July 25, 2008New York City Mayor: Government Shouldn't Subsidize Party Nominating Processes That Empower Ideological Extremists and Special Interests
"Paul, thank you very much. I love the description of my transition from Salomon Brothers to my own company. The truth of the matter is I was fired. It should happen to you too, incidentally. I was thinking when I was listening to the thunder before I couldn't remember who said it but - maybe it was Mark Twain or somebody much more clever than I - thunder is impressive but it's lightening that does the work. Don't ask me why that came to mind. Anyway, Craig, thank you for having me. Where are you? There you are.
"I appreciate the invitation to join all of you here today, although I'm disappointed we couldn't schedule this during your State Fair. New York City has been the- has every cuisine- type of cuisine in the world, but we just don't have enough food-on-a-stick. So I was really looking forward to it.
"The people of Minnesota have given me a very generous welcome, and I'm not surprised, because there is a history of Minnesotans being very generous and giving to New Yorkers. For example, recently, Johan Santana. But that's a whole other issue. Let me dispel the rumor that I am- that's been floating around since I arrived: I am not the player to be named later. Don't worry. And I won't even mention the fact that the Yankees swept the Twins last week. it would be very ungracious of me to mention that. But let me give credit where credit is due: two weeks ago, the Twins stole the show at the all-star game at Yankee Stadium. I was- yes, I was there, I stayed all the way through the 15th inning, and let me tell you: we all became Twins fans when Justin Morneau scored the winning run, if only because I had to get up at 5:15 the next morning to run.
"Seriously, as Craig mentioned, I became an independent a little over a year ago. I was a Democrat most of my life. If you are Jewish and born in Boston and then live in New York City you are a Democrat, particularly if you ever want to have a vote. I voted for Democrats and I voted for Republicans. I don't remember when I got into the ballot- into the voting booth I was particularly partisan. Like all of you, I think, I hope I voted for whoever I thought was the best leader, the best judge, the best legislator. In New York parties hate this kind of independence, and that's why they close their primaries to non-members. If you're an independent, too bad, you can't participate in the nominating process. And the primary the last time was the first time that I think I missed an election since I became 21 years old. I don't think I ever- one time I do remember voting by absentee ballot but I don't think I ever missed an election, even a little school board election or whatever. But this time I couldn't vote because I'm an independent and you can't vote in the primaries. In New York, sadly, the rule that keeps the primaries closed only to members of the party lets 700,000 New York City voters out in the cold. And to put that number in perspective, that's more voters than exist in all of Boston and Washington, DC combined. That is democracy? I don't think our founding fathers would have thought so. They must be rolling over in their graves.
"George Washington did warn us all about the dangers of political parties, and in some ways, I think they have proved even worse than he imagined they would be. Closed primaries not only shut out independents, they tend to be dominated by ideological extremists and special interests. When I first considered running for mayor in 2001, I knew that the only way I was going to get elected, the only way I would have any chance of getting elected was through the support of regular voters - moderates in both parties, and independents.
"So when the Republican party invited me to join the GOP and bypass a crowded Democratic primary, I accepted because my campaign wasn't based on party affiliation and if I won, no matter which party I was in, I wasn't going to follow any party boss or ideology, and I was going to hire, staff my administration purely on merit, not patronage, and I was going to govern as an independent. And the Republican leaders were fine with that - probably because they didn't think I'd win and they were desperate for a candidate. After I got elected there were some calls and say, you know, 'where are all of the Republicans you're appointing to your administration?' When I pointed out to them that there are very few Republicans in New York City and in fact I probably had more Republicans in my administration than my predecessor, who really was a Republican, that sort of quieted them down and I think today most of them are probably pretty happy. But they gave me the opportunity to bypass the Democratic primary in which I never could have succeeded and go to all the voters. And the fact of the matter is, if you get beyond the primaries then you start to have real democracy, everybody has a choice. I tried very hard my first or second year in office to change the law in New York City to have non-partisan elections and was unsuccessful in that.
"In Minnesota you have a long tradition of independence. I- excuse me, I give a Friday morning radio show which I did from my hotel room this morning, and the host of the radio show, John Gambling asked me about the politics of Minnesota. I started to try to explain it and then I said, 'look, it's just different.' It's really- It was really hard to explain. But independents can say things and can champion issues that are really important. And I just want to say, Peter Hutchinson, when he was running for governor in 2006, for example, he really made a big contribution even though he didn't win because he focused the debate on issues like health care and transportation. And in some senses that is a success. You've got to build support for major changes and that always requires political courage, particularly if you are in either one of the major parties. And doing that, taking on the issues is really what it means to be an independent.
"To me, being an independent means making decisions based on facts and data, no matter which way the political winds are blowing. And it means questioning why the sacred cows of both parties are so sacred. It means holding everyone accountable - from top to bottom - and it means getting things done. As the sign on the front of the podium says, not left or right but going forward. And that's exactly what the public wants and that's what the public thinks government does. But as we all know, too often all of the energy is spent going this way rather than this way. It means recognizing that no party has a monopoly on good issues, and that all options should be on the table. It means making government more transparent and responsive to the people that it serves. And, most of all, being an independent means being honest about the choices we face - and both the benefits and the costs. Too often we hear about the benefits but I think we all know with our own budget at home, with our city's budget, with our state budget and even with our federal budget, you can't have everything and there is a cost associated with things that we want and somebody's got to pay. And, incidentally, in the end, that somebody is the person that we all see in the mirror every morning when we get up but few people are willing to stand up and say that. I think all of us would agree that our country could use a lot more of independent leadership.
"Across America, independents are the fastest growing group of voters: about one-in-three now consider themselves independents, and in some states, independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. But what do we have to show for it, is the real question. By and large, I think it's fair to say that the parties are still ignoring our values and goals - and so we have to ask ourselves why is that and how can we change it?
"Let me first try to answer the question of why our values and goals are being ignored, and then move to how we can change that during this particular election season. I think the main obstacle standing between the growing ranks of independents and our goal of independent governance can be summed up in just three words: Special interest money. Special interest money has become a cancer on our democracy. It has grown so big, and metastasized into so many vital areas, that it has debilitated the federal government and destroyed its ability to function. Think about our economy, our schools, our health care system, our farm and energy policies, our environmental policies. On each and every one of these issues, the terms of the debate are set not by the facts on the ground, but by special interests, because candidates and parties need their money. Special interest money is like a drug, and both parties are addicted.
"Let me give you an example of the dependence on an issue I care about very deeply, and that's education. Elected officials typically consider themselves champions of education, especially in cities. 'I'm going to fix the school system,' 'every child deserves a great education to share in the Great American Dream,' 'I'm going to make every child ready to go to the great universities that we have in this country and then become Nobel Prize winners.' But sadly both in cities and across the country, parents - especially in poor neighborhoods - want more better schools, and a lot of them want more charter schools because as we've seen in New York City, charters often out-perform other schools. So why, then, do so many electeds oppose charter schools - both in New York and around the country? Do party principles run counter to charters? Or do electeds know better than their constituents?
"Of course not. Those who oppose charter schools oppose them for one simple reason: they don't want to offend the teachers' unions. The teachers' unions have lots of money to buy advertising in districts of non-combatant- compliant legislators - and that's enough to put the fear of God into any elected official. We need bi-partisan alliances with leaders that many prefer to demonize because the stakes couldn't be higher. Right now, among 30 industrial countries, our students rank 26th in math. 20- 25th. 25th, just think about that. It's a disgrace - and it should outrage every American.
"You know, twenty five years ago, New York's great senator and statesman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, summed up the state of American public education perfectly. He said, quote- and I'll always love this quote. He said, 'If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.' The guy couldn't have been more right. And here we are 25 years later and we have unfortunately surrendered even more ground to the world. If we are going to maintain- to remain the world's economic superpower, and if we are going to close the achievement gap that exists between races in our country, we must fix our schools and we must start now. And unfortunately, neither party has the courage to do it no matter what they say.
"Let me move to the second question: How do we begin replacing the ideologies of special interests with the values of independent voters? And I think the answer is campaign finance reform and I believe that should be part of the solution. Minnesota, as you know, has been a pioneer in public financing of elections, and in New York City, I recently signed a law that restricts what we call 'pay-to-play' contributions. But campaign finance reform only addresses the symptoms of the problem. If we're going to address the cause of the problem, I believe two additional steps are required.
"First, we have to stop organizing elections in a way that gives so much power to ideological special interests. Right now, taxpayers foot the bill for elections. We pay for the machines, the poll inspectors, and everything else, and I think that's the way it should be for general elections that are open to everyone. But why should taxpayers be forced to pay the costs of each party's nominating meetings, especially when the parties so often exclude voters and pass laws that make it difficult for candidates to get on the ballot? Nowhere in the constitution does it say that 'we the people' must pay for parties to nominate candidates - and the founding fathers would be horrified to find out that we are doing it. Jefferson said that 'every generation needs a new revolution' and I think he'd look at the American political system today and wonder what the heck we're waiting for.
"I believe we should let the parties nominate candidates any way they choose - through elections, online balloting, conventions, party bosses, whatever they want to do. They're private organizations and there's no reason why we should prevent them from doing what they want to do. But as independents, we should stop supporting the use of taxpayer money to subsidize a party nominating process that hands so much power to ideological extremists and special interests. Instead- I thought you'd like this. Instead, let the government pay only for elections that are open to all voters and candidates, and let the candidates list their party affiliation - or their independent status - on the ballot. You know, Washington State has adopted this type of nonpartisan election system, and so has Louisiana. AndI supported it in New York City, but the two major parties - and the special interests, needless to say - joined together- joined their forces to defeat it. Now Minnesota's open primary law is a step in the right direction, but if we want government to be nonpartisan, we have to stop using taxpayer money to underwrite an election system that rewards the most partisan candidates. You know, you get what you pay for so it's no wonder we're getting so much partisanship.
"The second change that we need- yes, it's ok, I don't mind a little more applause. The second change that we need is- we need to embrace if we are going to inject independent values into government is something that might at first seem antithetical to our independent nature, and that is voting as a bloc. Just because we're independents doesn't mean we can't - or shouldn't - organize. We should! And that's the way you shape debates and win elections. As independents, we will always reserve the right to vote for whoever we believe- whomever we believe will be the best leader. But we can't afford to be an unorganized mass of individuals who can't agree on anything. We have to start demonstrating to the candidates that we have what they need more than anything else, and that is votes. To win our vote, they don't need to adopt any one particular position. They just have to convince us that they are committed to rejecting party orthodoxies and ideologies.
"Now, we're lucky this year: we have two candidates who have shown, on at least some issues, that they are capable of thinking and acting independently of the special interests. Senator Obama - whether you support him or not - has shown a willingness, I think it's fair to say, to stand up to the ideological police on some important issues, such as ending the gun show loophole which puts guns in the hands of criminals, and he is- willing to stand up and say we should maintain the federal gasoline tax during the summer when there was a cry to reduce it. If we want energy independence it's not going to get there by cutting taxes. Senator McCain - whether you support him or not - has made a career of bucking the ideologues and party issues. The Straight Talk Express, which was his campaign eight years ago and I think it's fair to say McCain deserves some credit. He has stood up for immigration, something that we just have to have if we're going to have a future and he's done it coming from a state like Arizona where it's a heavy political lift. He has offered bills on campaign finance reform and he has stood up for global warming. I heard him the other day; he was talking about free trade in the Rustbelt. That's not an easy position to take but I think it's fair to say John McCain is a principled person and he's willing to stand up. What we need is both these candidates to do more of exactly that: take on the entrenched issues, tell us where they stand, tell us how they're going to get it through Congress. I hear all the good apple pie and motherhood but who's going to pay for this and how do you build the constituency that you need in a democracy to change the law and to put it into effect.
"As the presidential debate unfolds, independents have a critical role to play. I'm out here and I was just in New Orleans yesterday with Governor Ed Rendell. Ed has really been the spearhead - along with Governor Schwarzenegger and myself - of an organization that is focusing on the fact that our country has walked away from our infrastructure. And I gave a speech yesterday talking about Thomas Jefferson back in the 1800's who focused on canals, which really allowed the country to move west; built New York actually, too, because of the Erie Canal. Dwight- or Franklin Delano Roosevelt who got us out of the Depression but not just by sending checks to everybody so they could go buy a flat screen TV, he actually built the airports and civic buildings and schools that have carried this country for decades. And then a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, came along, built the interstate highway system, which really opened up this country and improved our defense capabilities because you could move military around and that was ostensibly the reason for it. But it was the infrastructure for the next few decades and at the moment, sadly, all of our billions and billions of dollars in infrastructure is spent based on who happens to have power in the appropriations process in the House and in the Senate and we build bridges to nowhere and there's no cohesive strategy that will give us the kind of infrastructure that we're going to need if we're going to compete and have an economy for our children. And I want to hear, and Rendell yesterday invited both the candidates to come to a forum later in the campaign season and explain exactly what they would do and how they would pay for it and hopefully they will listen.
"We as independents won't agree on which candidates to support and that's fine; that's what democracy is all about. But all of us can agree that we can put an independent reform at the top of our list of considerations. Because if the candidates that we vote for aren't willing to break the orthodoxies and talk to us straight then this country is going to continue what I view as being in very deep, muddy waters and we'd really have some problems going forward. We just have to find a way to break the partisan gridlock in Washington and we have to find a way to reduce the power of special interests and their campaign money. We're in a global competition for jobs and economic growth - and right now it's an understatement to say that we are struggling. The federal government's out-of-control spending and unwillingness to tackle the tough problems has caught up to us and we really are starting to feel the pain: rising gas, energy and food prices, rising health care costs, rising unemployment and home foreclosures, stagnating real wages, a xenophobia and an inward focus on this country at exactly the time you just have to open up to the world if you have any chance of competing. All these are major problems and so far neither of the candidates has, to my way of thinking, been explicit enough as to how they would address each issue. Platitudes I've heard. My press secretary can write those for me. What we really want is instead of relying on our advisors, I want to know what both of these gentlemen think and how they are going to really address it and tell me when it's tough to tell me. Just don't tell me when it's easy to say it.
"Make no mistake: the stakes of this election are as big as the nation itself. I think it's probably never been- we always say it every four years but it really is true, there probably is- has never been in history as important an election as this coming up. To fix our economy and secure the American- the great American dream for the next generation, as our parents did for our generation we really do need independent thinking, we need an independent agenda and independent action. And we've got to see who is going to stand up and demand that independence and if we don't do it then I can rest- I guarantee you the candidates will not do it. We need the candidates to embrace the independence that will take this country forward.
"Now the November election, and the future course of our country, will be decided by us here and the people who we can influence all over the country. It is up to us to make our voices heard, to speak together and to defend our democracy in a way that would make Thomas Jefferson proud. So thank you so much for inviting me. I have a warm spot in my heart for this part of the country. When I was a young man in the securities business I covered a small mutual fund complex here, Investors Diversified Service, which at that time was by far and away the largest commission generator and I used to come out here and somehow it was always in the winter. But the people are nice and I had- was lucky enough to have dinner with the two mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis last night. We had a great time and I- I was struck by- you know, they understand they have to deliver services and both seemed to me very nonpartisan. The things we talked about are the things that government should be focusing on: how do you not be intrusive? How do you provide services that those- for the people that really need them? How do you make the investments for the future and how do you do it with accountability and efficiency that the taxpayers feel they're getting their money's worth? So thank you very much for having me."