Commentary Magazine


New York City

To the Editor:

In his article on the topsy-turvy world of New York City politics [“Succeeding Giuliani,” January], Fred Siegel overlooks the role played by two topsy-turvy policies: campaign finance and its stepchild, mandatory term limits.

Political campaigns in New York City are expensive; it takes a lot of money to get a message out to voters. But campaign-finance reform has limited the ability of challengers to raise large sums, thereby concentrating power in the hands of party hacks like Mark Green, Fernando Ferrer, and Al Sharpton, and conferring significant advantages on incumbents. The result is that only a challenger with an independent fortune like Michael Bloomberg has the resources to compete.

Of course, one way to neutralize the advantages incumbents enjoy is to force them out of office with mandatory term limits. But rather than give New Yorkers more choice, this policy gives them less. In the last election, they were deprived of Rudolph Giuliani, the candidate with the most experience and skill at a time when these qualities mattered most.

New York was fortunate to get a Giuliani from this system. But make no mistake: this was by luck, not by design. If the city wants to right itself, as Mr. Siegel hopes, it should adopt plans that make it easier, not harder, for good candidates to run.

Eric Halpern
West Hartford, Connecticut

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Fred Siegel writes:

Has campaign-finance reform concentrated power in the hands of party hacks? Of the three politicians cited by Eric Halpern, only one, Freddy Ferrer, can in any sense be considered a hack.

Al Sharpton is a race man, whose career has been built on threats to defeat the nominees of the Democratic party; indeed, the 2001 election represented the second time he tried, successfully, to undermine Mark Green in a campaign for office. As for Green himself, he has many failings, but he has never been embraced by the party leadership.

Where Mr. Halpern is closer to the mark is in suggesting that Green probably helped defeat himself by sticking to campaign-spending limits in the face of Michael Bloomberg’s onslaught of television ads. When you add Bloomberg’s charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations with electoral influence, the new mayor probably spent around $100 million to win. Such, as Mr. Halpern rightly notes, are the effects of campaign finance “reform.”

Term limits are a different matter. Given the disastrous history of third terms in both New York City and New York State, my feelings about them are not so straightforward as Mr. Halpern’s. Mayors Fiorello La Guardia and Ed Koch, Governors Nelson Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo—all enjoyed the benefit of a third term, and none was successful in it. Should Governor George Pataki be returned to office a third time (the state, unlike the city, has not imposed term limits), we can expect no better.

What to do about any of this is still another question. I would caution against drawing too many conclusions from a campaign that took place in the wake of an unparalleled physical attack on the city and in which the outgoing mayor became a national hero whose endorsement was given unprecedented value. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes on the law, unusual elections make for bad political generalizations.

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