As a first-time New York City voter, I enthusiastically anticipated the onset of the mayoral election, eager to do research on candidates I knew little about. After three terms of Mayor Bloomberg, I was hopeful that candidates would step up and provide powerful campaign narratives describing blueprints for a better New York City.
Months into the campaign, I think I speak for most of the electorate when I say that I am a little disappointed. While there have been no shortage of entries into the race, and no shortage of dramatic narratives from the candidates themselves, the substance has been sorely lacking. Simply put, no candidate has provided a grand vision for the future of New York City.
The general consensus around the current crop of candidates, from Quinn to Lhota, from Weiner to de Blasio, is that they are uninspired at best. None of them have provided big ideas, instead focusing on smaller proposals such as flexible toll pricing or an increased police presence. Love him or hate him, Mayor Bloomberg had a vision for a bigger and better New York City, enacting dramatic education reform, focusing intensely on public safety, and providing innovative solutions for a growing public health crisis. We don’t hear about wide-ranging reforms from these candidates. Instead, we hear about Quinn’s temper, de Blasio’s Cheerios and Weiner’s marriage. Thus far, it’s been completely style over substance.
But for all of his vision, Bloomberg did struggle in a key facet—inspiring New Yorkers to actually participate in politics. In the 2009 mayoral election, in which Bloomberg beat then-Comptroller William Thompson by only five points, only 29 percent of the city’s eligible 4.1 million voters participated—the lowest rate since 1969. The rates for young people were even more alarming—only 4 percent of eligible 18-29 year olds voted. Bloomberg might have provided vision, but he failed to inspire a better democracy.
Some may disagree that there is a relationship between voting numbers and the strength of a democracy. However it is clear that this suffrage downturn correlates with a general dissatisfaction with the notion of politics, both in New York City, and the rest of the country. Citizens feel that politicians rarely pay attention to their needs, and that there are better ways to enact change than engaging in the democratic process. This is particularly prevalent among my generation, millenials, or young people between the ages of 18-29. For all of our idealism, which still does exist, we sometimes think that it is more effective to act on our passions through social media, social entrepreneurial endeavors or even the private sector. Implicitly, we declare that it is not even worth engaging with politics.
This attitude, however, is problematic. If young people are not engaging with politicians, then the candidates have little motivation to pay attention to their concerns. While many of the issues currently at play—including stop-and-frisk, jobs and education reform—do affect young people, it seems that their voices are missing from the conversation. Stop and frisk has devolved into the candidates criticizing Bloomberg policies, rather than hearing from young people actually affected by the policy. The jobs debate focuses on those who are a little older (and vote). And the education debates seem single-mindedly focused on attracting the union vote, rather than listening to the voices of our students.
A vicious cycle persists—candidates do not listen to young voters because they do not vote. Young voters do not participate because they feel that the candidates do not care about their opinion.
The solution, thus, is two-fold. Young people must re-engage in politics, and specifically must make their voices heard in this mayoral election. And these candidates must produce specific policies on issues affecting millenials while listening to their actual opinions on the issues.
For candidates, there is everything to gain. The candidate who can inspire the youth vote, and actually get millenials to turn out, stands to gain tremendously. Even setting a modest goal of doubling the turnout from 2009, to 8 percent of eligible 18-29 year olds, would be tens of thousands of voters. Young people represent an entire orchard of apples that have not been picked. The candidate who figures this out could incrementally increase their chances of winning.
Beyond just the mayoral election, the city would benefit from a more engaged youth electorate. New York City continues to face an onslaught of public problems, from safety to jobs, from education to public transit. Getting young people from all sectors, from those working on Wall Street to those teaching in Crown Heights, to focus on these problems, working together to find solutions is not only powerful, but necessary.
Despite various policy accomplishments, when Bloomberg’s legacy as mayor is cemented in stone, I am convinced that one of his weaknesses will be his obvious disdain for engaging the electorate in his decision-making. From choosing the corporate titan but education novice Kathleen Black as the Chancellor of Education to his proposed ban on large drinks, Bloomberg continually provided policy proposals that he thought made sense, regardless of the opinion of the rest of the city.
And this is exactly where this crop of candidates can come in. They can make a pledge to ensure that New Yorkers are heard, and a pledge to do all they can to rebuild the fabric of democracy in this city. It starts with young people. It will make New York City an even better city. But it also might help someone win an election.