As elections in this one-party town go, this year isn’t even the worst. It’s possible that after Tuesday, City Council, for example, could host three parties: Democrat, Republican, and Independent. But there are enough unchallenged seats, including that of mayor, to bemoan the lack of choice that voters will face when — or if — they show up at the polls on Tuesday.
Mayor Jim Kenney should cruise to an easy victory. He is being nominally challenged by Republican Billy Ciancaglini. We endorsed Kenney in the primary, and support his vision for the city, including a pre-K program funded by a tax on sugary beverages.
The last time a Democratic mayor was seriously challenged by a Republican was 16 years ago, when Sam Katz ran against John Street. Why are there so few Republican challengers in any office? The numbers — a 7:1 ratio of registered Democrats vs. Republicans — tell part of the tale. The other: a moribund Republican party which initially endorsed candidate Daphne Goggins, who couldn’t even get the necessary number of signatures required to get on the ballot.
One could argue that given the numbers, the Republican party is justified in not exerting more of an effort. But consider: in 1999, the city had roughly twice as many registered Republicans as now — and there were half as many independents and “other.” That shift suggests the party has watched its supporters leave in droves and failed to even pretend to be relevant.
The lack of choice is even more serious when it comes to certain Council races, including the seat for the Sixth District, currently occupied by Bobby Henon, under indictment for conspiracy, bribery, and fraud, along with IBEW 98 boss John Dougherty, who is also Henon’s boss. Henon makes $73,000 working for the union, concurrent with his council seat. (As with many things in this city, holding a Council seat and a second job is not illegal, but it’s not right either.) Henon should have his day in court, but that there was no serious Democrat challenging him in the primary is shameful. He is expected to easily best Republican challenger Pete Smith.
Can this lack of true competition in major elections be fixed? Can the machine be somehow jammed so voters get more consistent choices?
A few things could help. If all registered voters could cast ballots in the primaries, many argue it could lead to more competitive races. The shift in voter registrations to “other” that the city has witnessed over two decades speaks to the wisdom of open primaries here.
David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy argues that randomized ballets and rank choice voting could further help challenge the status quo. The point, he says, is to add elements of uncertainty into the process. Candidates who have to work harder for votes and listen to more than the usual suspects could make races more interesting.
A new generation challenging the status quo is another source of change. This election cycle, young, independent candidates provided strong campaigns with coherent messages and energy that connected with people. Voters deserve more of this.