 2003 referendum is that he provides little discussion of the 2003 Charter Commission’s political strategy to win the required referendum. Charter commissions only propose. If a majority of the voters reject a commission proposal, it dies. Barry does not go into the commission’s political strategy, so the reader is left in the dark on how the commission conceived its own political strategy.
By comparison, the 1989 Charter Commission, which massively redrew the organization chart of city government, successfully got its proposals passed. It enlarged the City Council, neutered the power of the borough presidents, reduced the authority of the comptroller and favored the mayor. Frederick A.O. Schwarz and Eric Lane, chair and general counsel, respectively, of the 1989 commission, published a 300-page history of that commission’s work (“The Policy and Politics of Charter Making: The Story of New York City’s 1989 Charter,” 42 N.Y.Law S.L.Rev. 723 ).
The dominant theme of their history was how from the start the commission developed, refined and consistently followed a political strategy aimed at producing a favorable majority vote. Barry’s history is devoid of a similar discussion of political strategy for the 2003 Charter Commission other than a recounting of the public meetings and other efforts to involve the public. The reader is left with the feeling that the commission was a non-actor in the political fight to gain votes.
Barry’s book sounds an urgent call for a second round on nonpartisan elections. Perhaps a second look will produce a better result. In the meantime, New York City remains one of the few large U.S. cities that still clings to partisan municipal elections, and as Barry, persuasively demonstrates, suffers as a result with single digit turnouts for primaries, few contested elections and a meaningless general election for virtually all offices but mayor.
Ross Sandler is a professor of law and director of the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.