Results in this week’s primary elections in New York City perfectly illustrate a paradox of my city’s political culture: we go out of our way to tolerate people whose personal behavior is sketchy, distasteful or even illegal — but when it really matters, we quietly reject that behavior as decisively as any small town in middle America.
Outsiders, understandably, find this confusing. For months, New York City endured national ridicule for fielding a roster of prominent candidates for local office who’d engaged in a series of sex scandals. In mid-April, Ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner, who’d resigned after acknowledging a habit of sending raunchy photos and text messages to complete strangers, was running for mayor. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who’d resigned in disgrace in 2008 after acknowledging he’d hired prostitutes, sought a new job as the city’s chief fiscal officer. For a time, both men were leading by decisive margins in their respective races.
Beyond the national spotlight, New York had not one but two candidates for city council WHO are under investigation for allegedly sexually harassing staff members. One of them, state Assemblyman Micah Kellner, is openly bisexual and accused of inappropriate behavior toward male and female employees. The other, ex-state rep Vito Lopez, resigned from the state Assembly hours before the body was set to expel him for allegedly harassing staff members.
The late-night comics had a glorious summer of sport, mercilessly lampooning the candidates – and, by extension, New York’s voters, who insisted that the “bad boy” candidates be included in debates and loudly rejected efforts to drive them out their various races.
Outsiders wondered whether New York’s tolerance of the wayward candidates amounted to defining deviancy down. That worry, it turned out, was misplaced. When the votes were tallied on primary night, every one of the bad boys were rejected by voters, in ways that were not only decisive but humiliating.
Weiner, who’d started in first place in the polls, finished fifth with a paltry 5% of the vote. The campaign ended in a carnival-like atmosphere when Weiner’s election watch party was crashed by Sydney Leathers, the high school dropout-turned-porn actress that he’d been sexting. After an emotional concession speech, Weiner gave a photographer the finger, in an obscene low point of a once-promising career.
Spitzer, who spent about $10 million of his personal fortune on his campaign, finished with about 47% of the vote – almost exactly the same percentage at which he’d begun in April, making the effort seem like a fruitless exercise.
Further down the ballot, Lopez – a 28-year veteran of the state legislature who until recently also chaired the powerful Brooklyn Democratic party organization – was laid low by Antonio Reynoso, a novice who was two years old when Lopez won his first election. And Kellner’s defeat included the embarrassing spectacle of prominent political supporters rescinding their endorsements, forcing Kellner to cover up their names on his campaign flyers.
So in the end, after allowing bad boy candidates to make their cases, voters sent them all packing, in a pattern of quiet but firm rejection that is an extension of daily life in New York. In a city where 8.3 million people are crammed into 322 square miles and school kids speak a mind-boggling 138 different languages, an attitude of tolerant coexistence is as necessary as the metrocards used to ride the subways (which, incidentally, carries about 5.4 million people every weekday).
Everybody in New York has stories of living, working or traveling alongside people leading a wildly different existence. Punk rockers live next door to opera fans; some of the city’s 70 billionaires live a short walk from homeless shelters. In politics, gay and transgender organizations occasionally end up supporting the same candidates as Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims.
In this hothouse of diversity, it’s considered impolite to cast moral judgment on the investment banker or tattoo artist sitting next to you on the subway.
But don’t be fooled: acceptance doesn’t mean approval. This supposedly liberal city — where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than six to one and where the Occupy Wall Street movement began — has not elected a Democratic mayor since 1989.
Once again, in the privacy of the voting booth, New Yorkers proved that we’re tolerant – but we’re not crazy.