Commentary

A Brooklyn Insider’s Guide to This Week’s Elections

Our opinionated take on the choices for mayor, public advocate, borough president, district attorney and referendums

Mayor de Blasio walks in the city's annual Halloween Parade last week (Photo by Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

By the end of Mayor de Blasio’s recent town-hall meeting in Brooklyn Heights, there were quite a few empty seats. One couldn’t help thinking that maybe more people would have been there if only there were an election going on.

But of course, in the technical sense, there really is. In fact, the mayor has six opponents.

Yet, despite the lurid accusations of mayoral pay-for-play spilling out in recent days from the mouth of a skeevy developer-turned-government-witness, it’s too late to stop the mayor’s momentum. In the political world, his troubles are regarded mainly as a missed opportunity for potential opponents and political consultants.

The mayor beat the most significant opponent to cross his path; his name is Preet Bharara. As Hillel the Elder once opined, “the rest is commentary.”

And the same lack of suspense is present in almost every other election taking place on Tuesday, both citywide and in Brooklyn. No wonder that one of the hottest movements right now in progressive New York City circles is one encouraging city residents with second homes in the Hudson Valley, upstate and on Long Island to register to vote from their vacation residences, where their votes might actually make a difference.

The few real contests are probably at the City Council level, with at least two races where the results are in doubt, and arguably a few others where candidates other than the Democrats are working their hearts out. But there are some citywide, boroughwide and local races which offer a few laughs on their own merits.

As a former political blogger with some expertise on the Brooklyn scene, I’ve been asked by The Bridge to put together a tip sheet on what’s on the ballot for Brooklyn residents too impoverished to own a second home. Because, even in a fixed fight, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. My tour of our local political menagerie:

The Parties

Besides our one and a half major parties, New York has six political parties that earned an automatic ballot line for four years by polling at least 50,000 votes for governor in the 2014 general election.

Small parties with their own lines can qualify candidates for the ballot with a mere 5% of their enrolled voters in a jurisdiction, a number which sometimes runs into the lower single digits. By contrast, parties without their own ballot lines face onerous petitioning requirements, which they nonetheless fulfill because it is so rare that anyone bothers to challenge their petitions.

They all occupy their own unique niches:

The Conservative Party’s function is to use its power of cross-endorsement to push the GOP to the right.

The Working Families Party’s function is to push the Democrats to the left and to serve as a money funnel for that purpose.

The Green Party exists as an outlet for those people who’ve given up on pushing the Democrats to the left, as well as those who never thought it was possible in the first place.

The other parties are less ideological, but have in common that their ballot lines are the accidental byproducts of gubernatorial elections past.

The Independence Party, created by a long-forgotten multimillionaire on an ego trip to become governor, now functions as a feeding trough for various opportunists, seeking to sell its appealing name to the highest bidder. Its primary function these days is to serve as a money sluice for the State Senate’s GOP-allied Independent Democratic Conference.

The Reform Party, started as an effort to give the last Republican gubernatorial candidate another ballot line, has been taken over by opportunists seeking to replicate the Independence Party’s success at accumulating contributions and jobs for the boys. This year, they’ve made a strange series of momentary alliances all over the ideological spectrum.

The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) publicly states that its purpose is to advocate for the passage of a 10-point Women’s Equality Act, but was started largely as an effort to give Andrew Cuomo another ballot line, and to draw him favorable attention at a time he was being challenged in the primary by a female candidate. (Members of the Working Families Party believe WEP’s name was chosen to have similar initials to its own, WFP.) In fact, the WEP has strenuously avoided running candidates anywhere in the city this year, and in the few races where it has (one in Brooklyn), they are either Republicans or people suspected of being Republican plants who’ve gotten on the ballot in spite of the party leadership’s best efforts to prevent their presence. 

And now that we’ve laid out the playing field, here are the players in citywide and borough-wide races. (Read our guide to Brooklyn’s City Council races here.)

Mayor

Mayor de Blasio sees himself as a pragmatic progressive who actually wants to make things happen, rather than to stop them in their tracks. Looking in the face of what he sees as the daunting realities of no federal help and a budget constrained by needing Albany approval for virtually every revenue enhancement, he uses what tools he has: zoning variances and rezoning, selling off public assets with strings attached, tax abatements and other tricks of what could be called “progressive extortion.”

Such methods have become the coin of the realm for getting new schools, library improvements, parks and affordable housing. It is of course a modus operandi with both limits and pitfalls and it has attracted critics from all along the political spectrum.

constitutional convention

Voters casting their ballots at the Park Slope Armory in last November’s election (Photo by Simon Leigh/Camera Press/Redux)

Opponents of this school of progressive thought have raised many critiques. Good government groups rightly worry it fosters corruption. Some, to the mayor’s right, oppose his goals.

Critics to the mayor’s left don’t like the limits and don’t like the consequences, especially what they see as encouraging overdevelopment. Some of the concerns they raise are valid, but what liberal critics haven’t raised are any plausible alternatives to meet the goals they profess to share.

De Blasio is opposed on political-party ballot lines by Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (Republican/Conservative), Akeem Browder (Green) and former Councilman Sal Albanese (Reform).

In addition, Malliotakis also circulated petitions to attain a “Stop de Blasio” ballot line. This is not to be confused with the “Dump the Mayor” ballot line occupied by celebrity private eye Bo Dietl, notable for his appearance as the arresting officer in Goodfellas, in which he displayed more restraint than he showed in the first candidates’ debate.

To be fair, Malliotakis’s dis-da-mayor line is being used to help other GOP candidates throughout the city, while Dietl’s, like virtually everything else about his campaign, is an exercise in personal self-aggrandizement.

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Rounding out the field are Libertarian Aaron Commey and Democratic primary also-ran Mike Tolkin on the “Smart Cities” line. (Tolkin failed to run last in the primary and is now giving it another try; here’s betting that this time he succeeds.)

Whatever one thinks of the mayor, and I would not say I’m a big fan, he seems to be the only candidate in the race with more than a minimal clue about how to run a government. He’s not likely to lose, and even if there is a strong protest vote, it’s going to divide six ways.

Since there is little danger of any of the candidates challenging him actually managing to win, a protest vote can do no harm, and there are certainly more than a few things to protest. But the idea of a protest is to be heard, and the best chance of being heard is to put all the protest eggs into the strongest basket. Normally, that would mean Malliotakis, who, along with Albanese, has at least a minimal clue about how to run a government, as opposed to the other four choices, who have virtually no clue at all.

For most New Yorkers, a Malliotakis protest presents at least two problems. One is the perception that there’s no there there. Being in the Assembly minority leaves one free to go off on one’s own frolics, since your participation in legislating is outright discouraged, but prior to her race for mayor, Malliotakis was most notable for her effort to ban fake dog testicles.

Crain’s New York Business, a publication one would expect to be in sympathy with her agenda, asks “How can Malliotakis be this bad of a candidate?” and opines “She has offered not a single substantive policy in her campaign against de Blasio.” It followed this up with a “no endorsement” editorial. “She is not ready for the job,” stated the publication. “Given her minimal management experience, she ought to have made her campaign one of big ideas. Yet she has not proposed a single one.”

Those who want to base their protest on ethical, but not ideological grounds, may find solace in the mercurial Albanese, who is equally comfortable supporting Bernie Sanders and right-wing GOP State Senator Marty Golden. Albanese swings at the mayor from both the left and right, and averages out close enough to him to suffice for those who dislike the mayor more than his policies.

Those wanting to send a more proactively progressive protest vote may prefer to support the Green, Akeem Browder. Yes, de Blasio generally stands at the left end of the politically feasible on any issue not involving a contributor or favored interest group, but progressives are rarely satisfied with what is politically feasible. Those who want to move left, but not too far, can always split difference between Albanese and Browder by voting for Tolkin.

And those fed up enough with city government to want to kick over the apple cart entirely have two choices: Dietl, our own home-grown Trump, or the libertarian Commey, who once attempted to hijack a plane to Antarctica, but is still thought by some to show fewer signs of nuttiness than Dietl.

So where does that leave us, given the likely outcome? The mayor becomes a lame duck on Day One of Term Two, but even without the impending end of power, New York has never been kind to second- and third-term Mayors. One can scarcely point to any mayor’s transformative initiatives after the first term. The smart money would bet on that not to change. So what can we expect from the mayor in the next four years?

Less of the same.

Public Advocate 

Incumbent Letitia James (Democrat/Working Families) is opposed by Juan Carlos Polanco (Republican/Reform/Stop de Blasio), Michael O’Reilly (Conservative), James Lane (Green) and Devin Balkind (Libertarian).

Tish James is undeniably smart and certainly has enough of the characteristics of a pit bull to have the potential to be the sort of watchdog envisioned by the authors of the City Charter when they created the position. However, it cannot be said that she has been aggressive as one would hope in keeping an eye on the mayor. And her jumping on nearly every progressive band wagon, no matter how silly, has had its moments of annoyance.

If you’re not going to serve as a check on the mayor, it’s hard to see what the point of the job is. Except, for example, in the hypothetical situation in which a mayor gets indicted for some sort of pay-for-play transaction and gets convicted. In which case, the public advocate would become the acting mayor.

James’s major opponent, Polanco, actually sounds thoughtful, but his major public experience was as president of the NYC Board of Elections, which, except for the Parking Violations Bureau, would be the city’s most hated agency. Still, Polanco, who has always called himself JC, gets credit for having done more in the way of public outreach in that job than all of his predecessors and successors combined. No one ever put more lipstick on that pig than JC.

On the other hand, he wears a bowtie and spews out a tired combination of right-wing Republican talking points including abolishing Common Core, eliminating municipal ID cards, and keeping the Rikers Island prison open. But his plan for affordable housing (taking up three different sections of the issues page of his website) is ludicrous. Mostly, he advocates selling off our existing public housing to the current tenants, thus gradually eliminating our already insufficient supply. His solution to homelessness is mental-health care and financial literacy. No mention of permanent housing, and the only thing he says about shelters is we have enough of them. The actual section called “Affordable Housing” talks about improving transit, apparently so people can live elsewhere.

Yet that apparently isn’t enough for the Conservative Party. Their candidate, Michael O’Reilly, has similar priorities and positions as Polanco, but his Facebook page currently features links to the likes of Glenn Beck and Congressman Steve King. One gets the feeling O’Reilly would rather burn public housing than sell it to the tenants.

The Green’s Lane is pretty standard-issue, except he apparently has no idea where he is running, given his platform includes support for family farms, protecting farmland and a whole litany of ideas outside even the most liberally interpreted concept of local government.

Libertarian Balkind, an enrolled Democrat, seems a pretty strange Libertarian, even when compared to the party’s mayoral candidate. A party committed to property rights has a candidate who wants to put intellectual property into the “public realm.” But most disappointingly, Balkind does not advocate the most commonsense Libertarian idea relevant to the job he seeks. To wit, he does not advocate its abolition.

It’s easy not to care one way or another, but since the occupant of this job could end up running the city, a vote for James would seem to be an act of prudence.

Comptroller

Incumbent Scott Stringer (Democrat/Working Families), who would prefer to be running for mayor, is opposed by Michael Faulkner (Republican/Conservative/Reform/Stop de Blasio), a former New York Jets player and current Harlem pastor and former Jerry Falwell protégé, who also would prefer to be running for mayor–and was, until the GOP leadership awarded him this consolation prize. Rounding out the field are Julia Willebrand (Green) and Alex Merced (Libertarian).

While neither Stringer or Faulkner really wants the job, Stringer actually has an idea what it does. Meanwhile, Faulkner seems to believe he can have an impact of “federal tax and spending fairness.” If this really were a priority for him, he’d quit the GOP.

Willebrand, a retired teacher and college instructor, seems to spend her time as the designated Green for state and city financial positions, even though her major concern seems to be environmental issues.

Merced is a novelty, as he has experience in the world of finance and seems most interested in performing functions which actually meet the office’s job description. This may be a first. I am impressed enough to recommend that Stringer consider hiring the guy.

Adams, on board a Citi Bike, wants to lead Brooklyn into a healthier era (Photo by Erica Sherman/Brooklyn Borough President’s Office)

Brooklyn Borough President

The curious political journey of incumbent Eric Adams from police captain to Nation-of-Islam-allied militant to Gingrich Republican to reform-oriented liberal firebrand continues as he evolves further into his current occupation as non-controversial civic booster and champion of economic development.

Adams (Democrat/Working families) is opposed by Vito Bruno (Republican/Conservative) and Benjamin Kissel (Reform). Bruno has actually been postering so aggressively one would think he was the only candidate. He has also been doing robo-calls. Described by the New York Post as a “Nightlife Legend,” Bruno is the former owner of the Odyssey nightclub in Bay Ridge, most famous for its starring role in Saturday Night Fever. He also managed Studio 54, The Roxy, Palladium and Tunnel and has been a 30-year volunteer for the gay-pride parade. This is not your daddy’s Bay Ridge Republican.

Bruno feels he’s qualified for the job because he sees it as that of a promoter, and that’s what he does. Can anyone explain how this differs from Marty Markowitz?

Kissel, by contrast, calls himself  “one of the nation’s rising political commentators” and does a podcast called Cave Comedy Radio. According to his website, “Ben is ready to get involved in his community to challenge the one-party rule of New York City politics and stand up for Brooklyn! One of Ben’s goals is to inspire other young people to run for public office to effect change in their local community. If Ben can do it, so can you!”

And who says we have no real choices?

District Attorney

After winning a six-way primary by a slim margin of 40 points, Acting DA Eric Gonzalez faces his 5th-place primary opponent, Councilman Vincent Gentile (Reform). It can actually be argued that Gentile had the most impressive showing of the also-rans, as he still showed he was king of his district. He was the only candidate besides Gonzalez to win any Assembly Districts, carrying several, despite a campaign based on the proposition that he was Mr. Clean compared to his opponents because he never worked for the Brooklyn DA’s office. In fact, Gentile was untainted by exposure to any criminals (outside of a few colleagues he’d encountered in the City Council and State Senate), having not prosecuted a case in over two decades.

Supreme Court

There are two seats and three candidates: incumbent Bruce Balter (Democrat/Republican/Conservative), Acting Supreme Court Justice Andrew Borrok (Democrat) and John Bruno (Republican/Conservative). Until September, Bruno was the Conservative Party candidate for City Council in District 43, a prime Republican target. Bruno didn’t want to be on the council, but was holding the place until the GOP could hold its primary. In a process charmingly but accurately known as “backfill,” he then accepted the nomination for Supreme Court judge so he could be replaced as a council candidate by the winner of the Republican council primary. Bruno may actually want to become a judge, but he’s made little effort to do so beyond accepting the nomination. However, he may enjoy a name-association benefit from Vito Bruno’s aggressive postering operation.

Civil Court

There are eleven candidates for the six countywide Civil Court seats. Five of them were found qualified by the New York and Brooklyn bar associations. They are incumbents Carolyn Wade and Robin Sheares (both Democrats), and non-incumbents Connie Melendez (Democrat), Patria Frias-Colón (Democrat) and Isiris Isela Isaac (Reform). They face one Democrat, one Democrat/Reform, one Conservative and three Reform candidates, only one of whom had the guts and integrity to submit herself to peer review (and she was rejected).

Referendums

(You must turn over the ballot to find them.)

Question No. 1:  Should we hold a constitutional convention?

The single most important thing on the ballot. I’m for it, and refer you here for further explanation. Fears it would be controlled by Republicans are not well founded. Unfortunately, thanks to the near-unanimous opposition of the Albany Bi-Partisan Iron Triangle  and the interests that prefer the status quo, Con-Con is goin’ down.

Question No. 2: Should we allow courts the power to reduce or eliminate the public pensions of officials convicted of felonies?

Can you believe this isn’t already the law? And all it took to put it in front of the voters was the convictions of legislative leaders from both houses and both parties. And you still don’t believe we need a constitutional convention?

Question No. 3: Do you want to create a forest-preserve land bank of 250 acres for municipalities who could request to use acres in the land bank to address bridge-and-road hazards, to drill water wells to meet drinking-water standards, and stabilize public-utility lines?

Before local governments could begin requesting acres in the land bank, the state would acquire 250 new acres to include in the forest preserve. The measure would also allow bike paths, sewer and utility lines within the width of highways cutting through the forest preserve.

New York’s “forever wild” forests have strong protections, which require a referendum before any changes are made to them. Land trades have happened now and then, with no real danger to the overall health of the wild forests, and sometimes even an advantage to them. Some citizens always oppose any change on the principle that anything “forever wild” should remain thus. But those open to some reasonable modifications should consider if this passes their muster.

Howard Graubard, an attorney, Brooklyn resident and former aide to the State Senate Minority Leader, blogged about local, state and national politics at Ben Smith’s “Room 8” (and elsewhere) in 2006-16 under the pseudonym “Gatemouth” (no one was fooled)