By Bob Friedrich
I’m delighted to be resuming my On Point column for the TimesLedger papers. I had taken a hiatus in order to run for the New York City Council seat left vacant by the sudden departure of Councilman Mark Weprin in May of this year. I placed second in the Democratic primary, losing by 300 votes out of approximately 7,000 cast.
Unfortunately for those of us who live in the 23rd Council District, we have now been without representation for almost six months. It didn’t have to be this way. The City Charter calls for an expeditious Special Election to take place within 60 days of the resignation of a New York City councilman. The Special “non-partisan” Election as outlined in the City Charter was designed to bypass a time-consuming primary process and to expeditiously fill the vacant seat, so communities are not left without civic representation and an advocate in their city government for long periods of time. A “non-partisan” election is one in which candidates do not run under a Democrat or Republican banner and every registered voter is eligible to vote. The winner of this shortened election cycle immediately becomes the next council member.
Unfortunately, the City Charter’s process to quickly fill the vacant City Council seat for the benefit of the community was preempted by the powerful Queens County Democratic organization in a clever and strategic ploy to retain power. With an enrollment advantage over the Republicans, the Queens County Democratic organization knew that it needed more than 60 days to galvanize its base of hardcore party voters and promote their selected candidate to maximize their chances of winning.
A little-known clause in the Election Law would allow them to do just that. If an incumbent’s “official” resignation takes place within a certain period of time prior to a scheduled primary and general election cycle, then the speedy non-partisan election is bypassed in favor of the primary and general election.
This could only be accomplished by engineering a deal to have Councilman Mark Weprin “officially” postpone submitting his resignation until the designated target date. By doing so, the party organization could manipulate the system to bypass the speedy non-partisan election for a lengthy primary and general election process, giving it more time and the advantage needed to retain its power and win the election.
For more than a month after Weprin publicly announced his resignation and already began working for the governor, he was repeatedly asked by the press and civic leaders when he was going to “officially” resign. His answer was always that the “vetting process” for his new position with Gov. Cuomo’s office was taking longer than expected. By a surprising coincidence in timing, Mark Weprin’s “official” resignation was submitted almost to the day that permitted the cancellation of the non-partisan election—reverting to a delayed normal election cycle. This maneuver now gave the Queens County Democratic Organization the time it needed to galvanize its voters, line up union support and select a party loyalist as their candidate. The strategy succeeded for the party, but deprived the community of representation for more than half a year.
Being treated like pawns in a game of chess where powerful career politicians manipulate the board pieces to retain power is just the type of scheme that creates cynicism among voters. These maneuvers routinely occur behind the scenes and all too often not exposed to the public as is being done here. By the time this column is published, the 23rd Council District will have voted for its new Council member. That person will either be Democrat Barry Grodenchik or Republican Joseph Concannon. Both men are good, but the process that got us here is not.