Democratic Party Reaffirms Its Essential Liberalism

Republican taunts of “just too liberal” wouldn’t have worked in the Democratic primary. The progressive character of the Democratic Party was reaffirmed in the election. Freddy Ferrer didn’t just win, he won big, even though a run-off was just narrowly averted. Anthony Weiner was the only candidate with a plausible appeal to conservative Democrats—and he got 30 percent of the vote.

The other 70 percent of the Democratic voters stood with candidates who wanted to spend more money on health care, education, and housing. All the mayoral candidates had ties to the gay community. Thus the big difference among them was their willingness to going after resources that the federal government won’t supply—and that involved defending Bloomberg’s big tax hike.

In Manhattan, the other conservative rejected by the voters was the tough-minded Eva Moskowitz. By national standards, Moskowitz and Weiner by are liberal, but in New York, they chose a conservative course.

Moskowitz has publicly associated herself with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. She built her reputation with trenchant criticism of the work rules negotiated by schoolteachers. Evidently focusing on what is wrong with our teachers is a losing strategy. It made her too “abrasive” for The New York Times, but won her the support of the Daily News. She finished second to a serious reformer, Scott Stringer.

He comes from a politically active family and has been making friends and learning the ropes since he was a teenager. Everywhere he went, Stringer seemed to pick up endorsements and ultimately votes. He is widely expected to move up from the borough president’s office in time.

Brian Ellner broke the 10 percent mark and made himself known to the city by running an advertisement where he introduced his partner. He has clearly benefited from the campaign, but he will have to articulate a program if he expects to advance. Margarita Lopez and Bill Perkins are two veteran progressives whose careers have been placed on hold, and they must decide if they will remain in electoral politics.

The conservative-liberal divide formed the heart of the race for Manhattan district attorney. Leslie Crocker Snyder, a hard-nosed crime fighter, learned that the death penalty and harsh sentences are only supported by a minority of Manhattan Democrats. Had she campaigned convincingly for liberalizing the Rockefeller drug laws she might have beaten Robert Morganthau, but her efforts built support from within the criminal justice system with promises of providing better representation to the police. Her campaign provoked anxiety among liberals. She lost big even with the endorsement of The New York Times.

The mayoral primary was the biggest test of liberalism. And there was an issue whose potency has defined local politics all over the nation—taxes. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, recognizing that the federal government would not increase aid, pushed through a huge increase in the property tax. It funded city programs that often face cuts in federal spending. It also increased costs for homeowners and gave tenants rent increases. In his wisdom, Anthony Weiner promised a tax cut for those making less than $150,000. It propelled him into the second spot and made the decision about a runoff too close to call until he bowed out, but he was supported by less than one out of every three voters.

Freddy Ferrer magnified the liberal-conservative differences in the last days of the campaign by touting a last-minute endorsement by Al Sharpton. Once so controversial that politicians fled out the back door rather than meet him, Sharpton has emerged as the voice of New Yorkers who believe there is too much police brutality and probably too much policing period. He doesn’t speak for everyone but he clearly helped Freddy overcome problems with the African-American community.

The New York Post reacted with predictable hostility, but Ferrer actually gained strength in the polls following the Sharpton endorsement. Sharpton has a following only among the most left-wing whites, but he remains popular among people of color for his willingness to challenge law enforcement.

New York City’s Democratic Party has become more liberal since the adoption of the campaign financing system and its growing population of Latinos and other people of color. This election affirmed that trend.

That trend does not take place in isolation. President George W. Bush’s control of his party appears to be slipping. September 11 and the flooding of New Orleans appear to be bookends marking the beginning and end of his peculiar way of fighting terrorism. New Orleans is a greater disaster than the Al Qaeda attack. It is more akin to the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that virtually destroyed that city. Bush can no longer claim he made the United States safer, and that is a terrible blow to Republicans.

The Democrats have an opportunity, but will they take it? On that question, which is crucial to the future of the nation, I remain skeptical. The Democratic primary was highly visible but it attracted few voters presumably because most will support Bloomberg in the November general election. The Democrats in New York have yet to find the issues that rally the public.