Vol. 19, No. 22 Nov.16 - Nov. 29,  2006



Democracy Without Choices
We spent some time talking to voters at polling stations in the area on Election Day. Just seeing people from every ethnicity imaginable taking time out of their busy days, sometimes with two or more children in tow, to exercise democracy’s most precious right, is affirming and uplifting.

But there is also something disconcerting just below the surface. Choice is the fuel of democracy, but on Nov. 7, voters had very little, if any, choice. They could vote for incumbent Democrats or, if they had any choice at all, invisible third party candidates. One cynical, yet duty-bound voter, put it succinctly as he told us on his way from the PS 46 polling station to the subway, “If I don’t vote for them [the incumbent Democrats], it’s like a wasted vote.”

The fact that Republicans fare so poorly in most of the Bronx goes only so far as an explanation. On primary day in September, where most city election battles are fought, only one Democratic incumbent faced opposition.

The exception was East Bronx activist Joseph Thompson, who scored an impressive 34 percent of the vote in his bid to unseat first-term assemblywoman Naomi Rivera. Thompson, a retired police officer, hardly had a penny to his name, but he is known for community involvement and his neighbors who knew his work rallied to his side.

There is a strong tendency to merely blame the system, which favors incumbents, and political clubs, which muster the money and troops to deter challengers.

Well, welcome to politics in America — and reality. Political power has its advantages.

That doesn’t mean that challengers can’t win. Just take a look at the new Democratic Congress.

So where are the Joseph Thompsons of Norwood, Bedford Park, North Fordham and University Heights? Where are the community leaders interested in representing their neighbors in government?

None of this is to say we prefer challengers to incumbents. (The Norwood News does not make political endorsements.) What it does say is that we prefer contested elections, where spirited challengers force incumbents to defend their records and make their case to voters for why they should be rehired for another two years.

Part of the problem, of course, is that so few people even know they are represented by two elected representatives in the state legislature (a state senator and a member of the Assembly), much less their names. When we asked voters who they planned to vote for in the state Senate race, they said Hillary Clinton.

So, what’s to be done?

We don’t have all the answers but here are a couple of suggestions:

Learn who represents you in government and tell everyone you know. If you have access to the Internet, go to, click on the “Who Represents Me?” button and plug in your address. You’ll instantly get a list of everyone who represents you at all levels of government, along with their phone numbers and addresses. If you don’t have Internet access, we’d be happy to get the information for you. Just send us your address. Once you have the contact information, call your elected officials, ask them questions, and tell them what your community needs.

If you know all this already, and are active in your community, consider running for office. We’re serious.

And if you’re a teacher, teach your students how city and state governments work. Better yet, get them involved in a project they care about. There are good local examples to follow. Laura Spalter at MS 80 formed the Norwood Action Club with her students, who then went about meeting with officials to improve Oval Park and install a stop light at a dangerous intersection. Sasha Wilson at the Bronx New School worked with his kids to get the MTA to improve lighting in a subway underpass.

If we don’t build a farm team of active, engaged, young people, who may one day be capable of running for office themselves, they, too, will face phantom choices in the polling booth.

Democracy requires choices. Let’s go about creating some.

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