Can our mayoral candidates tackle the most urgent city issues?
Less than two years after resigning from Congress under less than ideal circumstances, Anthony Weiner is reportedly giving serious consideration to running for mayor of New York City. During his first bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2005, Weiner distinguished himself as a voice for middle-income outer borough voters who felt left out of Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan-centric vision for the city’s future. To some, Weiner seemed like a younger, scrawnier Ed Koch, with the same bulldog tenacity and populist brio. Having graciously conceded defeat that year in the name of Democratic unity, many believed Weiner had a strong shot at winning the mayoralty once Bloomberg left the picture. Then, of course, he was caught sending creepy photographs of himself to various young female strangers, and then lying about it to the press.
So why, one might ask, is Weiner being taken seriously as a potential mayoral candidate? One reason is that he has $4.3 million in campaign funds, and he is entitled to an additional $1.5 million in public matching funds under New York City’s generous campaign finance system. The bigger and more depressing reason is that the leading Democratic mayoral candidates are hilariously ill-equipped to face the fiscal challenges to come, and voters are very open to someone new.
There are some solid candidates in the mix, but they’re not running as Democrats. Joe Lhota, the former MTA chief who served as Rudolph Giuliani’s right-hand man throughout the 1990s, has a wealth of administrative experience that would serve him well. Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Independence Party nominee and former Bronx borough president, is running on an innovative platform centered on revitalizing New York City’s neglected outer boroughs. But short of a miracle or a Bloomberg-level injection of super PAC money, it will be hard for either candidate to overcome the fact that they aren’t Democrats.
It is true that New York City hasn’t had a Democratic mayor since Giuliani’s election in 1993. Yet it is also true that the city is reliably, almost monolithically, left of center, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans 6 to 1. The city that elected Giuliani 20 years ago has changed in profound ways: The Latino, Asian and black shares of the electorate have climbed considerably; lower-middle-income white ethnics have lost political clout relative to upper-middle-income college-educated liberals; and crime rates have plummeted. In other respects, however, the city is much the same. While local public-employee unions have lost ground in states like Wisconsin and Indiana, they are as strong and influential as ever in New York.
As Christopher Elmendorf and David Schleicher, law professors at the University of California at Davis and George Mason University, respectively, observe in their 2012 paper, “Informing Consent: Voter Ignorance, Political Parties, and Election Law,” voters in cities such as New York with partisan elections for local officials vote for the party they support on the national scene. This is despite the fact that issues at the local level are radically different from those at the national level. One might be a “liberal” on abortion rights and federal higher education funding but a “conservative” on fixing potholes and controlling crime. In an ideal world, we might have local political parties ‑ say, the Free Subways Party, the Stop-and-Friskers and the Anti-Tax Free Love Alliance ‑ organized around specifically local issues. But national political parties have the First Amendment right to take part in local races, and they take advantage of it.
In a city where Democrats dominate national elections, local non-Democrats have to take extraordinary measures to win. Bloomberg spent more than $100 million in 2009 to overcome his status as a (rather liberal) non-Democrat, and his victory over a competent but decidedly uncharismatic opponent, Democratic Comptroller Bill Thompson, proved surprisingly narrow all the same.
What this Democratic advantage means is that the city’s next mayor will most likely be determined by a small number of Democratic primary voters, many of whom are public employees. Two of the Democrats vying for mayor this year, Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, and John Liu, the city’s comptroller, are both known for their close ties to the city’s public-employee unions. The other major Democratic candidates ‑ front-runner Christine Quinn, the New York City Council speaker, and the aforementioned Thompson ‑ are only slightly less close to city unions. One consequence of this tight alliance between local Democrats and public workers is that little of New York City’s political conversation centers on the big fiscal challenges facing the five boroughs.
Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a friend and colleague, has documented in a series of articles and op-eds the alarming rise in inflation-adjusted municipal spending since Bloomberg came into office. City-funded spending in fiscal year 2002 was $33.9 billion in current dollars. In fiscal year 2014, the Bloomberg administration projects spending of $50.7 billion ‑ an inflation-adjusted increase of almost 50 percent. And lest you think the administration has been paving the streets with gold and pouring money into upgrading basic services, most of this increase has flowed into “uncontrollable” expenditures, like pension and health benefits and other fringe benefits for city workers and retirees. Pension contributions have increased from $2 billion to $8.2 billion from fiscal year 2002 to fiscal year 2014 in inflation-adjusted terms while health and other benefits have gone from $3.1 billion to $8.8 billion. That additional $11.9 billion in pension and benefit spending would be more than enough to double the size of the city’s police force, or even to build seawalls strong enough to protect the city from future hurricanes.
You would think New York’s mayoral candidates would be talking about this enormously important rise in the cost of meeting pension and benefit obligations, which threatens over time to squeeze spending on the services all New Yorkers, rich and poor, depend on. Indeed, as Gelinas notes, the high cost of city-funded benefits is forcing New York City to reduce its workforce. The number of police officers, for example, is expected to go from 36,790 to 34,483. One obvious way to keep up and even expand the police force and other key services is to work harder to contain the cost of benefits. But the city’s public-employee unions aren’t exactly thrilled about that; they will see to it that New York City’s next mayor does not drive a hard bargain.
Pension and health benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. The much bigger challenge facing New York City ‑ as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has vividly explained ‑ is how dependent New York City has grown on tax revenue harvested from Wall Street. In a City Journal article published last year, Glaeser argued that New York has come to rely on the financial services industry as a golden goose that papers over other weaknesses. But as he explains, powerful structural forces are chipping away at New York’s financial-service industry, ranging from competition from other cities in the United States and abroad to a new regulatory regime that (hopefully) will contain the industry’s sometimes reckless expansion. The city has spent three decades riding a financial services boom that has proven unsustainable, which means that economic diversification is an imperative. Unless the city fosters more growth and entrepreneurship, by relaxing zoning laws to allow for new construction and making the city’s rules and regulations more startup-friendly, among other things, New Yorkers could find themselves in the worst possible position: with rising pension and benefit costs squeezing taxpayers who find themselves struggling as Wall Street ceases to be the gift that keeps on giving.
I have no idea whether Anthony Weiner is capable of addressing these pressing issues. But if he even comes close, New Yorkers ought to forgive his boorish behavior, because they need a fighter at the helm. And to be clear, New York City is not alone. Dozens of cities across the country have mayoral elections this year, including Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Detroit and Minneapolis. America’s big cities are our engines of growth and prosperity, and when they suffer, the rest of the country suffers along with them.
PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) pauses as he announces that he will resign from the United States House of Representatives during a news conference in Brooklyn, New York, June 16, 2011.REUTERS/Mike Segar