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Wall Street Journal


Key to the City

November 10, 2005

By Steven Malanga

Even before Fernando Ferrer had officially lost, Gotham's Democratic Party officials were wringing their hands and promising a round of unprecedented self-examination as they contemplated their party's fourth consecutive defeat in a New York City mayoral race. When party leaders were not ascribing Mr. Ferrer's landslide loss to Michael Bloomberg's massive campaign spending (which any sensible person would have seen as an affirmation of the enormous wealth-generating capacity of the U.S. economy), they were forced to admit that their party isn't offering up candidates who appeal, even to their own members, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5-to-1.

But don't expect anything illuminating or revolutionary out of the Democratic leaders' bout of self-examination: They have too much at stake in keeping their party exactly as it is—firmly in the hands of public-sector interests who have little in common with the average voter. Gotham's Democratic Party has, with the last two elections, finally transformed itself into an organization almost entirely representative of the tax-eaters—the public-sector union/social-service advocacy complex filled with candidates and operatives who've spent their entire professional lives feeding at the trough of taxpayer dollars—whose policy prescriptions seem more designed to keep the trough full than to solve real problems. In this respect Gotham's Democrats represent the leading edge of a trend reshaping local Democratic politics in blue states from California to New Jersey; left unchecked, it will profoundly affect the national party, too.

Consider the lineup the Dems threw at Mr. Bloomberg. There was mayoral nominee Freddy Ferrer, who in a public career that spanned 25 years climbed from city councilman to Bronx borough president to candidate-in-waiting as the head of a local policy group that described itself as a "community action institute." One of his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination, Virginia Fields, spent 35 years as a social worker, head of a social advocacy group, city council member and Manhattan borough president. Their two rivals, Congressman Anthony Weiner and City Council President Gifford Miller, jumped right into local Democratic politics soon after college, working as staffers for elected officials and waiting for their chance to run.

Indeed, one defining characteristic of this group is that they, like most local Democratic pols, spent their time in public service dutifully waiting in line for permission to move up the ladder of elected office, subject to a kind of party discipline that smothers innovation and rewards apparatchiks who go along to get along. That, and the fact that the Democratic mayoral candidates' adult experiences are so narrow and so circumscribed by their public-sector service, practically guaranteed that the candidates would put forward platforms that seemed like a rerun of all the worst, discredited 1960s-style urban policy programs. When Mr. Weiner, in a rare display of boldness for a Gotham Dem, broke from the group to propose middle-class tax cuts (which he would have paid for with higher taxes on the rich), he surged in the polls.

The stranglehold that public-sector interests have on the city's Democratic Party comes at a time when real transformations are taking place within New York's private economy that under other circumstances would bode well for Democrats. Key New York industries like Wall Street and corporate law, once firmly Republican—as well as emerging industries like high technology—now include ever greater numbers of Democrats who have become active in party politics outside the city. These Dems give heavily to national candidates, serve on advisory boards and commissions for the party nationally, and head to Washington to serve in public office, as many (including Robert Rubin and Roger Altman) did in the Clinton administration. Yet these same private-sector Democrats have virtually no influence in the running of the local party and were so appalled by the party's mayoral candidates that many of them organized committees to support Mr. Bloomberg. The latter also garnered endorsements from important old-style city Democrats like ex-Mayor Ed Koch and former Governor Hugh Carey, who can no longer endorse what the Democratic Party has turned into in New York.

None of this should be surprising. Mayor Bloomberg is really a liberal Democrat who switched parties just four years ago to avoid having to duel with the public-sector interests who dominate the Democratic Party. If city voters can't find such a candidate in the Democratic column anymore, they are more than willing to cross party lines to vote for him in decisive and instructive numbers.

Mr. Malanga is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of "The New New Left" (Ivan R. Dee, 2005).

Original Source:



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