Monday, September 28, 2009

Two Runoff Elections: Your Votes Sure Could Make a Difference, Or Is That Really So?

Tomorrow we have two runoff elections where we can vote in the race for the Office of Comptroller between City Councilmen David Yassky and John Liu, and the race for Office of Public Advocate between two-term former Public Advocate Mark Green and City Councilman Bill De Blasio.

Why the Votes “Count” So Much

It is amazing to think how much difference our votes could make. The phones in our household have been ringing off the hook. Hardly anyone votes in primary elections even though with the Democratic majority in New York City they tend to determine final outcomes in the general election. The turnout in the primaries two weeks ago was exceptionally poor with some races being determined by a matter of just hundreds of votes. We heard that there was one election where just SIX votes made the difference. Do you think that too few people show up to vote in a primary? The number goes down drastically in a primary runoff election like the one scheduled for tomorrow for the Comptroller and Public Advocate Office races.

No wonder that our phones were ringing off the hook given that our household is now verging on its fourth voter. We tend to vote in a block and we drag other people along to the polls. We also hope that our Noticing New York opinions focusing particularly on development concerns in the city can swing other votes.

Expect then that your vote tomorrow is going to count much more proportionately than in practically any other election! Too bad then that it is not clearer how much a difference your vote will make in terms of determining public policy on development.

We covered the races for these two offices before, in advance of the first primary (Monday, September 14, 2009, Our thoughts on Navigating the Voter Minefields When All the Candidates Know the Words to Mouth on Development). Now that we are down to the runoff it is time for an update.

Update on Comptroller’s Race

The update we have on the race for the Office of Comptroller is that we basically have no update. We have to refer you back to the guidance expressed in our prior post. Both candidates have been good in a number of ways on issues of development. For instance, both have said some good things respecting their opposition to the Atlantic Yards development. On the other hand, both candidates could have been even stronger in their opposition to Atlantic Yards, particularly now, particularly with the additional new giveaways by ESDC and the MTA and the report by the city’s Independent Budget Office that the proposed Nets arena will be a $220 million net loss for the city. Then there are accompanying revelations that there is little reason to expect that anything else more than the arena or anything actually benefitting the city will be built.

Liu has heroically been in the minority many times opposing Bloombergian abuses including development issues and the extension of term limits. Yassky has probably not been right as often; and additionally one reason the city is threatened by four more years of Bloombergian style development is that Yassky voted for Bloomberg’s override of term limits. We warned him he shouldn’t have voted this way. If Yassky loses it will probably be this that costs him the election.
The great thing about the runoff election is that the candidates got an extra two weeks to distinguish themselves on development issues. The disappointing thing is that we are not aware they made use of it. We are not aware of it even though ESDC’s board met and voted on Atlantic Yards on September 17th.

We admit though we could still be influenced by some strong last-minute statements on development by either candidate.

Update on Public Advocate’s Race

In the Public Advocate race we think the candidates could also have made better use of the last two weeks to address development issues.

In the case of both candidates we must hold it against them that during the “lightning round” of the last intervening debate they both said that they “support” Atlantic Yards. We think that “lightning rounds” requiring unqualified “Yes/No” answers are ridiculous and dangerous in their shallowness. On the flip side, we must give some credit to Candidate de Blasio for his statement at the ESDC meeting on September 17th. Atlantic Yards Report said that he:
. . straddled the fence, though with a larger nod to critics: “The benefits of the project, however, should not come at the expense of transparency and public review.”
De Blasio called for and declared the necessity of an updating environmental review for the recent substantial revisions to the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment that ESDC and the MTA are putting through. In all likelihood that would, as a practical matter, kill the mega-development. (See: Friday, September 18, 2009, At ESDC board meeting, new revelations of ESDC's concessions to Ratner and forceful criticisms from opponents (with video).)

We also have this to say. Some have suggested that if Mark Green gets a third term as Public Advocate, it will be a sort of swan song for him in a familiar role he has played before and he will thereafter fade away. I have also heard activists express the hope that if Green becomes Public Advocate again they might be able to sway him to see some common sense on Atlantic Yards and give up his support. Who knows?

Conversely, it is thought by almost everybody that Bill de Blasio intends to use the Public Advocates office as a stepping stone toward higher offices. This raises concerns that Mr. de Blasio will not take good positions on development when he obtains higher office. The concern is that he will be much too much under the sway of the real estate industry.

What makes this concern real is that Mr. de Blasio should have been a much stronger opponent of Atlantic Yards for years now. He has an informed constituency that opposes the project. His constituency should have been able to persuade him to take a much more principled position on the megadevelopment, including its poor design, its abuse of eminent domain and between $2-$3 billion in no-bid giveaways and a monopoly to a single developer. Furthermore, the megadevelopment has degraded significantly over the years but de Blasio has not taken advantage of such degeneration to correspondingly move away from it and roundly chastise the abuses.- - De Blasio could and should have gone a lot further to distance himself from the megadevelopment: Just this morning on the Brian Lehrer show segment on eminent domain WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman was there to provide information about candidates’ positions was commenting how the anti-Atlantic Yards political climate has forced both de Blasio and Yassky to beef up their expressed opposition to Atlantic Yards.

Public Advocate's Appointment to the City Planning Commission: NNY Raises the Question of Commissioner Karen A. Phillips

One important way in which the Public Advocate interacts directly with New York City development is through the Public Advocate’s appointment of one of the members of the City Planning Commission. We therefore decided to raise this issue with both the Green and de Blasio campaigns and specifically to ask each of the campaigns about Karen A. Phillips, the commissioner appointed by Betsy Gottbaum, the current Public Advocate. We wanted to know if Ms. Phillips might be likely to remain in office if either candidate were elected. We also asked generally what standards and principles would be involved in determining who would represent the Public Advocate on the CPC board.

For the Green campaign we can say this. We received no response. That nonchalance certainly seems a strike against the campaign.

We were initially told by the de Blasio campaign that they would probably not comment on Commissioner Phillips specifically at this time but would, instead, give a statement of guiding principles or policy. Ultimately that was not forthcoming and we got this instead:
We are entirely focused on our campaign for the runoff and will not be making decisions regarding the City Planning Commission until after Tuesday.
We would have thought that this was the campaign for the runoff!

(Above, Ms. Phillips.)

The reason we asked about Ms. Phillips as commissioner is that she has been an excellent commissioner, bringing to the Commission what is sorely needed. We haven’t reviewed and cannot therefore vouch for every position she has taken but, for instance, her courageous dissenting position on Columbia’s proposed expansion and takeover of West Harlem abusing eminent domain was astute, principled, minutely reasoned and well documented.

Whoever is elected to the office of Public Advocate, we suggest that everyone pay attention to whether they keep Ms. Phillips in place as a commissioner, and if they don’t, pay attention to the possible haste in which they may act to replace her.

In sum, your votes tomorrow will in proportionate mathematical terms make a huge difference in terms of the election. However, we wish we could say that it is satisfyingly and correspondingly clear that voting one way or another will make an important policy difference.

We are open, though. We can be swayed by such last-minute statements we may hear from the candidates. We welcome anything they submit. And we do have a Noticing New York comment section- Or we will post an updating post if appropriate.

Good luck tomorrow. We do advocate that you vote.

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