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If Tom Feeney has his way, he'll get to decide the next President of the United States.

MUNICIPAL UPHEAVALS The highest-profile fight nationally has to be the race to succeed New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with labor-backed Democrat Mark Green and Republican Michael Bloomberg clashing over who will rebuild the city. Criticized for appealing to white fear to secure the Democratic nod, Green is struggling to shore up black and Latino support. Runoff foe Fernando Ferrer backs him, but Green is still mending fences with hospital union chief Dennis Rivera, a Ferrer backer whose street muscle could offset Bloomberg's bankroll.

In addition to New York, hundreds of cities from Atlanta to Seattle will elect mayors this fall. Many of them are turning to new faces. Veteran black mayors are stepping down in Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta, inspiring spirited "next generation" contests. And Texas is witnessing a push by Latino candidates to win the mayoralties of Houston and other major cities, following the election this past spring in San Antonio of 32-year-old Democrat Ed Garza. In Cincinnati, where riots erupted in April following the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed African-American youth, former television news anchor Courtis Fuller, who is African-American, faces moderate Democratic Mayor Charlie Luken, who is white. Luken outspent Fuller by 11 to 1 in the nonpartisan primary. But Fuller's promise to make improved race relations a priority, along with a seven-point "covenant with voters"--which includes pledges to give the city's Citizens' Review Panel subpoena power to investigate police misconduct, to seek repeal of a 1993 charter amendment that prohibits specific legal protection for gays and lesbians, and to redirect the city's focus to better serve blighted neighborhoods--inspired a surge in African-American turnout. Fuller beat Luken by sixteen points in the primary that set up the November 6 runoff between the pair.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who managed that city's response to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, lost his job in a September primary. Schell was bested by City Attorney Mark Sidran and King County Council member Greg Nickels. In a liberal city that is still reeling in the aftermath of the WTO protests, an earthquake, various riots, the dot-com collapse and Boeing's exit, Sidran is running a law-and-order campaign that says the answer to a lot of what ails the city can be found in "civility laws" aimed at clearing the streets of panhandlers and the homeless. Nickels, siding with civil libertarians and antipoverty advocates, is betting that the historically liberal city will agree with his view that "we have a responsibility to do more than tell our homeless, 'You can't sit on the street or urinate on the sidewalk.'"

REJECTING ROBERTSON? Pat Robertson's favorite candidate this year is Virginia Republican gubernatorial contender Mark Earley, a fellow fundamentalist whose political rise has been shepherded by the Christian Coalition chief. Robertson has contributed $35,000 to Earley's campaign. Since September 11, however, Earley has been scrambling to explain his ties to Robertson, who concurred with fellow Virginian Jerry Falwell's view that the terrorists "give us probably what we deserve" because the country harbors abortion-rights supporters, gays and lesbians, civil libertarians and feminists. Earley has yet to part company with Robertson. Instead, he is relying on Republican National Committee money--more than $2 million so far--and a campaign that claims Democrat Mark Warner and his statewide running mates are the most extreme left-wing ticket in history. Warner, a high-tech millionaire and former US Senate candidate, doesn't live up to the billing. Though he is backed by labor and environmental groups, and supports abortion rights and protections for gays and lesbians, he also backs the death penalty, opposes new taxes and has made overtures to the National Rifle Association. Polls show Warner's well-financed campaign to be leading. If he prevails, Virginia will join one of the least-noticed trends in American politics: the return of Democratic control of governorships in the states of the Old Confederacy. A Warner win would add Virginia to a list that includes Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

LAY OFF LABOR Republicans have for years attacked Democrats for getting too close to organized labor, and that was precisely the tactic opted for by New Jersey Republican gubernatorial nominee Bret Schundler, whose privatization schemes as mayor of Jersey City earned cheers from the Wall Street Journal editorial page. In their first major debate after September 11, Schundler attacked Democratic foe Jim McGreevey as a slave of labor "special interests." Running in a state that adjoins New York City, and where many former World Trade Center workers reside, McGreevey said he was rather proud of his endorsement from the state's fire and police unions. In a response that could serve as a model for Democrats in 2002, McGreevey continued, "Mr. Schundler calls police and firefighters special interests. I call them special heroes. They are the guys who ran into the building. They've endorsed me. And they are not supporting Mr. Schundler." McGreevey, who almost beat former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman in 1997, has had the lead from the start. Though he is hardly a progressive, McGreevey is pro-choice and pro-public education as well as pro-labor, in stark contrast to conservative poster-boy Schundler.

INITIATING CHANGE In a state where initiative referendums have frequently been used to slash taxes and public services, Washington labor, church and community groups are seeking to reclaim direct democracy on November 6. The Homecare Quality Initiative, backed by Service Employees International Union locals as well as elderly, disability rights and AIDS care groups, would create a nine-member authority to set standards for publicly funded in-home care services for elderly and disabled adults. Initiative 773, supported by Healthcare for Washington's Working Families, would raise taxes on cigarettes and wholesale tobacco products, with the money earmarked for healthcare for low-income families. Framing the vote as a choice between initiative backers such as the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association of Washington, the Washington Academy of Family Physicians and leading foes Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, campaign spokesman Eric Jaffe says, "We know Washington voters trust the major organizations supporting I-773 when it comes to matters concerning health and kids, not Big Tobacco."

It's a slippery slope that these two lawgivers would have us tread.

If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.

It is not too early to devise a progressive strategy for the 2004 election.

Next year's Florida gubernatorial election--which could pit presidential brother and current GOP Governor Jeb Bush against former Attorney General Janet Reno--is developing into the marquee melee

Nine hundred days to go, and Democratic presidential hopefuls are jockeying for position.

Will Al Gore become the Dimpled President?

It's fitting that the first senator to become an independent in more than thirty years hails from Vermont, the state with the most advanced independent politics in the nation. Vermont gave maverick Republican John McCain a solid victory in the 2000 presidential primary--nearly half those voting were self-described independents, and one in seven said that campaign finance reform was their top concern. The Vermont Progressive Party, which has tenaciously focused on the needs and interests of average people, is firmly entrenched in Burlington, the state's largest city, and its gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Pollina, got 10 percent of the vote last year in a hard-fought three-way race.

Thus, Senator Jim Jeffords's decision was helped enormously by the political space for an independent path that had already been created back home and by the steady pressure from the state's Progressives, which kept the local center of gravity far to the left of the Bush-Gore mainstream. Says Pollina, "Jeffords is a smart politician, and he recognizes that Vermonters are really fed up with politics-as-usual, big-money-driven, major-party politics." Indeed, two-thirds of Vermonters polled said they approved of Jeffords's move, and his approval rating topped President Bush's by almost twenty-five points.

The question of the moment is whether more independents are about to come out of the Senate cloakroom. Conditions for such surprises are favorable and getting more so by the year. Since 1990 we've seen a remarkable proliferation of these free birds. Not only has Vermont's Representative Bernie Sanders become a Congressional institution, independents and third-party candidates have been elected governor in four states--Maine, Alaska, Connecticut and, most spectacularly, in Minnesota. After Ross Perot got nearly 20 million votes in 1992 as an independent, press speculation about the possibility of other maverick candidacies has become a fixture of pre-primary presidential coverage. Recall the fuss over Colin Powell in the fall of 1995 and the hyperventilating over Jesse Ventura, Warren Beatty, Donald Trump et al. in the fall of 1999. There's a market for outside-the-box politics, and demand is rising while supply is tight.

Even with all the barriers imposed by the two-party duopoly--discriminatory access to the ballot, unequal campaign financing, closed debates--public support for Congressional outsiders ticked upward throughout the 1990s. In his indispensable newsletter, Ballot Access News, Richard Winger reports that the vote for non-major party candidates for Congress rose to more than 4 percent of the popular vote in 2000, a level not seen since 1992, when anti-incumbent sentiment last peaked. Before that, you have to go back to 1938, when strong third parties in a few states skewed the total higher, to find such a strong expression of discontent with the duopoly.

Between 1990 and 1998 the proportion of voters registered as independents or third party increased more than 50 percent, while the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans fell. Voter statements of their political preference--a looser definition than party registration--show the same trend. About 35 percent of the electorate identifies as independent, according to the University of Michigan's National Election Studies. Anecdotal evidence from the implementation of the motor-voter law suggests that a higher proportion of new voters are registering as independents, and the tilt is most pronounced among people under 30.

These are all signs of turbulence in the electorate. The Democratic and Republican parties are not as solid, or dominant, as they seem. Their ties to average voters through local political clubs and chapters have almost disappeared, replaced by manipulative TV ads driven by consultants and expensive market research. Add the weakness of their current leaders--their inability to articulate a clear philosophy or to govern effectively on behalf of anyone but the well-off, their petty feuds, negative attacks and their subservience to special interest campaign contributors--and you can see why there's widespread disenchantment among voters and a yearning for authentically democratic representation and strong, honest leadership. As more politicians see that there is less to be lost and more to be gained from maverick behavior, there will be more eruptions of independents.

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