New York City is now debating a proposal for “nonpartisan” elections for City Council.

What is a nonpartisan election system? Essentially, candidates run for office unaffiliated, that is to say, their names appear on the ballot without a party line or party endorsement and party primary elections are eliminated.

When Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg originally put forward the idea, he said he wanted to use his personal wealth to “educate” the public on the merits of the nonpartisan issue and have it on the ballot for the 2004 elections.

When grassroots organizations and labor objected, the mayor backed off, saying he would not get involved; rather, he would leave it up to the charter commission (appointed by him) to decide after public hearings were conducted.

Attending the hearings was an eye opener. The public, along with city representatives, learned that the mayor’s commission on charter revision had decided before the hearings to place the referendum on the ballot. At a hearing in July, several City Council members – who spoke unanimously against it – were witness when Chairman Frank Macchiarola let the cat out of the bag and admitted the commission had already made its decision.

Macchiarola also said the referendum was at least four years off, but we soon found out that also was not true and that it would be on the ballot in 2004.

The commission made several references to “the machine” during the hearings – we assume they meant the Democratic Party because the City Council consists largely of Democrats. They were suggesting that the partisan system only allows a candidate backed by a political machine to reach the primary. To this we must ask: Who chose Bloomberg, or Gov. Pataki – who is the Republican Party boss?

Under our present election laws, over the past years we have achieved a diverse and, in many cases, progressive council that includes outspoken members from various communities and ethnic groups.

As the balance of power in the council shifts in a progressive direction, the monied interests are trying to derail, divert and dilute our voting system. Similar efforts are happening with the California recall against Gov. Gray Davis or the power grab by the Republican machine to redraw voting districts in Texas.

The argument for nonpartisan elections is weak at best and the commission has not been able to put forth substantial evidence to show that it will increase voter turnout. If the commission wanted to increase voter turnout they should implement some of the suggestions made at the hearings: same day voter registration; proportional representation (an issue avoided like the plague); fixing the campaign finance system, as board chair Fritz Schwarz has suggested, to encourage self-financed candidates to limit their spending like everyone else or be penalized.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) gives some excellent reasons to reject this referendum. Eliminating party primaries would create confusion for voters – candidates would not be required to list their party affiliations on the ballot and those that do would not necessarily have earned their party’s endorsement. It would favor wealthy candidates like Bloomberg who don’t need strong parties, at the expense of working people who do. It would make it harder for minority candidates to win elections. David Dinkins has said that he would never have been elected mayor without a party primary.

The confusion surrounding the issue is not surprising. Council Speaker Miller called it “the nonpartisan-partisan-nonpartisan referendum,” referring to the change made allowing candidates to show party affiliation if they choose. Most voters have enough to juggle without having to investigate candidates’ credentials on their own.

Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin asked recently, “Why should we strip away the political process and structure just when many minorities and immigrants have only now recently gotten involved?” Berta Lewis of ACORN and Working Families Party explained nonpartisan this way: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” City Councilman David Paterson said, “We will bring all our resources to help defeat it.” A UFT representative said, “We are going all out. We are 140,000 strong, we are not going to allow the wealthy to steal our democratic process”.

Wording prohibiting union contributions to candidates was removed from the referendum because the mayor and commission are feeling the heat from labor. The mayor is trying to appease organized labor in an effort to keep it from campaigning against the referendum.

The challenge is to muster all New York City’s progressive forces to counter the sweet sounding phrase “nonpartisan” and educate New Yorkers about yet another power grab right here in the Big Apple.

If progressive forces do their job, the nonpartisan referendum will be laid to rest in a partisan way.

Gabe Falsetta is a member of the People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo circulation collective. He can be reached at gfalsetta@pww.org