In less than a month, Mount Vernon residents will enter the voting booth and cast a ballot for the city’s top elective offices. Coming at a time of unparalleled polarization in our political life, for most voters in this Democratic stronghold, where 3 out of every 4 voters is on team blue, concerns about the authoritarian turn the GOP has taken under Donald Trump makes the choice before them a no-brainer. “Boycott the Republican Party,” is the refrain heard here, echoing the position the political analysts Rauch and Wittes laid out in the pages The Atlantic in the lead up to the 2018 mid-term election. Desperate to fend off the unrelenting attack being waged on our democratic institutions by the Trump administration, Democrats and even many Republicans have adopted an electoral strategy of wholesale rejection of GOP. Last election cycle, voters here in Westchester put that strategy into action when they decided who to pull the lever for. As a result, the county was inundated by a blue wave that reduced Westchester Republicans to minority status in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Because the GOP’s dependence on ultra-conservative whites is effectively hardwired into the electoral system, the dictates of political pragmatism all but guarantee that Black voters will continue to back Democratic candidates in national and state-wide elections long after Donald Trump is gone from office. In all likelihood, the campaign of obstructionism D.C. Republicans are now waging to prevent Trump from being held to account for his brazen criminality will only cause Mount Vernonites to redouble their allegiance to the party. Under the circumstances, continued support for the Democratic candidates in national and state-wide office is well-advised, absent a viable third-party alternative.
However, conventional wisdom appears far more dubious when it comes to local municipal elections.
Since the 1960s, a decades-long trend of massive white flight from the central cities, together with the changeover in African-American party affiliation, en bloc, from Republican to Democrat, has transformed the municipalities that are home to African-Americans into one-party towns where the Democrats now routinely waltz to victory in the general election. In 1985, when Roland Blackwood joined the growing ranks of Black Democrats who ascended to power in cities like Cleveland, Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles and made history by becoming the first elected African-American mayor in New York state history, the unofficial voter turnout was just shy of 20,000 voters, and his margin of victory over John Branca (a lifelong Democrat who ran on the Republican line) was a razor-thin 600 votes—less than 3% of the total. With each subsequent election held since then, the level of party competition has steadily declined as Westchester County Democrats have consolidated their dominance over the local political landscape. Overall turnout in more recent general elections has barely reached half the 1985 total, while the level of interparty competition has continued to drop even more sharply.
Viewed in terms of the pragmatics of power, the political dominance of Democrats in the city of Mount Vernon is likely to be seen by many as a cause for celebration. Indeed, ever since Reverend Samuel Austin, erstwhile head of Grace Baptist Church, became the first African-American to seek the Democratic nomination for mayor, at a time when cries of Black power were reverberating throughout Mount Vernon’s Southside, the quest to wrest control of the city’s centers of power from white ethnics has been framed as a means to greater community empowerment.
In spite of 35 years of unbroken leadership under Black Democrats, however, all the heady promises of community empowerment have yet to be translated into reality.
While Black elected officials are quick to blame their dismal record on the rightward lurch the nation took following Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980, few are willing to admit that the city might actually be a casualty of Democratic electoral dominance. Going against the grain of conventional political wisdom, in a lengthy white paper on the political industry published by the Harvard School of Business, Katherine Gehl—an influential entrepreneur—and Michael Porter—a renowned economist—conclude that the absence of robust party competition in the political system enables individual politicians to put the narrow interests of self and party above the communities they purport to serve.
It’s fairly easy for people outside of the D.C. beltway to see how the dominance more disquietingly of the Republican party in red states enables GOP Senators to ignore the grave threat Donald Trump poses to our nation’s democracy. What most locals are less likely to acknowledge, though, is that the dominance of the local Democratic establishment in our municipal politics has had an equally corrosive effect on the city’s governance and leadership.
Nothing illustrates the pernicious effect of one-party dominance than the silence most of the Democratic candidates now on the November ballot exhibited when confronted with the rise of the city’s own homegrown autocrat, disgraced former mayor Richard Thomas. From the day he set foot in the office, Thomas waged a veritable reign of terror against his counterparts in government as well as opponents outside City Hall. Time and again, he shuttered businesses and facilities at a whim; dispatched uniformed police to conduct political investigations of his adversaries; suspended municipal employees in the hopes silencing those who dared to publicly question him; directed his corporate counsel to file frivolous lawsuits that aimed to usurp the powers of his coequal branches; and defied court orders that didn’t go his way. Whether it was the sanctity of private property, the political neutrality of police, due process rights, the separation of powers, or the rule of law—there was not one democratic principle Mayor didn’t see fit to trample, often in plain sight.
Before the court finally stepped in to clear things up, it may have been plausible for County Legislator Lyndon Williams, City Councilwoman Lisa
Copeland or mayoral front-runner Shawyn Patterson-Howard to claim
uncertainty as to which was right in these complex legal disputes. However, nothing except naked, feckless self-interest explains why they and the rest of Westchester’s Democratic leadership stood pat when a sitting Black councilman, in a black-majority city, was threatened with bodily harm by an illegitimate white police officer who made Bull Connor look small. Neither the leadership of the Westchester Democratic Party nor any of the front-runners in the upcoming November election uttered a word. Nor was a word uttered when that same sitting councilman was assaulted months later.
Let us be clear: in the Age of Trump, an assault on a Black Democratic elected official is tantamount to an assault on the foundation of democracy
itself. In their instant classic How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt remind Americans of the fundamental political obligations we all have to assume in the face of the anti-democratic forces now stalking our nation: “Constitutions [and city charters] must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms.” Under the circumstances, the rules of political solidarity only leave one course of action open, they continue: “When faced with a would-be authoritarian [i.e., Richard Thomas], establishment politicians must unambiguously reject him or her and do everything to defend democratic institutions—even if that means temporarily joining forces with bitter rivals.”
Bold, visionary leadership is unlikely to emerge in Democratic strongholds like Mount Vernon so long we reward political cowardice with a seat in office. Come election day, voters should boycott any Democratic nominee who imitated the Republicans in D.C. and abdicated their basic responsibility to take a public stand against the corrupt and autocratic regime that tried to destroy democracy in our city.