Who needs choices? It's only an election

August 18, 1998|By Gail Collins

NEW YORK -- Thirty Second Job Aptitude Quiz: Take this test to determine whether you have what it takes to be a Democratic Party boss in New York City.

Problem: A Republican state senator who was unopposed last election has taken positions that are unpopular with the many immigrants in his district. A local school board official, who is also an immigrant and an active Democratic party worker, volunteers to run against him. Should you:

A) Break out the champagne and offer up a novena of thanksgiving.

B) Prepare for a primary, since you have been actively recruiting candidates yourself.

C) Tell him you do not want to see the Republican senator troubled with an opponent.

Congratulations if you picked C! You have a promising future within the New York Democratic Party. Everybody else will have to consider careers in more vital industries, like blacksmithing.

Morshed Alam, school board member and president of the New American Democratic Club in Queens, was the candidate who volunteered to run for the state Senate seat long held by the Republican Frank Padavan. "Frank Padavan, I feel, is anti-immigrant, and for the last six years he didn't have any opposition," said Mr. Alam, who came here 14 years ago from Bangladesh.

The Queens Democratic chairman, Thomas Manton, was not pleased. Mr. Alam said Mr. Manton told him that he wanted to give Mr. Padavan a free ride so the senator's supporters would stay home in November, making life easier for other Democrats in the area. "They said my candidacy could make Frank Padavan do more campaigning," reported Mr. Alam, who nevertheless persisted in getting onto the ballot.

The Let Sleeping Senators Lie theory is one of the many excuses New York politicians find to skirt the dreaded prospect of actual elections -- terrible, uncontrollable events in which voters are unleashed to do any wild and crazy thing they want. There is only one way to win an election in this state. But, to paraphrase Paul Simon, there must be 50 ways to avoid having one.

Quit late at night, Dwight. Don't make a fuss, Gus. Mr. Manton, who is also a member of Congress, recently took advantage of a small legal window of opportunity to retire and handpick his successor without the fuss of a party primary. "I've always wanted to be in Congress," declared the lucky heir, Assemblyman Joseph Crowley, who is best known for loyalty to Mr. Manton and a successful drive to require the teaching of the history of the Irish potato famine in public schools. Asked to describe the qualities that distinguished Mr. Crowley from other Democrats who wanted the seat, Mr. Manton demurred. "I can't give you chapter and verse," he said. By the next day, he had settled on "youth."

The Queens Republican organization, observing a Let Sleeping Congressmen Lie rule, had not put up a candidate, and Mr. Crowley's opposition in November will be a minor party candidate and a political gadfly without organization or campaign funds. Privately, the Republican leaders expressed no hard feelings. "It was very clever," said one. "And of course Tom couldn't have allowed a Democratic primary. It would have been a blood bath." (Snap Quiz: A blood bath is another word for A) massacre, B) slaughter, C) election.)

Look for the slip, Chip. Take him to court, Mort. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Rep. Edolphus Towns was energetically attempting to eliminate a primary challenger named Barry Ford through the classic method of claiming that a woman who collected voter signatures on Mr. Ford's behalf was not a registered Democrat residing in the congressional district.

These technical challenges are harder to make stick nowadays, but they are still pursued through expensive court battles, all over the state. A Democratic novice congressional candidate named Dick Collins temporarily managed to knock the incumbent Republican, Sue Kelly, off the ballot for failing to put numbers on her pages of signatures. The most interesting part of that story was the Democrat's refusal to acknowledge that any of Ms. Kelly's constituents might have been upset in November when they went to the polls and found nobody but Dick Collins on the ballot.

Mr. Towns has not had a serious race in his 16-year career -- Republicans are as plentiful as musk oxen in the 10th Congressional District. Yet the people fighting to get Mr. Ford tossed off the ballot seemed absolutely dumbfounded by the suggestion that the district voters would prefer having a choice.

"Do you feel that way about everybody in America?" asked his aide.

Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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