Imagine you are a citizen of the City of New York, and you have, you believe, been called to a career in public service. You have begun raising money and reaching out to friends, and maybe hired a consultant or a pollster.
It is now the second week of February and due to some colossal inertia in Albany, if you were this citizen who dreamed of service in the Legislature, you would likely not know a) which district you live in b) whether or not that district has a sitting lawmaker and c) when, precisely, election day is.
In other words, New York is about to embark on an election season as chaotic and unpredictable as any in memory.
“Excuse me! It’s the twilight zone!” screamed Doug Muzzio, a professor of public policy at Baruch College, when asked to give his assessment of the state of play. “The craven self-interest and disregard for even the rough-and-tumble of democracy by these people—they don’t get it at all. They want the game fixed and they are the fixers!”
He paused for a moment to catch his breath, or to keep his aorta from exploding into the telephone.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE THESE PEOPLE DOING!”
The immediate reason for this political clusterfail is that—through a combination of sloth, happenstance and perhaps Machiavellian political calculation—two unrelated events traveling down parallel tracks went profoundly off the rails.
The first is that last year the Department of Defense denied the State of New York a waiver to hold its primaries in September. The waiver had been granted ever since Congress passed a law three years ago mandating an earlier election day to help military personnel stationed overseas with voting.
The Department of Justice sued to force the state to move up the September primary, and after several months of delays, a federal judge ruled two weeks ago that the primary for congressional seats was to be held June 26.
As soon as that news broke, those considering a run for Congress—and those consultants and staffers helping them—broke into a sprint, as election day went from a comparatively leisurely eight and a half months away to now only five months off. (Privately, some politicos still doubt that this will really be the election day, perhaps expecting the power brokers in Albany to somehow defy a federal order or being so inured to chaos that they refuse to believe the state could actually have settled on a date when the elections are supposed to be held.)
But even if candidates for Congress at least know that they will face voters on June 26, this news does nothing for those in the State Assembly or State Senate and those who hope to join that club. The judge’s order applies only to federal races, so the state primary date remains unsettled. Republicans in the State Senate have argued that the June primary is too close to the end of the legislation session (which is slated to be completed the week before) and could thus lead to unnecessary politicking (ahem) during what are supposed to be business hours. They have pushed for having state races decided on the old election day in September, or, possibly, pushing the primary to August—when, Democrats point out, most New Yorkers are away, or at least tuning out politics.
If the Republicans prevail, or if they are unable to come to an agreement with the Democrats (which will, in essence, mean Republicans prevail), then New Yorkers will be asked to go to the polls four times in the course of eight months: once for the presidential primary in April, again for the congressional primaries in August or June, a third time for state legislative primaries in August or September, and then a fourth time for the general election in November.
Presumably by then ballots will have been printed with actual candidate names on them. Currently, voters around the state don’t have any idea who is vying to be their representative. For months, lawmakers in Albany have been holding hearings as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process to redraw legislative and congressional maps. Drafts of those maps were expected by last October, with final versions in hand by the first of the year at the latest. Instead, winter is turning into spring, and no candidate knows precisely which neighborhoods to go door-knocking in. A draft of the new maps for the State Senate created three districts out of whole cloth and pushed seven Democratic incumbents into four districts.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has threatened to veto it, sending the matter to the courts and creating more uncertainty and delay.
And if you are that citizen called to a career in public service, what does your pitch to voters sound like?
“Hi, I’m John Q. Public. Please come out and vote for me in June. Or in September. Unless you are drawn out of the district. The incumbent has been failing our community. Unless he is drawn out of the district. In which case, never mind.”
“The redistricting process has been shockingly late—I say shockingly late,” said Vince Morgan, a community banker who has been laying the ground work for a run against Charlie Rangel—in a Harlem district that could move up to the Bronx and Westchester, or could stay where it is and gobble up Hispanic voting blocs in Manhattan. As a hedge, he said he has begun making his case to voters in areas far removed from his home in the central part of the old district. “It’s not frustration—it’s anxiety. We are all very anxious waiting for the lines to come out. I have a better chance of telling you what the winning Pick Four numbers are than giving you a date when this will all be settled” (though, Mr. Morgan points out, any confusion would effect his bid minimally, since “God blessed me with charisma”).
If Mr. Morgan and the residents of Harlem are confused, consider for a moment their neighbors to the north in the Hudson Valley region. The congressional district there has been one of the quintessential swing districts in the county, voting Democrat during Democratic waves (as in 2006) and Republican during Republican ones. The seat is currently held by Republican Nan Hayworth. If the towns of Poughkeepsie and Newburg are drawn into the district—they are now represented by Maurice Hinchey, who lives in Ithaca and who is retiring before the end of the year—it will become what is known as a “Plus Five” Democratic district—one sure to elect a Dem. If those two towns are grabbed by another district, then it becomes a “Plus Five” Republican district, making the incumbent, Ms. Hayworth, surely safe.
Rather than wait for the dust to settle, no fewer than five Democrats have thrown their hats into the ring, even though any of them could get drawn out of the district in the end.
“It certainly knocks the heck out of your fund-raising operation. There is a lot of hesitancy about getting involved,” said Joe Mercurio, an adviser to Matt Alexander, the mayor of Wappingers Falls, who is running for the seat. Mr. Mercurio described the awkwardness of asking potential voters for money for a candidate who may or may not be vying to represent them.
“Shit happens. This is a living-off-the-land kind of campaign.”
Or consider the case of Mark Levine, a political activist in Washington Heights. He had been planning to run for the City Council in 2013, until rumors started flying that Albany map makers may draw a Dominican-majority congressional district. If that were to happen, the incumbent state senator, Adriano Espailliat, would run for it, creating a vacancy in the State Senate that M. Levine would have only a few weeks to prepare a run for—or, depending on Albany, a few months. Or, he too could wake and find himself drawn out of the district entirely.
“It’s just crazy. I’ve got little kids, and I don’t know if I can take them on a summer vacation, or a spring vacation for that matter,” he said. “I’ve become so frustrated with the process that I have to stop reading the blogs, trying to ignore every tiny rumor and ignore what is beyond my control. It was becoming extremely unproductive.”
But as tempting as it is to presume that it is simply the forces of nature that have conspired to create disarray, a confluence of unfortunate events, recall that the chaos favors the status quo. As long as would-be challengers don’t know which district they are running in, they can’t campaign. Until election day is finalized, they can’t start gathering signatures. They can fund-raise a bit, but for a fight against whom, exactly?
And so if you happen to notice a certain hair-pulling anxiety among would-be politicos who aren’t sure what the next few weeks will bring, those who have been ensconced in office for a while sound quite willing to let the process play out for as loooonggg aaassss iiiittt ttttaakkkess.
To wit, earlier this week, The Observer caught up with 40-year incumbent Charlie Rangel. He insisted he was running again, even if he couldn’t be sure where exactly—a piece of missing intelligence he sounded like he was taking in stride.
“This will be hard for a young fellow like yourself to understand,” he said. “But after 81 years, this should be the worst of my problems.”
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