- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

NEW YORK — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose popularity is steadily ebbing among voters, has been shopping the idea of abolishing party primaries, saying the “time has come” for open elections.

The problem is that he seems to be getting virtually no support from Republicans or Democrats who consider the idea itself as just another political ploy. In the resulting fusillade of editorials and TV debates, the mayor’s critics have accused him of looking out for his re-election, not the welfare of voters.

“It’s ridiculous and a bad idea,” said Mike Long, chairman of the New York Conservative Party. “The voters have a right to know a candidate’s philosophy.”

Mr. Long, among other political leaders, subscribes to the conclusion that the mayor, reasoning he will not be the likely choice of Republicans in 2005, views nonpartisan elections as his only means to re-election.

Mr. Bloomberg, a life-long Democrat, became a Republican in order to run in the GOP mayoral primary. He is calling for a November referendum on the open primary proposal that his charter commission is set to recommend.

An open primary would abolish the traditional party primary in which Republicans and Democrats separately elect their candidate for the general election.

Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is on record saying that he is behind Mr. Bloomberg’s drive for nonpartisan elections.

Those in favor of the proposal say the party system in the city is a dysfunctional one with no accountability. They point out that an average 17 percent of registered Democrats vote in the primaries, despite the fact that New York has decidedly Democratic leanings.

Nonpartisan primaries, they argue, would threaten Democratic Party business-as-usual, which includes office-holding and lucrative contracts.

Opponents contend that the billionaire mayor, who spent a record-breaking $75 million on his 2001 campaign, will use his fortune again to further his ambitions. In response, the Democratic Party hired a consultant, Howard Wolfson, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign, and a polling firm to defeat the proposal.

Seeking to dampen the furor, Mr. Bloomberg said he would refrain from spending his money to publicize the merits of nonpartisan elections and promised that if the measure is adopted it would not go into effect until 2009. He also said party affiliation could still appear on the ballot.

The mayor’s pledge included the caveat that Democrats agree to refrain from spending big bucks to knock the referendum down. Recent polls indicated that most New Yorkers are opposed to the nonpartisan elections.

His critics were not appeased.

“He’s caught with his fingers in the cookie jar,” Mr. Long said.

But a veteran political source said, “He had to back off to preserve something he really likes.”

In a letter to the chairman of the Charter Revision Commission, Frank J. Macchiarola, Mr. Bloomberg wrote: “I strongly believe that the implementation of non-partisan elections in New York City should occur in 2009.

“This will negate any argument that I gain any personal benefit from such a change and it will keep the current system in place through my re-election campaign in 2005 — the system, it should be noted, that allowed both me and Rudy Giuliani to win the mayoralty.”

Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, the senior member of the state’s congressional delegation, is against the proposal, while Mayor Edward I. Koch, a Democrat and Bloomberg supporter, is dead set against it.

Former Public Advocate Mark Green, the Democratic nominee in the 2001 mayoral election, rejected suggestions that nonpartisan elections would break the “Democratic machine.”

Mr. Green argued in the online Manhattan Gazette that Mr. Bloomberg’s latest idea is simply a case of repaying a “party boss.” He points out the Independent Party’s Lenora Fulani gave Mr. Bloomberg her support in 2001, possibly providing his victory margin, and that the proposal would benefit her group’s efforts to establish a viable third party.

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