Category: Archive

New York reformers weren’t all that pure, says Barry

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Barry, who is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s director of speechwriting, heartily approved of those messages.
“As far as I can tell, it has worked very well over there,” Barry said, referring to the Republic’s single transferable vote system.
It incorporates both instant runoff and the principle of proportionality, two things that in his view are sorely lacking in New York City’s electoral arrangements. The usual objection to such an approach in the United States is that it would be too complicated, but Barry believes that voters would quickly get used to it.
In the present setup in New York, he contended, it’s terribly difficult to run for office. “Bosses decide it: who gets on the ballot, and who stays on the ballot,” he said.
Barry’s new book “The Scandal of Reform” discusses some of the party bosses of another era, ones who wielded far greater power than their successors do today. However, those bygone politicians aren’t the automatic villains of the piece in his account.
He writes: “By the mid-1840s, elites in all parties had begun making efforts to band together to marginalize the political influence of immigrants and create an enlightened and efficient government.”
Reform, in this reading, was a conservative reaction to the poor being involved in politics as much as it was a response to the misdeeds of the new bosses to whom they gave their allegiance.
The history books have generally portrayed reformers as operating with the purest of motives, when in fact, Barry argues, they were often as self-interested as those they battled in the political arena.
The electoral laws that were passed subsequently — well meaning though they were in some instances — ultimately lessened competition and choice, which over time suppressed voter participation and turnout.
“The city’s democracy is a shadow of what it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before all these laws existed,” said the 34-year-old Barry. “It once played out on Election Day; today it plays out in the nominating process.”
Doing his research for the book — which began as a thesis on non-partisan elections for his Masters degree in public administration at NYU — he came to appreciate in particular the political skill and vision of Charles Francis Murphy, the Tammany boss from 1902 until his death in 1924.
“He recognized that Tammany had to change or be destroyed, so he allowed people like Al Smith and Robert Wagner take the party in a more progressive direction,” Barry said. “He also distanced the party from the more overt relationship with vice.”
Barry would like the reader to come away from his book, which is subtitled “The Grand Failures of New York’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship,” understanding that the history of the city’s municipal government is not a morality tale.
He dedicates the volume to his parents, who were both schoolteachers in Rockland County: “Francis and Kathryn, lifelong Democrats who rarely agreed on a candidate.”
The Baltimore-born Kathryn Barry, who is of mixed English, Irish and German heritage, still lives in Suffern, N.Y., where the author grew up.
Francis Barry, said his son, using Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “was born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic” in the Bronx in 1929. His parents, who hailed from Counties Leitrim and Mayo, raised a large family through tough times. (Barry said his grandfather ran a Manhattan speakeasy that was closed down in the mid-1920s.)
“He was a traditional Roosevelt-Kennedy Democrat who drifted over the years like many of his generation, or the party drifted, depending on how you want to look at it,” Barry said of his father, who died in 1996. “He voted for his share of Republicans. He was more willing than my mom to split the ticket.”
The speechwriter and policy adviser to the mayor always admired Senator Moynihan, who he said managed to be both a scholar and a statesman.
“I’ve always been drawn to those who are willing to challenge a bit of conventional wisdom,” he said. “That’s part of the attraction to Bloomberg. He’s someone who’s not willing to parrot the party line.”
Barry worked for two years in the press office with the Campaign Finance Board before joining the mayor’s office to advise on policy issues.
“Being part of it is exciting,” he said. “This is New York City. You don’t know what’s going to happen day to day.”
Nobody has an office on the 2nd floor of City Hall where the city’s top official has created, said his adviser, a “free-flowing communication environment.” Others can walk up to the mayor or anyone else’s desk with a draft of speech or an idea or a problem.
“An 8 a.m. start is probably typical, but the mayor is often in at 7:30, putting the rest of us to shame,” Barry said. “He’s a real workaholic. That sets the tone for the whole office.
“You can take the long days because it’s fun,” he added.

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