Kings County Politics (KCP) The Good and Bad of Special Elections
By Stephen Witt
While several elected officials are calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call special elections to fill four Assembly seats and a Senate seat in Brooklyn, others say that special elections favor entrenched Democratic Party stalwarts, leaving little room for new thinking within the electorate.
Under state law, once an Assembly or Senate seat becomes vacant either through someone being elected to higher office, death, retirement – or all too often – through criminal convictions, the governor can call a special election with 60 days notice.
However, special election laws favor local party bosses, who can handpick their candidate to represent their party. In Kings County, which is hugely Democratic, this often amounts to an anointing of an entrenched candidate who then becomes the incumbent in the following primary.
It was such a special election that brought recently convicted former Assembly member William Boyland, Jr. to power in 2003.
Still, there are about 700,000 Brooklyn residents whose representative in the state Assembly or the state Senate has resigned due to being elected to the City Council or been removed from office. This includes state Assembly Districts 54 (Bushwick and Cypress Hills), 55 (Brownsville and Ocean Hill), 59 (Canarsie, Marine Park, Mill Basin and Gerritsen Beach) and 60 (East New York), and state Senate District 20 (Crown Heights, Brownsville, Prospect Heights, Park Slope and Sunset Park).
Among the elected officials to call for a special election include Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Public Advocate Letitia James and Borough President Eric Adams.
“The refusal to schedule special elections has effectively denied hundreds of thousands of people in Brooklyn – primarily people of color – of a voice in the government of New York State,” said Congresswoman Clarke. “Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, many of these families and children will not have a representative in the state Assembly and state Senate for an entire year – a year in which legislators will debate such critical issues as early childhood education, protecting our safety-net hospitals and the minimum wage.”
Among the candidates most likely to have an advantage in a special election would be current Democratic District Leaders Jesse Hamilton in the 20th Senate District race and Charles Barron in the 60th Assembly District race. Hamilton worked for Adams and has his strong support, and Barron would be the expected Democratic Party pick to replace his wife, Inez Barron, who won his old City Council seat.
Without a special election Hamilton, in particular, would face two strong relative newcomers – Demetrius Lawrence and Rubain Dorancy – in the upcoming September primary.
“I imagine that they (special elections) circumvent the process a little bit,” said Dorancy, an attorney who was born and raised in the district. “A primary is always better than a special election as it allows for different candidates to make their case and it allows people to vet the candidates more.”
Dorancy said it is unfortunate the way the system is set up, and that perhaps the state should legislate another way to have special elections where multiple candidates from the same party can be on the ballot.
“We need to anticipate things and make provisions so communities, already vulnerable and disenfranchised, are not further disconnected from government,” said Dorancy, noting that the state Senate recently voted down( by just two) the American Dream Act that would have made children of illegal immigrants eligible for state financial aid for college.
While the debate over special elections continues, both those for and against special elections feel it is highly unlikely that Cuomo will call them at this point.
Several pundits and district leaders noted that state lawmakers are now in the budget process and if Cuomo called an election tomorrow, it probably wouldn’t happen until June, when lawmakers are in recess.
At this point, it appears the governor will wait a few more months for the September primary, said one district leader source.