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
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
Well, welcome to politics in America — and reality. Political power has
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 www.nypirg.org, 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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