Voters Reject Incumbents in Low Turnout Primary

margaret_chin.jpgMargaret Chin, rallying an anti-DOT crowd last December, defeated Lower Manhattan council rep Alan Gerson in one of several losses for incumbents yesterday.
The biggest news from last night's primaries has to be the ouster of no fewer than four sitting City Council members in a vote marked by low turnout. A fifth incumbent, Maria Baez, looks extremely likely to lose her seat, trailing by 100 votes. In these local primaries, where several winning candidates failed to clear the 2,000 vote threshold, that pretty much qualifies as a solid mandate for challenger Fernando Cabrera. A sixth, Queens rep Thomas White, leads by six votes -- with 1,849 to his credit in the un-certified tally.

The Times' Sam Roberts called yesterday's results "the greatest repudiation of incumbents in a generation." So what do the defeated Alan Gerson, Helen Sears, and Kendall Stewart all have in common? For one thing, they all voted to extend term limits last October. If you're Mayor Bloomberg, the backlash potential on November 3 seems a little more real today. For livable streets activists, the risks of counting on one administration to do the important work of bringing our transportation system into the 21st century feel a lot more acute.

That's a big reason why it was so important to lay some groundwork during this campaign -- to make sustainable transportation and planning policy a politically relevant issue. Thanks to Transportation Alternatives' candidate survey, we now have several council members on the record, some more specifically than others, talking about things like street safety, congestion pricing, and Bus Rapid Transit. We know that freshman council members Brad Lander, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Daniel Dromm will bring a more progressive outlook to City Hall than their predecessors or their primary opponents.

In the critical Manhattan DA race, all three candidates produced strong platforms to make streets safer following TA's June debate. Robert Morgenthau may have passed the baton to Cy Vance, but there's every reason to believe the new DA will do more to deter deadly driving on our crowded streets than his mentor.

It would be foolishly presumptuous, however, to say that livable streets supporters played a decisive role in determining the outcome of any race. The get-out-the-vote factor is still missing. Nowhere was this more apparent than in District 33, the Brooklyn council seat vacated by David Yassky.

Jo Anne Simon and Evan Thies each brought strong progressive transportation creds and real track records to their candidacies. You can hypothesize that they split the vote in a crowded field. But in the end they were beaten by a 28-year-old former aide to party boss Vito Lopez with no discernible accomplishments to his name. Winner Steve Levin swayed the New York League of Conservation Voters enough to win their endorsement (read some of his positions in this PDF), but whether he'll prove to be his own man and represent the best interests of his district -- the ultimate doormat for free-riding car commuters -- is a totally open question.

The most impressive display of boots-on-the-ground power, meanwhile, didn't come from Lopez. That distinction belongs to the Working Families Party. WFP City Council candidates upended at least three incumbents, probably four. Other WFP-backed contenders, including Levin, Lander, and Van Bramer, won hard fought campaigns for open seats. One can only imagine the wonders that an all-out WFP campaign for congestion pricing or bridge tolls would work for New York City transit riders.

In the big citywide campaigns for comptroller and public advocate, WFP candidates John Liu and Bill de Blasio also came out on top. Because neither cleared 40 percent of the vote, both of these races are now slated for run-off elections in two weeks. Comptroller hopeful Yassky slightly outperformed expectations with a 30 percent showing, and Mark Green placed a surprisingly lackluster second in his bid for a reprise as public advocate.

If you have a dog in those races (and I suspect you do), here's the thing. Sure we're talking about citywide campaigns, but turnout on September 29 is going to be even lower than yesterday's abysmal showing. Call ten of your friends, get them to the polls in two weeks, and try your hand at power brokering for a day.