Saturday, January 26, 2008

More on Women in New York Politics

The absence of a "deep bench" of women in New York City politics since the Seventies, as noted in this week's earlier post and TAP exchange, is central to Gotham's politics today. There are many possible explanations for this, but I'd offer three: the decline of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the absence of strong political party structure that could move women up the political ladder to run for high office. The roots of all three can be traced to the Seventies.

The women who were a distinguished presence in city politics during the Seventies and Eighties--Bella Abzug, Elizabeth Holtzman, Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, Ruth Messinger--were all different politicians. Each followed her own route into the pursuit of elected office. Each had her own kind of identification with feminism.

Still, it is striking to see how the civil rights movement and anti-war movement invigorated the reform Democratic circles from which Abzug, Messinger, Holtzman and Chisholm drew support.

But the end of the Vietnam War movement brought an end to anti-war mobilization that had inspired an early generation of reform Democrats. And the election of Ed Koch in 1977--and the relatively conservative tone of city government after that, at least in comparison to the Lindsay years--tamped down the city's civil rights movement.

Not until the late Eighties and the Jackson presidential primary run, and the Dinkins administration, would civil rights activists be close to the center of city politics and power.

But perhaps most important is a factor that nags all reform movements in city politics: the lack of an enduing political structure that can maintain a presence in the city, provide a home for defeated candidates, and groom new candidates. Without that, no political movement in the city lasts long.

This problem is not confined to women alone. The highly popular Fiorello LaGuardia had no real successor because he was a liberal, even radical, Republican, who governed without the benefit of a strong party organization beneath him to lift up a successor.

The anti-party impulse among New York reformers--an inheritance from the days of anti-Tammany insurgencies--is today compounded by a weakening of the significance of parties in New York City politics.
The decay of the Liberal Party as a viable party also contributes to this problem. Democrats and Republicans alike operate in a political system that encourages freelance candidates far more than city politics did fifty years ago.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for all his fulminations against political parties, will confront the same problem if he wants to see a candidate of his stripe run for city hall. Unless there's another billionaire out the to run and claim the Bloomberg mantle, the mayor will be hard-pressed to point to any coherent way to perpetuate his vision in city hall.

At that point, the anti-party mayor will be undone by his own lack of a party. More on that another day.

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