SPEECH BY MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG ON ELECTION REFORM
FUND FOR MODERN COURTS/PENN CLUB
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 10TH, 2004, 8 A.M.
Thank you, Fern. And Good morning. We did talk about having this breakfast
at 6:00 am rather than at 8:00, and I know most of you are up and working
by them and reading briefs or doing whatever lawyers do before they answer
the phone at 10:00 am for the first time. I was joking with Fern before I
could never quite understand a profession that didn’t try to match its hours
to its clients’ business hours, but the law profession does seem to be able
to get away with that. Being available at 9 or 10 o’clock at night may be
great but not terribly useful for some of us. If I could convince all of
you to come in early. Now I will say in all fairness to Cardozo he is in
for our 7-7:30 meetings, he’s never missed one as far as I know. One time
I did try to call him, he took a day off, and he was someplace he claims
the cell phone service wasn’t good there. But anyways, it’s great to be here
and I’m thrilled to get an award in Cy Vance’s name. I said to Cy Vance Jr.,
I just met, I never knew Cy Vance, he was one of those people that I read
about in the papers. I grew up in a world where the only people that we knew
whose names were in the paper were people who had their names either in the
crime section or the obit section of the local paper in Medford, Massachusetts.
And everyday I keep pinching myself, ‘You know, hey, guess who I just met.’
You can’t quite say that all the time but last night I did a talk before
a film with a movie star both male and female, and I thought to myself, ‘I
would never in any other job get a chance to meet these people.’ Now whether
they are saying that this morning, ‘Guess who I met last night,’ I don’t
But anyway, 50th anniversary of the founding of this group, which is really
one of the city’s important civic organizations. Lawyers, we joke about the
number of lawyers in the city, but they really do make an enormous difference
in every part of our lives and quality lawyers, lawyers who are not only
intelligent but want to make a difference and want to work together and try
to find solutions for the problems that society has are what separates this
country and arguably- certainly- this city from any place else.
And as a chair of the Fund for Modern Courts, along with all his other civic
and government posts, Cy Vance really was an inspiration to many of you here.
Fern is right, Michael Cardozo did work for him and I’m thrilled to have
him as hour Corporation Counsel. I keep reminding him he’s only as good as
his latest victory or loss, and we tend to leave staff meetings with my warning
to him, ‘Do not lose that case.’ So far he’s come through. You will find
out very quickly when he is not, when he is available again to come and work
for an organization.
Seriously, Cy was an outstanding lawyer and he distinguished himself through
public service and unimpeachable personal integrity. And he had another
characteristic, which I kept reading about and everybody talks about, that
I think is one of the most important things that a successful person has
as a reason they are successful, is they are never too proud to learn from
experience. They don’t have that, “if not invented here” attitude. They are
willing to listen to new ideas, and when they have a good idea but somebody
comes along with a better one they are willing to drop their idea and adopt
the other person’s and give the other person credit. I think that was one
of Cy’s great strength.
These qualities: the knowledge of the law, and devotion to the civic good,
integrity, and open-mindedness are the qualities our administration is looking
for in appointing people to the bench. And let me say at the outset that
I think it is true that most of the men and women who serve as judges in
this city deserve to be there. But I think it is also true that “most”
is not enough. New Yorkers deserve nothing less than knowing that every single
judge has been awarded the awesome responsibility of sitting on the desk
based on merit, not political connections.
The allegations of corruption, of cronyism, of political deals - such as
those that have been reported in the paper over the last few years has been
much too much. They really do corrode respect for the law among the populace
and we can’t afford to tolerate even the appearance of impropriety on the
bench, much less having people that are not honest or aren’t interested in
deciding cases independently and fairly.
Mayor Koch, as most of you remember, established the practice of appointing
only judges found to be by his term “well qualified,” and his definition
of “well qualified” was having an independent screening committee say these
people were well qualified and Ed said he would only appoint people from
that group. Ed, who I spend a lot of time with I can tell you even
to this day he talks about that and shows great pride in that change.
Appointing the very best people also means finding candidates who reflect
the city’s diversity. I am proud to say that more than one-half of
all judges I have appointed are women- that’s to get Carol off my back- and
more than one-third are minorities. When you come in to court as a
plaintiff or as a defendant, it is terribly important that you look up at
the bench and feel that that person represents you and will understand you,
that that person is reflective of our community and of our society. And our
Mayor’s judicial committee has really tried to use that as the standard of
picking people. Quality in terms of intellectual capabilities, compassion,
feeling for people, and understanding of the law, and an understanding of
the community and the people that they are going to have appear in front
of them. Our Mayor’s Judicial Committee really has done, I think, a spectacular
and I think it might be appropriate if I ask all the members of it to stand
and get a round of applause.
I just appoint them, they do all the work. So if you’ve got a friend you want to get to be a judge, call them, don’t call me.
Unfortunately, the Mayor only appoints Criminal and Family Court judges,
not Civil and Supreme Court judges, and while I really am a believer in an
electoral democracy, after all, I’ve run once and won, so I think it’s a
great process, the process of filling positions on the Civil and Supreme
courts is nothing less in this city than a sham. It really is a disgrace.
If you look what happened last week in the balloting for judges, there wasn’t
one single real contest in the city. Not one. That included “races,”
people talked about races, some of the people that won were found by various
local bar associations, “not qualified,” and yet they ran and they won and
they won because they didn’t have any competition or because the public had
virtually no information whatsoever about these candidates. It is not surprising
that 30% of the people who voted for a presidential candidate on November
2nd, didn’t bother to vote for a single judge. They just didn’t bother because
they didn’t know who these people were and they had just given up hope and
no one wants to cast a vote for somebody they don’t know, especially when
you read the press and you think these people may very well unqualified or
Thirty years ago, as Fern mentioned, Cy Vance, tried to solve some of this
problem with the support of the Committee for Modern Courts, and he led a
battle to persuade Governor Carey, and the New York Legislature, and eventually
the people, to enact a constitutional amendment providing for the merit appointment
of judges to our highest court. The case can be made that merit appointments
to the Supreme and Civil Courts is even more important - because it’s harder
for voters to learn anything about candidates for the trial court.
We must continue Cy’s effort, Fern talked about making the case, well
we’ve got to do more than make the case, we’ve got to get Albany and the
public to go along an make change, that’s what really matters. Cy had wisdom
in his push for merit selection. But in the meantime, there are some
interim measures that our administration thinks can be taken.
As Fern also mentioned, last year, in testimony to the Commission to Promote
Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, I urged the state’s political parties
to appoint screening panels modeled on the Mayor’s Judiciary Committee, with
a majority of the members appointed by civic leaders, law school deans, and
bar associations. And John Feerick was Chair of that Commission and a former
Chair of this organization. Cy Vance was a mentor to John as well,
and I’d like to thank John for all of the things he does for the City. He
really has made a big difference in this city. Right now you should know
that John is serving on two special master panels, one will decide the Campaign
for Fiscal Equity litigation, which is the money for the school system, and
the other is helping the city and Legal Aid put an end to the years of court
orders and litigation that have driven the City’s homeless policy. It’s probably
not what John had in mind when he retired as dean of the Fordham Law School,
but I think it probably what Cy Vance would have expected out of any of his
disciples. As John and all of them know, when it comes to strengthening public
confidence in government, it’s not just in the judicial area where we need
to do better.
Let me talk for a couple of minutes though about three other areas where
I think improvements are badly needed and long overdue: ballot access, what
I call pay-to-play reform, and reform of the Board of Elections, which has
gotten a lot of press in the last few days.
First in terms of the ballot access reform, I don’t know how many of you
know what the process is, but if you want to get the best people to run for
office, we’ve got to make the rules easier, and simpler, and more understandable
to get on the ballot.
Right now, it is a very complex process, it is just too easy for party bosses
and their lawyers to knock challengers off the ballot for minor technicalities.
It’s hard enough to beat an incumbent without having to spend all your time
and your money defending your petitions in court. And there’s a game
that’s just played, it’s an outrage. If there is one “i” that is not dotted,
one “t” that’s not dotted, the candidate doesn’t get on the ballot or the
candidate gets thrown off the ballot, but what is really worse is the public
is denied a choice. And either you believe in democracy or you don’t.
These endless legal challenges that define elections in New York are a joke
in this country, and they are the reason why it is so expensive, or one of
the reasons, it’s so expensive to run here and why so many people decide
not to run. It’s become a whole cottage industry of you don’t have to beat
the other guy based on positions or your ability to serve, all you have to
do is beat him because you’ve got a better lawyer that can get him thrown
off the ballot. I think its time to end this “gotcha” kind of techniques
where lawyers comb petitions to find some technical violation in what’s literally
a hopelessly complex election law requirement, which some courts have found
to be unconstitutional.
Let us just make it easier to get on the ballot by eliminating those technical
requirements, reducing the number of signatures required, allowing all registered
voters - not just those that belonging to a particular political party -
to sign petitions.
The second thing is this business of pay-to-play, it is just the most outrageous
thing. One of the reasons I supported nonpartisan elections was that it offered
an opportunity to move forward toward these goals without waiting for action
from Albany. The voters for reasons that I will say I still don’t understand,
rejected the nonpartisan election proposal and they rejected it by a reasonably
large margin, but the truth of the matter is that the system we have is corrupt
and until you find a way to end that corruption that is practical we can
sit around and say that no solution is acceptable that we can always find
something better, but the truth of the matter is we’re going to be here 10
years from now with the same lack of democracy that we have today.
In 1998 referendum before the voters of the City of New York was passed,
and it was an amendment to the City Charter requiring that the Campaign Finance
Board adopt rules and regulations prohibiting campaign contributions from
those who do business with the City. The rules were to apply to candidates
who join the City’s matching funds program. But here we are six years
later, and not one single rule has been adopted.
Let me just explain to you what pay-to-play really is. If you’re a
telecommunications executive looking for a friendly contract, or a real estate
developer going through the City’s Land Use Review Process, or a registered
lobbyist trying to get certain terms included in legislation, or a consultant
to a private equity firm competing to invest some of the City’s pension funds,
you may be invited - or let’s get serious - feel compelled to make campaign
contributions. The parlance of the business is called “pay-to-play.”
And while it may not fit your legal definition of bribery or extortion, the
rest of us, the public, understands exactly what it is. If it looks like
a rose and smells like a rose, we all know that it is a rose.
And this has just gone on and on, there is a way to corrupt government decisions,
it is making campaign contributions and it is not right and it diminishes
the public’s confidence in government and it should be stopped, and the public
voted to have it stopped and it’s an outrage, the public changes the City
Charter and then nothing happens. And that’s the worst thing that can happen
to democracy, the public says, ‘Wait a second, first I don’t have a vote
and then when I get a vote nobody pays any attention to it.’ And it even
gets worse than this because what happened was in the 1998 Charter amendment
they also have a subsidy program with taxpayer money for people that are
in the Campaign Finance Program, and for every $250 contribution from lobbyists
that do business with the city, the taxpayers actually kick in another $1,000.
And this was maybe an unintended consequence of the City’s matching funds
program, which was designed to limit the power of special interests, but
the fact of the matter is it magnifies it because if a special interest gives
$250 to a candidate, the City comes along and gives a match, another $1000,
so rather than take away special interests, we’ve empowered special interests
in a way that’s probably not done in any other place in the country.
Along with most voters, I think, and my argument that it is most voters is
that the evidence that this amendment was passed to the City Charter, these
contributions should be banned or severely restricted and they certainly
should not be subsidized by taxpayers. I’ve been urging the Campaign Finance
Board to implement this amendment, this 1998 amendment and so far nothing
has happened. And since the Board has failed to act, we have repeatedly
asked the City Council to enact legislation to fulfill this Charter mandate.
And I don’t think anybody in this room is going to be surprised to find that
the Council and the Board only see bureaucratic and political obstacles,
and they’re too busy pursuing other agendas than to give the public the right
to really make decisions and pick who serves because everybody is afraid
that if we start to really pick people on merit, maybe they won’t be one
of those selected.
I’m not going to forget the voters who passed this mandate six years ago,
and I can tell you I will not sign, they can override it, but I will not
sign another campaign finance bill unless it includes provisions that fulfill
the City Charter change that the voters put into place back in 1998.
Even New Jersey – and we all joke about New Jersey – but New Jersey has adopted
pay-to-play reform. About a month ago, Governor McGreevy, this is true,
it’s hard to believe, signed an executive order restricting contributions
from government contractors. And the soon-to-be New Governor, Governor Codey
announced that he’s going to take this a step further and close a loophole
in the SEC rule that prohibits bond underwriters from making campaign contributions
to elected officials who hire firms to handle bond sales. New York
likes to consider itself a national leader in campaign finance reform.
But I think it’s fair to say on the most basic criteria, restricting the
influence of special interests – we have fallen behind many other jurisdictions,
including our neighboring state.
Let me talk about one other thing and that is reforming the Board of Elections.
The Board of Elections has got a lot of criticism in the last few days because
there were long lines at the polls and some machines broke down. We need
to reform the Board of Elections and most importantly, we need to get voting
machines that make voting easier, quicker, and more secure.
In 1952, 3.5 million New Yorkers cast ballots in the presidential election.
Last week only 2.2 million New Yorkers voted – one-third fewer. So
why did we have so many problems? I mean if we could handle it back
in ‘52 with 3.5 million voters with the same machines, why can’t we do it
Well there’s two reasons: First, the voting machines themselves, the ones
that we use are more than 40-years old – and they are actually based on a
patent by Thomas Edison that is almost 140 years old!
People say, ‘You know, technology.’ If you are afraid of technology, don’t
get in airplane, don’t get in an automobile, don’t take an elevator; technology
runs everything in our lives, but we have to have a mechanical machine to
vote. Most of us don’t drive cars built during Mayor Wagner’s Administration
– unless maybe we collect antiques–why are we using voting machines from
that era I don’t’ think anybody can figure out. These are technological
fossils, and they belong in the New York Historical Society, not in the polling
stations of this city. And in fact we can’t even claim we don’t have the
money to do it because the Federal government’s Help America Vote Act – called
HAVA - will pay for the State to modernize our voting equipment, train election
officials and poll workers, and enhance voter education. And most states
qualified for HAVA money in time for the 2004 elections, and bought new machines.
A-ha! Not here in New York. We are still waiting for Albany to finalize
a plan that will allow the State to qualify for more than $200 million in
So here we sit, we have budget problems but this is nothing that has to be
solved by the taxpayers of this city, it can be solved by the taxpayers of
the country. Now it’s already too late to have a new system up and running
by 2005, which will be an election I’m sure all of you will come out and
vote in, you have to think about that and who is running – that’s ok. It’s
not going to happen if the State Legislature does not come up with an agreement
soon, and even making 2006 is going to be difficult, but as last week’s elections
showed, we should not delay anymore.
It’s not just money, however. HAVA’s money alone won’t solve the Board’s
institutional problems. Under John Ravitz’s leadership, the Board really
has begun to try to professionalize its operations, and I think he gets a
lot of criticism but we should commend him for the improvements that he’s
trying to make, he is however severely hamstrung by the Board’s structure,
established by State law, which allows party leaders to dictate hiring decisions
based on party connections – or family connections – and not on merit.
This makes it very hard to fire incompetent workers, or to recruit qualified
ones. And that really is a recipe for ineptitude.
The structure of the Board, like our method of selecting judges, is a remnant
of the days when Tammany Hall ruled New York. Together, the Board and
the courts are the city’s last bastions of political patronage, think about
that, we really have- we finally got political patronage out of the school
system, and because a lot of the laws that were enacted after the city’s
1970’s fiscal crisis we’ve got patronage out of other parts of City Government,
but in the courts and on the board, political patronage still unfortunately
plays a very big part.
Our civil service reforms have bypassed the Board, other states have adopted
nonpartisan boards with professional staffs and we have not. And if we expect
our Board to perform reliable, high-quality, good customer service, we need
exactly the same thing.
And as part of its consideration of HAVA, the State Legislature, incidentally,
should also examine ways to re-structure the Board so that it can select
people based on merit, just like the system of selecting judges that I discussed.
It would be a wrenching change for Albany, but I think the time has come.
The City unfortunately does not have authority over the Board, but John Ravitz
has agreed to work with us and see if we can’t help in the small measure
to improve its operations. There is no reason why the Board can’t maintain
its independence and also taking advantage of the City’s technological infrastructure,
for example, particularly 311. There was much made in the newspapers
about the Board of Elections not being able to answer their phones, but on
Election Day, 311 answered 23,000 calls about the Board of Elections or the
polling places, people looking for information, or people just calling up
to complain. And for the Board or Elections to spend money to set up a separate
call service the public one day a year just doesn’t make any financial sense.
I’ll leave you with a thought or two, In 2001, following the Florida election
fiasco, my predecessor Mayor Giuliani appointed a task force to make recommendations
for changes to the Board’s operations and management, and some important
changes and improvements did result, including contingency plans for emergencies
and expedited counting of paper ballots. But, as we saw last week, we have
not done enough, so in the next few weeks, I will be announcing a new task
force to build on the work of the previous initiative. We just
have to find more ways to improve the Board’s operations, increase its productivity,
and hold it publicly accountable for its performance. And even if the
City doesn’t have the legal ability to go and change the Board there’s no
thing to say that we can’t come up with some good ideas and use the Bully
Pulpit to try to get Albany to make those changes and this should come to
no surprise to any of you who I have asked to lead it. Michael Cardozo will
lead it and I think there is nobody who we could have that is better to take
a look and see how we can make some changes here. Michael was inspired by
Cy Vance, and it would be a fitting tribute to him to carry on reforms that
he really started.
The four reforms that I talked about today – judicial reform, ballot access
reform, pay-to-play reform, and election administration reform – really are
some of the more important good-government issues facing our City and they
have real consequences for all New Yorkers, including candidates and voters.
And I just wanted to end by thanking everyone here for working to improve
the integrity of government. There is probably no better role model
than Cy Vance. It is an honor to receive an award named for someone
who left such an indelible mark on this City, I will put it at home and look
at it when I walk by and say, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ My name is up there too with
Cy Vance’s -- only connection I’ll probably have with him but I will look
forward to it. Cy was one of our great civic leaders as are many of you and
it is an honor for me to be honored by you. So thank you very much and keep
up the good work. God bless.