When should we applaud voter apathy? When is a low turnout a good omen? It is when, as in the 1991 City Council elections, it may hail an end to ethnicity as the basis of city politics.
Supporters of ethnic politics believed it was essential to rearrange council districts so that whites would elect whites, blacks would elect blacks, and so forth. They like to claim that New Yorkers have always voted by race or ethnicity, and that those troubled by redistricting are only complaining now because blacks and Hispanics are getting their turn to celebrate ethnic exclusivity.
They are wrong. The obsession with ethnicity is a recent phenomenon, dating only to the Seventies. Before that the most important factor in New York politics was party affiliation. The balanced ticket was a device to hold a polyglot party together, but it was never regarded as a tool to ensure mass voter support or interest. I was not elected leader of the New York County Democratic Party in 1962 because I was half Swiss and half Armenian; my successor, J. Raymond Jones, was not selected because he was black; and his successor, Frank Rossetti, was not chosen because he was Italian.
Under the old regime, an ethnic or religious candidate attracted ethnic or religious support when he was running for an office that no one with that candidate’s background had ever occupied (e.g., Kennedy in 1960 and Dinkins in 1989). In other contests, bereft of issues that interested voters, ethnicity could give a candidate an edge, as it probably did for Cuomo in 1982 and D’Amato in 1980. But its significance in any result is unclear. Did D’Amato win because of his ethnicity, or because of Javits’s lastditch effort to return to the Senate, or both?
The results of the 1991 City Council primaries strongly suggest that the ethnic ethos remains of little interest to most voters, however much it may intrigue intellectuals or candidates in search of a power base outside the parties.
The 1991 turnout was dismal, despite what may be the most extensive media coverage of any primary in the city’s history, with the possible exception of the 1961 Wagner-Levitt primary that effectively turned out Carmine DiSapio and the old “machine” party leaders, and brought in the Wagner “reform” Democrats.
The turnout in the 1961 primary, however, was in the 40 percent range (in my assembly district it was 55 percent). By contrast, the 1991 returns suggest that the turnout was closer to 10 percent than 20 percent, despite press reports of higher figures. The probable high was 26 percent in the third district in Manhattan, where more than 15,000 of about 60,000 eligible voters turned out, and where all the candidates were white and campaigned not on ethnicity but sexual orientation. The more common number was about half that.
In some districts that were carefully constructed to create specific ethnic enclaves, voters rejected candidates of the appropriate” ethnicity and elected representatives of other ethnic backgrounds, such as Stanley Michels (7th), Kathryn Freed (1st), and Susan Alter (45th).
Of course, the supporters of ethnicity can find other reasons for the very low turnout. But the inference is very strong that the race-based politics that are thought to dominate New York City politics, and do dominate the national Democratic Party, lack general public support. Without such support, the effort to create ethnic balkanization simply will not wash.
The results also suggest that geographically based issues, such as the location of homeless shelters or the unsatisfactory operation of a major municipal sewage treatment plant, are far more important to voters than ethnic representation. One cause for the low turnout was probably the confusion created by the way the new lines were drawn. Voters did not recognize the districts in which they were placed and often were unfamiliar with the candidates, who seemed equally unfamiliar with the local issues that concerned voters. A resident of Morningside Heights, for instance, is far more interested in choosing a candidate familiar with his neighborhood’s problems than an ethnic representative from a distant and unrelated part of the city with which Morningside Heights has been united by ethnic gerrymandering.
Yet elongated districts that defy New York State’s legal requirement that districts be compact, contiguous, and convenient were the inevitable result of the effort to make ethnicity the major determinant of the redistricting process. Districts simply could not have been drawn that would both meet the state’s criterion of compactness and also be ethnically uniform enough to guarantee the election of minority candidates. New York’s ethnic groups no longer remain densely concentrated: Liberal antidiscrimination laws and the presence of large numbers of newly arrived minorities—including Asians, Hispanics, and most recently Eastern Europeans—have slowly and steadily diluted the ethnic concentrations of old neighborhoods. Just as second-generation Italians and Jews moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to other parts of the city and to the suburbs, so now substantial numbers of Asians, Hispanics, and to a lesser extent blacks are moving. Comparisons of census data from 1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990 confirm this trend.
There is no reason to believe that these trends will not continue or that minority populations will elect to huddle in ghettos as they prosper. Indeed, the principal objections to the Districting Commission’s work this year came from Hispanics and Asians who complained that the way the lines were drawn made it impossible to elect candidates of their ethnic group in proportion to their share in the general population. They took this complaint to the Department of Justice, but not even that determined body could find densely populated Asian or Hispanic areas big enough to constitute councilmanic districts.
It is probable that the citizens most likely to move outward and upward are also those most likely to vote. Thus, city politics will continue to become less racially segregated, despite all efforts to the contrary. The good news about the low turnout and the results of the City Council primaries is that ethnic politics may have gone directly “into history without ever stopping at current events.”