The Political Landscape

New York City’s political scene is every bit as complicated as its streets. With election season not too far off, Reclaim thought an abbreviated field guide might prove handy.

You In the 2010 midterm election, the share of eligible voters that went to the polls in New York was a paltry 32.1 percent, the lowest in the nation. Though that’s sad commentary on the condition of our democracy, it’s good news if you want your vote to make a difference. In the past few years, major elections and crucial primary races—like the contest to unseat Congressman Charles Rangel in Harlem—have been decided by fewer than one thousand votes. Now more than ever, your vote can make a real difference.

Unions Not long ago, the arithmetic of New York City elections made it all but certain that a candidate who had a good relationship with the city’s most powerful labor unions could expect to win in November. Though that’s not quite the case anymore, big unions like Service Employees International and the United Federation of Teachers, as well as particularly prominent unions, like the ones that represent the NYPD and the FDNY, can help move big voting blocs, shape news stories and woo editorial boards.

Religious Groups Pulpits and politicians have had a close relationship in this country for as long as Church and State have been separate. In New York City, politically active religious leaders like the Reverend Al Sharpton and Cardinal Timothy Dolan are household names, but there are a handful of other faith-based leaders—like Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum, Floyd Flake and A.R. Bernard—who might not be as familiar but are every bit as able to shape an election without skipping a service.

Editorial Boards Despite an excess of almost every type of information, all but the most well-informed New Yorkers have no idea who’s running for what office and how they plan to make things better. That’s one of the reasons why editorial boards at the City’s three major English-language newspapers (The News, The Times and The Post) and dozens of foreign-language dailies have such a crucial role to play. A glowing endorsement can shape the opinion of a few thousand folks, which is often all it takes to win a seat in the State Legislature or the City Council.

Trade Groups Whether it’s real estate, construction, hospitality, finance, fashion or film, there are a handful of industries in New York City that each employ hundreds of thousands of people and generate hundreds of millions in tax revenue. Each of those economic engines has a trade group fighting for the interests of its member companies. They work to shape the political debate through campaign contributions, special events, press attention and myriad other ways that are often as hidden from plain view as they are impactful.
Advocates Before advocates were “advocates,” they were “Goo-goos.” Birthed in New York City and brought to prominence in the election of 1894, when their reform efforts helped elect an anti-Tammany candidate as Mayor, Goo-goos (a nickname for “Good Government Guys”) are still the conscience of New York politics. A few of the most notable groups include the New York League of Conservation Voters, the League of Women Voters, Transportation Alternatives and the Drum Major Institute.

Politicians These are the faces on billboards and the names on ballots; famous for winning elections with poetry and governing in prose. Because most elected officials are ultimately responsible for such a broad array of policy issues and day-to-day operational concerns, a lot of practical power and everyday know-how rests with their staff. Whether it’s the Mayor’s department commissioners or an administrative assistant at a Council member’s office, pay attention to a politician’s people, and you’ll get a good idea of what they’re really about.

Consultants Running a successful campaign in a major media market like New York City isn’t something that most humans—even the most reptilian —can learn on the fly and squeeze in after a hard day’s work. That’s why there are professionals; lots of them. From huge outfits with offices around the country to mom-and-pop shops that specialize in just one borough’s business, political consultants can handle everything from communications to fundraising to policy—for a fee, of course.

Pollsters Politics isn’t always about doing what’s Right. In fact, it’s often about doing what’s popular. The people who know that best—and can show you the proof in a spreadsheet—are the city’s pollsters. Outfits like Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, Global Strategies Group and Penn Schoen Berland not only evaluate a candidate’s positions, they crunch the numbers to help shape them as well.