Congressional primaries occurred across New York State last week and the big news – national news – was the defeat of Congressman Joseph Crowley, the long-time incumbent, Queens Democratic leader, and fourth-highest ranking member of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives. Crowley was considered a strong contender to lead the House Democrats if current-leader Nancy Pelosi retired.
But in a stunning upset, Crowley decisively lost to never-having-run-for-office-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a political organizer who was tending bar until little over a year ago.
To call this a seismic political event is not hyperbole.
Why and how did this happen?
A look at the district’s changing demographics is one good indicator. Crowley became a member of Congress in in 1998 after the then-incumbent – and Queens Democratic Party boss –Thomas Manton, after he had filed for and circulated petitions for re-election, withdrew on the last day it was legally possible to do so. Manton had secretly arranged for his chosen successor, then-state Assemblyman Joseph Crowley, to replace him on the ballot. It was so secret that reportedly Crowley wasn't aware of this until Manton phoned him to tell him his name would be on the general election ballot.
That’s how a political party machine works. It rewards those who have been good party members. In this case, then-party boss Manton rigged the process so that Crowley would succeed him—cutting voters out by doing an end run around a primary. And in New York City, outside of the borough of Staten Island, being on the Democratic line is a virtual guarantee that one will win.
And Crowley won the 1998 general election and has moved up the rungs of the House since then.
While he remained the Representative, party boss, and became increasingly powerful in the Congress, his district was changing. His district’s political boundaries changed twice and the demographic makeup of his constituents changed dramatically. For example, when Crowley first became a member of Congress, his district was over 80 percent White, with about 8.5 percent Hispanic. In 2002 after his first redistricting, his district was nearly 30 percent White and nearly 40 percent Hispanic. In the latest redistricting, his district was 25 percent White and almost 50 percent Hispanic.
Crowley, a man of Irish descent, had less and less in common with his constituents given the changing racial and ethnic makeup of his district. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign hammered away that the district needed to be represented by “one of us” and her ads focused on the fact that Crowley’s family really lived in Washington and his children went to D.C. schools. She also tapped into the “party boss” discomfort that many felt about the way political power was wielded in the borough.
Her message worked. In many ways a classic case of a Representative losing touch with his constituents.
But it’s also a story of how few voters participate in consequential elections. Democrats dominate the enrollment of the district, with nearly 236,000 members, compared to Republicans’ 36,000. But Ocasio-Cortez won by garnering only 15,000 votes, roughly 6.5 percent of the eligible voters. And her win in the primary makes it very likely that she will win in November.
Those observations shouldn’t diminish her victory – she won fair and square against great odds and was outspent 10-1. But it does underscore just how poorly New York’s voting system works, or doesn’t.
New York State is considered one of the worst when it comes to voter participation. The state’s poorly administered elections, registration obstacles, and rigged district lines undermine voter interest. Usually, those barriers to participation coupled with the huge advantages of holding office keep incumbents in power. In this case, it came back to bite them.
Here’s hoping that this result is a wakeup call to both political parties and their incumbents. Voting is a right, not a process in which citizens have to prove themselves worthy by surmounting obstacles. Using voting rules as an incumbent’s political weapon was never acceptable. It’s long past time for New York to follow the best systems successfully being used in other states and allow early voting, election day voter registration, automatic registration when one becomes 18, more robust funding of polling places and an elimination of the political parties’ control over elections.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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