JM: Five, since life began for me on the Internet.
JM: Editor, Gotham Gazette
MBG: Editor and writer for the city government and campaign sections of GothamGazette.com.
How did you start working for Gotham Gazette?
JM: I was hired in June of 2000.
MBG: Jonathan hired me in October 2000. My first assignment was to go to the Municipal Library and go through dusty volumes of City Council voting records. We published it in a readable print format and eventually put it online.
Tell us more about the Citizens Union Foundation, which puts out Gotham Gazette.
JM: The story begins way back in 1897, when Citizens Union was founded to fight the corruption of Tammany Hall, New York City's all-powerful political machine.
The five boroughs were about to be joined together to create the City of Greater New York - before that, New York City meant only Manhattan and a part of the Bronx - and there was great fear that Tammany would take over the other boroughs as well. So Citizens Union was founded by more than a hundred of the leading citizens of the day, including financier J.P. Morgan, Elihu Root (who became Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State and a Nobel Peace Prize winner), and 11 labor union leaders, as well as people who are known now mostly for what's named after them - like Carl Schurz (Carl Schurz Park), Nicholas Murray Butler (Butler Library at Columbia) and Benjamin Altman (the old B. Altman department store).
Originally Citizens Union was a political party, but it became one of the original "good-government groups," which were called goo-goos for some reason. Since 1910, Citizens Union has been evaluating candidates for local office.
MBG: Half a century after the founding of Citizens Union, in 1948, Citizens Union Foundation was created as an educational and research affiliate of Citizens Union. It was one of the first non-profits to have its own TV show - in 1948 on NBC -- , one of the first to have its own cable show - on NY-1. And then it started GothamGazette.com in 1999.
And tell us about what Gotham Gazette is trying to do.
JM: The mission of Gotham Gazette, which is non-partisan and non-ideological but we hope non-boring as well, is to inform and engage New Yorkers in the civic life of the city.
MBG: That's why we've offered, among other things, comprehensive coverage of the local races since what we call the Great Turnover of 2001, when term limits kicked two-thirds of the local public officials out of office.
New Yorkers seem to be politically involved, but actually very few seem to vote, especially in primaries. Why do you think that happens?
JM: I've long been struck by this irony. New Yorkers who can recite the Secret Downing Street Memo by heart cannot tell you who their City Council member is, much less bother to vote for anybody for the office.
MBG: If you want to know who it is, by the way, just go to our City Government section and type in your address and zip code. You'll also find information about the district as a whole, local issues, lists of schools, parks, maps, charts, original essays by the council
JM: One of our columnists wrote an article profiling the non-voters of New York. They are the solid majority in the city. Even the 2000 presidential election couldn't draw even half of all the New Yorkers eligible to vote -- and that is the highest it ever gets. Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001 by only about 15 percent of all New Yorkers eligible to vote
MBG: There have been many theories as to why so few New Yorkers are engaged in the electoral process. New York is a city of immigrants and it can take a while for newcomers to become part of the existing political system. And often the politicians don't reach out to newcomers: They like the status quo; it's what got them into power after all. Local elections aren't held on the same year as national elections -- this is done deliberately, to force local candidates to talk about local issues -- but many New Yorkers tend to pay attention only to what's happening nationally. Some are cynical about politics or feel government plays little role in their lives.
And the New York City Board of Elections also doesn't make it particularly easy to register or to vote. Other states offer options like same-day registration or voting by mail that New York hasn't implemented.
JM: Whatever the reason, this lack of public participation in elections helps explain why, for example, just about 100 percent of incumbents in the New York State Legislature get re-elected year after year --- and why, not coincidentally, it was found to be the most dysfunctional legislature in the entire nation. This in turn helps explain such direct effects on individual New Yorkers as subway fare hikes, rent hikes, tax hikes, poor schools, draconian sentencing for first-time non-violent drug offenses, threats to the quality of our air and water.
Besides the mayoral race, what are other political races that you're personally fascinated by?
MBG: You can get the rundown on all of them on our Guide For the Last Minute Voter.
The race for Public Advocate is interesting because few New Yorkers know what the job is. And the candidates running all have different ideas of what the job should even be. The incumbent Betsy Gotbaum sees it as a way to address individual complaints about city government. Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who lost to Gotbaum in 2001, sees it as the "people's lawyer" who should go to court on their behalf. Andrew Rasiej, a businessman with a background in technology, wants to use the position to provide wireless Internet access to every New Yorker. Bernard Goetz, who best is known as the "subway gunman," said he is running to raise issues like vegetarian options in school lunches. A dentist, a theology student, a mapmaker, and the head of the Libertarian Party, who wants to abolish the position entirely, are also running.
JM: The Manhattan borough president's race is interesting because there are so many experienced and generally highly respected public officials running for an office that has very little intrinsic power and (much like the public advocate) rather unclear purpose.
The races for district attorney in both Manhattan and Brooklyn have gotten a lot of attention this year, because the incumbents are seen as vulnerable to their challengers. Thanks to the show "Law and Order," the Office of the Manhattan D.A. is the most visible such office in the nation. And both candidates have a connection to the show: Robert Morgenthau, who is now 86 years old and has been the D.A. since 1974, was the model for the original D.A. in the show when it debuted in 1990. And his challenger, former State Supreme Court Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder, who is 62, is a consultant for the show.
As for the City Council, the majority of 51 council members don't even have primaries this year, and most that do are expected to be re-elected easily - thanks, again, to the lack of widespread voter participation.
But there are nine City Council races where the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
MBG: Seven of those nine are open seats, because the incumbents are being kicked out due to term limits.
In district 41 in Brownsville,
Brooklyn, twelve candidates are running for an open seat being vacated by Tracy Boyland, a member of a powerful political family. Her 64-year-old father, who used to serve in the State Assembly before he handed that seat to his son, wants to keep the seat in the family and is coming out of retirement. The other 11 candidates are scrambling to stop him.
JM: Then there are two additional races where the incumbent seems to have a chance of
losing. One of them is district 25 - that's Corona, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights -- where incumbent Helen Sears is running against Bryan
MBG: The other is one of the most bizarre races in the primary. In district 28 in South Jamaica,
Queens, the incumbent, Allan Jennings, has been charged with sexual harassment. (In the past four years, he has also compared himself to Jesus Christ, released the names of undercover police officers at a public hearing, and threw a chunk of scrap metal at a FOX news television reporter while the camera rolled.) His challengers have their own troubles. One has been investigated for using state and federal money to buy a new sport utility vehicle. And two other candidates have filed criminal charges against one another.
Q: What are some of the big issues that you think NYC will be facing during the next mayoral term (whomever it may be at the head)? Are there some perennially troubling issues, like housing or education or the MTA's finances, that will have the potential to explode?
MBG: Yes, all those you mentioned. Housing is a huge issue. The vacancy rate is the lowest in more than a decade. The average price of an apartment in Manhattan is over $1 million. Nearly a quarter of renters pay more than 50 percent of their incomes for housing.
Transportation is another critical issue. The last new subway line opened in New York City nearly 65 years ago.
We did more than a dozen stories on the challenges facing the city over the next four years. Several of them also explain candidates' views or track record on that issue.
JM: If you go to our Campaign 2005 homepage, you'll see links to stories on the issues involved in 14 specific areas from the arts to the waterfront.
This is one reason why it would be great if more New Yorkers paid attention to elections, because campaigns are when we regular folk have the best chance of getting politicians to listen to us, address issues that concern us, and actually figure out some concrete solutions.
Q: And what is one issue you wish more New Yorkers paid attention to?
MBG: The dysfunction of the state government. As Jonathan pointed out, many of the most important issues for the city - rent control, transportation funding, education funding, the ability to raise taxes - are controlled by the governor and State Legislature in Albany, not the mayor.
JM: The one local issue I wish New Yorkers paid more attention to is whatever issue they care most about, however removed it may seem at first glance to local concerns, or however impervious it may seem to improvement. Every national or even international issue I can think of plays out locally in one way or another. And anything you may see as an inevitable irritant - a noisy neighbor, potholes, high prices - fits into a larger political context.
What can New Yorkers do to be better city citizens?
MBG: Pay attention to the news. Volunteer somewhere. Vote. Don't throw gum on the subway platform.
JM: Keep in mind that the root of the word "citizen" is "city." You ARE the city. So take care of yourself.
And some question about the city...
Favorite subway line?
MBG: I like the view from the F-train subway stop at Smith and 9th Street in Brooklyn, the tallest subway station in the city. If the F train is actually running on time, I like the train too.
JM: My favorite subway line is: "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Actually, I love taking the bus instead when I can. The bus that goes along Riverside Park and into the Cloisters - you start on the M-5 and I think you transfer to the M-4 - is just breathtaking. And then one time I got all the way from downtown Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport by a succession of three public buses, at a total cost of $1.67 (what with the Metrocard discount and a benevolent bus driver who bent the transfer rules). Of course the journey lasted longer than my subsequent plane trip.
Favorite NYC Book?
MBG: Here is New York by E. B. White. It's more of an essay than a book. We give copies to our interns.
JM: That book and The Power Broker by Robert Caro, which is about New York's master builder Robert Moses (and is about 25 times longer than the E.B. White book), are generally considered to be the two best books about New York by people who have made the city the subject of their study, and the object of their love.
Best thing the city has done recently
MBG: The smoking ban.
JM: The Greenway.
Favorite TV show or movie about NYC:
MBG: "Manhattan" by Woody Allen
JM: "12 Angry Men" and almost everything else Sidney Lumet has done about NYC since - "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Q & A" etc. But also: "Rear Window"; "I Like It Like That"; "On The Waterfront" (though that's not really New York); "Raging Bull" and "Mean Streets" and the rest of Martin Scorsese's New York stuff though I can't really watch them anymore; "Annie Hall" and almost everything else Woody Allen did until 1987, especially because he kept on filming on my block; The "Rhapsody in Blue" segment of "Fantasia 2000."
Dogs, cats or babies?
MBG: My wife is expecting, so I have to pick babies.
JM. Dogs, definitely, without question. I come from a long line of people unable to breathe with a cat in the room. This is a much easier choice for me than whom to vote for.
Tomorrow is Primary Day; if you're a registered voter, go out and vote. You can learn about all the races at Gotham Gazette's Guide for the Last Minute Voter, as well as where you can vote.