As head of the Democratic Party machine, Mayor de Blasio will determine if he faces a challenger in 2017

Will voters and government reform activists accept Mayor de Blasio's control of access to the primary ballot ?

For months, the spectacular debate being prompted by the Democratic and Republican Party presidential primary races has revealed that voters from the two main political parties, which control American government, want a full-on challenge to establishment politics.

In response, the main political parties have pushed back against the demands for political reform.

On the Democratic Party side of the political spectrum, party leaders are going to extremes to defend the political establishment. For example, the Democratic Party presidential primary features a mechanism that was designed to subvert the state primary process, if necessary, to prevent reform candidates from securing the party’s presidential nomination.

“Unpledged delegates exist, really, to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists,” said U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Miami), who also serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee, during an interview on CNN, referring to the process by which Democratic Party insiders are able to hold back unwanted presidential primary challengers.

U.S. Representative Wasserman Schultz’s comments followed demands made by voters from the party’s progressive wing for an explanation for the Democratic National Committee’s apparent support for former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton over her insurgent challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).

On the Republican Party side of the political spectrum, party elders are plotting a brokered convention to deny their party’s nomination to the frontrunner, the billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump.

What can be said about voters’ dissatisfaction with establishment politicians from the two main political parties is that the presidential race is opening the door to a deeper conversation about the ways that the two main political parties are tone deaf, intentionally so, to voters’ demands for political, economic, and social reforms.

On a state and local level, establishment incumbents benefit from the assistance of political party officials from the provision of each of organizational support from the political party and opposition work against primary challengers. In New York City, candidates for public office must gather a certain number of signatures from registered voters on petitions in order to qualify to appear on the ballot. Political parties help incumbents to collect enough signatures that would survive challenges, which is important, because party-chosen candidates and their establishment supporters often raise questions with respect to the petition signatures collected by primary challengers. Furthermore, political parties in New York, as elsewhere, also tend to nominate family members of incumbents to succeed incumbents as a way to make it difficult for candidates without name recognition, outsiders, or reformers to win elected office.

But the advantages enjoyed by incumbents don’t just stop there. Incumbents, especially legislators, are able to steer taxpayer money to projects that benefit their constituents. In New York City, municipal legislators may request “annual disbursements of tax dollars to community groups,” which are approved by the speaker of the New York City Council. The approval process for, and the delivery of, “member items,” as these annual disbursements are sometimes called, are fraught with controversy, because allocations can be based on political motivations. For example, taxpayer money could be steered to individuals or groups that would benefit an incumbent’s next reelection effort.

On a state and local level, voters’ dissatisfaction with elections that are stacked in favour of establishment politics can be measured by the steady decline in voter turnout.

In the November 2013 mayoral election in New York City, for example, only 24 per cent. of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, setting a new record low, according to a report published by The New York Times. The previous record low for a November general election of New York City's mayor was set four years prior, when only 28 per cent. of eligible voters cast their ballots. In comparison, in the November 2014 gubernatorial election in New York State, which coïncided with Congressional midterm elections, slightly less than 29 per cent. of eligible New York State voters caster their ballots, ranking the state as fourth-worst in the nation for voter-turnout for that election cycle then, contributing to setting the worst voter turnout rate for the nation in the last 72 years, according to an editorial published by The New York Times. "The reasons are apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns," the Editors of The New York Times wrote, overlooking the role that the parties’ practice of ballot gatekeeping plays in creating a sense of cynicism amongst voters.   

The process by which former District Attorney Robert Johnson (D-The Bronx) timed his resignation to accept a judicial appointment so that his replacement on the ballot could be chose by party insiders -- and not by an open primary process -- had the dual effect of drawing immense criticism from government reform advocates and, more importantly, a backlash from voters. On election day when voters went to the polls to cast their ballots for the party-chosen candidate, former appellate judge Darcel Clark, only an estimated five per cent. of registered voters bothered to show up. The low voter participation rate served to telegraph voter dissatisfaction with the party-controlled ballot.

Against this backdrop of the national, state, and municipal issues about ballot access and voter turnout, New Yorkers must begin to turn their attention to the 2017 municipal election cycle. In particular, voters must review the record of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City).

In the face of voter sentiment that has increasingly rejected establishment control over government, the economy, and society, how has Mr. de Blasio responded as mayor ? He has developed a political doctrine that relies on money in politics. He has affirmed the near exclusivity of lobbyists determining public policies. He has professed a neoliberal view of economics where, for example, in the realm of housing, affordable apartments can only be built by providing valuable upzoning rights and subsidies to real estate speculators. Contrary to the lip service he has given to progressivism, Mayor de Blasio has sustained the use of race-based policing policies by the New York Police Department. His abject failure to address each of the root causes of homelessness and the crumbling conditions of public housing apartment buildings indicates that his focus is not on using economic gains to benefit those with the least.

As noted by Progress Queens, some government reform activists hesitate opposing Mayor de Blasio’s expected 2017 campaign for reëlection on the grounds that there is no reform candidate, who has thus far come forward, to challenge Mayor de Blasio. That kind of thinking overlooks the fact that Mayor de Blasio, as the highest-elected Democratic Party official in municipal government, is the de facto leader of the local Democratic Party machine. If the Democratic Party doesn’t tolerate other candidates running in the 2017 mayoral primary, it will be because Mayor de Blasio, as leader of the Democratic Party, is responsible for suppressing the emergence of the very challengers that government reform activists are seeking.

If voters across the nation are rejecting the political parties’ control over the primary ballot, then voters in New York must decide if Mayor de Blasio’s local control is congruent with his self-anointed progressive worldview. Progressive is the wrong word to use to describe an establishment incumbent intent on blocking an open primary ballot process.

  -- Progress Queens