Lower Manhattan City Council Primaries One Inspiring One Not

By Frank Quinn

With relatively light media coverage, you’ll need to pay close attention to understand the 2023 New York City elections. This “off-year” cycle begins with a primary on June 27th, which is usually the defacto election in lower Manhattan because typically there are not any viable Republican or independent candidates. This year there are contested Democratic primaries in Districts 1 and 2, with high quality candidates but uneven contests.

Who’s sticking their neck out?

In District 2, incumbent Carlina Rivera is being challenged by Allie Ryan. Ms. Rivera has a well-documented history of supporting very progressive causes, while Ms. Ryan represents herself as pro-choice, pro-education, fighting for small businesses and eschewing donations from developers or special interests. It’s an opportunity for voters to hear a contest of ideas and choose between two talented individuals.

Further south in District 1, incumbent Christopher Marte is being challenged by three fellow Democrats in the primary. In November, Republican Helen Qiu will run against whichever Democrat prevails in the primary. While both Districts offer exciting prospects, there are stark differences in tone and substance.

Who’s doing what?

The District 1 race is a dynamic contest, with all 5 candidates recently appearing together in a joint candidate forum. Further debates are planned, and the competition seems genuine. While Mr. Marte is likely the favorite, he does not take his competitors for granted and prides himself on being accessible to his constituents.

Not so in District 2, where one candidate appears to have it in the bag. Ms. Rivera boasts endorsements from six prominent local politicians including two US congressmen, and multiple union and democratic club endorsements. In a low turnout primary, support like this from the political establishment is virtually undefeatable. Only the most politically active citizens in the district will actually vote, with a highly anticipated predisposition for endorsed candidates.

Ms. Ryan ran for this same office in 2021 but Ms. Rivera refused to debate her, and there are no planned debates ahead of this year’s District 2 primary. When candidates won’t defend their positions in front of their constituents, the constituents are poorly served.

Why is this happening?

New York voters are hostages of political entrenchment – not just because we’re dominated by a single political party, but because we’re also dominated by elite forces within that party. Committed politicians choose how to play, and success often requires that they genuflect to the establishment. It’s risky to demonstrate an independently focused campaign, and only the most well-financed competitors have a chance.

The resulting entrenchment rewards conformity, and District 2 exemplifies the pattern. Ms. Rivera’s endorsements include high profile professional politicians with their own track records of avoiding debates. State Senator Brad Hoylman, one of Ms. Rivera’s endorsers, during last year’s election. So did 30-year incumbent Congressman Jerry Nadler, who refused to participate in a well-attended multi-candidate forum hosted by the Asian Wave Alliance, giving his reason that the event included Republican candidates.

Will this ever change?

In 2019, New York City enacted rank choice voting as a way to address entrenchment politics. Unfortunately, it’s been generally ineffective as a standalone reform in the face of overpowering dominance by the political elite in a one-party system.

One non-partisan advocacy group is working on a petition ballot for the 2024 election that will reform New York City elections with a party neutral system. Final Five Voting NYC envisions a single primary open to all candidates regardless of party affiliation. Rank choice voting will determine the top five winners of the primary, and those five candidates will run against each other in the November general election, where rank choice voting will determine the ultimate winner.

Frank Quinn is a media executive, parent and musician.

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