During a time of national tragedy, why should anyone care about a local election in a city devastated by the loss of thousands of relatives, friends, and coworkers? Well, elections offer an exemplary domestic response to political terrorism. They cannot erase the horror of terrorism. But a democracy is strongest when exercising the freedom to elect the people’s representatives. As such, Pataki presents New York City residents with an immediate and deeply symbolic opportunity to demonstrate that, amidst the palpable fear, immeasurable loss, and prevailing uncertainty of the current time, our political freedom remains vibrant.
In a period of general prosperity and relative public order, most New Yorkers sleepwalked through a summer of expensive political advertising campaigns and seemingly inconsequential intra-partisan wrangling. Two weeks before the terrorist attack, political commentator E.J. Dionne, Jr., observed that, “If this year’s election is listless, its because New York City is not in crisis.”
Thanks in part to the introduction of term limits for both the mayoralty and most City Council seats, a record number of candidates awoke September 11 with the hope, if not the expectation, of elected office. That same day, an apathetic majority planned to stay at work or at home, while an unenthusiastic minority began reporting to polling stations to determine the city’s partisan makeup at the dawn of the post-Giuliani era. But the polling stations were barely up and running when a terrifying crisis halted the voting.
Although the candidates’ respective futures remain on hold, the array of democratic choices available to voters remains intact. Most visibly, four Democrats, two Republicans, a Conservative, and several minor candidates will continue to compete in the battle to replace outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At the Council level, there are sufficiently dissimilar candidates to collectively appeal to almost all points of the ideological, ethnic, and racial compass. Amid this diversity, New York City’s rescheduled primary elections can provide a further unifying theme for a metropolis, and a nation, nursing deep physical and psychological wounds.
The mere act of physically casting a vote, even a spoiled ballot, will attest to the collective determination to re-elevate peaceful political competition (and succession) to its rightful place alongside public safety and security. New Yorkers, exercising their freedom to vote, tower above the anti-democratic fanatics who think they are founding the kingdom of heaven by unleashing the forces of hell.
Speaking at the 1984 Conservative Party convention only hours after escaping an IRA assassination attempt, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pointedly informed the delegates that, “The fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” The New Yorkers who go to the polls on September 25 will also be shocked and saddened. But in voting they, too, will take a step toward proving that the most recent effort to destroy democracy has failed utterly.
If such a democratic spirit echoes throughout the city over the coming days, when New Yorkers awake on September 26 their hopes will have overwhelmed the terrorists’ expectations. America’s most important city will have conducted an election under normal rules amidst the most abnormal circumstances. An important civic ritual will help reconnect the city’s past with its present and its future. Critically, this mere local election will constitute a small, yet poignant, step in honoring those who died and the political freedoms they cherished, and which we must continue to cherish, in life.