Thursday, September 14, 2006

Election results no anti-AY referendum, but not an endorsement either

So people are sorting through the election results and, as Ben Smith wrote yesterday in The Daily Politics, it looks superficially like a win for Forest City Ratner and Atlantic Yards: anti-AY 11th Congressional District candidate Chris Owens came in last in a tough four-person race, with the winner AY proponent Yvette Clarke, and 57th Assembly District insurgent Bill Batson lost decisively to Hakeem Jeffries, who's been generally supportive of the project despite issuing some periodic (and especially last-minute) criticism.

(At right, the 11th CD, with the red dot representing the location of the Atlantic Yards development.)

Smith wrote:
But there was another lesson from the election. [11th CD candidate David] Yassky lost, in part, because he supported Atlantic Yards. The strength of [State Senator Martin] Connor's challenge came partly from that source. And pro-development candidates like Hakeem Jeffries frantically muddied the water around their positions as the race wore on. The lesson for officials close to the project is that they're not going to get any votes for supporting the project, even if that's the majority's vaguely-held opinion; but they will get some motivated enemies.

They may not get votes for supporting Atlantic Yards, but they will get union, editorial, and fundraising support.

Also, consider that turnout remained low, even for the high-profile Congressional race. It drew 18% of eligible Democrats, the Assembly race drew 15%, and primary between incumbent Velmanette Montgomery and challenger Tracy Boyland in the 18th Senatorial district drew just 12%. (At right, the 57th AD map, with the Atlantic Yards footprint in red.)

As hinted above, while the results certainly weren't a referendum against the project--as many AY opponents sought to achieve--it's hardly clear that they were a referendum for the project.

In an article in today's Daily News, Smith reprises the issue:
"To the extent the hard-line critics [of Atlantic Yards] attempted to make this a referendum on their position, the results speak for themselves," Jeffries said.

Money talks

Ken Diamondstone, who garnered a much greater percentage of the vote against Connor than did Batson or Owens against their respective opponents, benefited far less from anti-Atlantic Yards sentiment than his large personal contributions to his campaign.

It's simply too hard for a candidate to make headway without significant funds. Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which did a pretty good job at convincing its followers to stay away from the Atlantic Yards community forum on Tuesday, is an officially apolitical 501(c)3 organization. Sure, DDDB people did volunteer for Batson as individuals, and their contributions were key to his fundraising, but the group didn't solicit money for Batson, despite some well-heeled individuals on its advisory board.

There is a fairly crude calculus at work: money gets more fliers and posters and election workers. It doesn't necessarily work--Yassky outraised his rivals--but money sure helps.

District lines

Also, let's remember that the lines for the election districts are not exactly coterminous with the areas where the greatest concern with Atlantic Yards might be found. In the 11th CD map and the 57th AD map, the Atlantic Yards project would be in the far west and center west fractions of the districts, leaving large populations to the east and south. In the 18th SD (right; footprint in red), there are large areas south and east of the footprint--no wonder incumbent Montgomery, in campaign literature I was sent, didn't mention that she opposed Atlantic Yards. (Boyland didn't mention her support for the project, though many believe the developer helped in her campaign.)

Still, when Public Advocate Norman Siegel, a project opponent, won the 57th last year, that was seen by DDDB as a sign that an opponent could win the Assembly seat. But clearly there were more factors than Atlantic Yards at play in his success.

I'm told that Jeffries, who'd run twice for the seat before, ran particularly strongly in the southeast segment of the district compared to some precincts closer to the proposed AY footprint. So it's hard to say that Atlantic Yards was a decisive issue for those Jeffries voters; he campaigned on a range of issues and has a track record in the district.

[Update: Perhaps the best explanation is the simplest. Jeffries worked harder. Batson told the Brooklyn Papers: “He beat me fair and square. He must have met every voter in the Ebbets Field houses.” And that's in the southeast segment.]

Were an election district drawn in a circle emanating from the project footprint, it would not resemble the 57th; rather it would inevitably encompass neighborhoods to the south like Park Slope and Boerum Hill, where there are significant concerns about the project.

Numbers in the 57th

Of 60,391 Democrats in the District, the vote totals were:
5770--Hakeem Jeffries
2226--Bill Batson
1008--Freddie Hamilton

In 2002, Roger Green beat Jeffries with only 71 fewer votes cast, by a margin of 5522 to 3411. Given that Jeffries this time gained support of the party machinery, as well as most union backing, he would be the natural heir to many of Green's voters, despite the presence of Green ally Hamilton.

So perhaps Batson--despite losing by a significant margin--got few of those previous voters and instead drew new ones. If so, they weren't enough, and most people stayed home.

DDDB's Daniel Goldstein told the Observer that he preferred to see the election results as a sign that 88% of the voters opposed the use of eminent domain. Still, the issue is more subtle, since Jeffries has criticized eminent domain for an arena, rather than for the project as a whole.

As for Jeffries' controversial mailer, suggesting strong opposition to aspects of the project but not Atlantic Yards itself, Goldstein told me, "For voters interested in Atlantic Yards, and not tied into the opposition, Hakeem's mailer may have been enough [to convince them of his concern about the issue]. But I don't think it was Atlantic Yards by a longshot. He had institutional support and he had the money."

Jeffries also had endorsements from the New York Times and the New York Daily News.

Still, Goldstein suggested that, from the perspective of DDDB, Jeffries would be a better representative than outgoing Assemblymember Roger Green. Still, DDDB has some fences to mend; a commenter on the Observer blog point out that AY opponents put "I love Ratner" stickers on Jeffries posters. (And I'm told that some Jeffries supporters tore down Batson banners.)

When the Atlantic Yards project goes to the Public Authorities Control Board for final approval, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should turn an ear to the representative of the 57th Assembly District. Will Jeffries ask Silver to wait six months, as the candidate told Community Board 2 in August, for a real examination of the community impact?

On the Times's Empire Zone blog, Nick Confessore wrote:
But today’s results bode relatively well, instead, for project developer Forest City Ratner.... Now let’s see if anyone’s public posture on the issue — Mr. Jeffries, we’re looking in your direction — begins to shift or solidify in the days ahead.

The Clarke election

One commenter on Smith's blog wrote:
Don't get the logic. Clarke supports Ratner and she won. Don't tell me the 15,000 people who voted for her don't care about Atlantic Yards. If I'm an elected, my conclusion is that backing the project won't cost me. As for the enemies, they seem to be toothless.

I suspect that--as the Observer report points out--she was going for her base with women, voters w/Caribbean ties, plus the union households that the health care union 1199/SEIU would bring out.

I don't think Atlantic Yards was a big issue for Clarke voters--I couldn't even find AY on her web site--but I think that Forest City Ratner certainly supported Clarke. First, there were contributions from Bruce Ratner's brother Michael Ratner and sister-in-law Karen Ranucci.

Second, it's possible that FCR played a role in engineering support for Clarke from Roberta Flack, who doesn't exactly live in Brooklyn. In August, Flack both appeared at a rally for Clarke and another for the AY project.

AY & the Congressional race

The Atlantic Yards issue was a big one between Yassky and Owens, and Lumi Rolley on NoLandGrab argues that Yassky's fence-sitting position cost him votes that instead went to Owens.

Owens targeted Yassky, and it's plausible that many progressive voters in Park Slope chose Owens over Yassky. But it's also plausible that other Owens supporters leaned his way for other reasons, including respect for his father, the outgoing incumbent Rep. Major Owens, and they would have preferred another black candidate to Yassky.

Had Yassky taken a harder line on the Atlantic Yards, he might have gained more votes from project opponents. But he also might have lost key backing from black signatories of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement.

Public support for AY?

Smith wrote that support for AY is "the majority's vaguely-held opinion." It could be, if you go by the recent poll by Crain's New York Business. But different questions might have generated different results.

Boyland's campaign

Boyland's campaign finance transgressions got a pass. Smith wrote:
The only race that went the other way was a half-hearted challenge by Tracy Boyland to Velmanette Montgomery, which the incumbent won handily.

Confessore called it "a late, not-quite-serious, and never-quite-official challenge" and suggested:
Although that 33 percent Ms. Boyland got with a couple of fliers, nary a public campaign appearance, a few dollars in contributions makes you wonder what she could’ve done with a real campaign.

I got three fliers from Boyland in the mail last Saturday, and her posters were quite visible. And it’s not that she had only “a few dollars,” it’s that she only reported $100, and failed to meet state filing deadlines, thus violating the law. Maybe one of these days we’ll find out how she paid for all the mailings and posters.

Another commenter wrote of Boyland:
How does anyone explain that large bus she chartered sitting on the corner of Green Avenue and Adelphi Street yesterday afternoon.

Batson's "what if"

And another raised a different possibility:
And finally, why not speculate what might have happened if Bill Batson had had the money that Boyland... had had?

Actually, on a vote per dollar basis, Batson did fairly well. He
raised nearly $50,000. Jeffries raised more than three times that since the beginning of 2005, but didn't get three times Batson's vote total.

Still, it's possible to draw votes while being significantly outspent; City Councilman Charles Barron did so while losing narrowly in the 10th CD race to incumbent Rep. Edolphus Towns. But Barron was a known quantity. Batson was a new candidate against Jeffries, a strong candidate with a track record as an insurgent against Green.

But the question remains: does Jeffries' margin of victory signal an endorsement of his position on Atlantic Yards, a failure of the Batson forces to get the Atlantic Yards word out, or a more mundane mix of political and institutional factors?

And what about Tish?

As a commenter on Smith's blog asks:
Well what does this mean for [City Council Member] Tish James? Does she tone down her Ratner criticism or face the future like Owens and Batson, her endorsed candidate?

James won reelection decisively in 2005, but her district is much smaller than the state and federal districts above. By the time her Council term expires at the end of 2009, the first phase of Atlantic Yards may be nearing completion, after slight or significant compromises, or it may have been mired in the courts. But the results in the 57th AD do make her job tougher. After endorsing Batson, she now must work with Jeffries.

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