Opinion: Special Elections Show the Waning Power of the Party

An unlikely candidate ran a fierce, inspired race in yesterday's election. He took on the Democratic Party and its appointed candidate, facing steep odds.He was running not only for a seat but to send a larger message.

And he lost.

I'm not talking about Bob Turner, whose victory over David Weprin snatched the seat previously held by Anthony Weiner out of Democratic hands. Maybe that win was about Turner who had garnered upward of 40 percent of the vote in that district before, who cagily secured local endorsements that blurred conventional party loyalties and who ran like a man with nothing to lose.

Maybe the loss was more about Weprin -- a candidate picked because he wouldn't shake up the Queens Democratic power structure and who made a series of mistakes (Capital New York's Azi Paybarah here catalogues the best of them). Add in factors including marriage equality, Israel, Obama's unpopularity, the sinking economy and the Democratic Party's difficulty in demonstrating how they will turn things around -- and there are plenty of culprits to point out.

But where Bob Turner upset the Democratic establishment, in another part of Brooklyn the insurgent came up short.  Jesus Gonzalez, a community organizer, was running against another hand-picked Party favorite; he, as well, was running against the status quo; he also had unleashed the support of enthusiastic backers looking to use his campaign to send a clear signal; and he also had enough money to make
his case.

In the end, Rafael Espinal won the 54th Assembly District seat. Espinal, like Weprin, was the choice of the county boss. Unlike Weprin, who has served in office for years, this will be Espinal's first elected position.  Unlike Weprin, whose blunders were watched closely by national media, Espinal didn't make any major missteps.

Except one, in the eyes of reformers: He had the stamp of approval by Vito Lopez, the Kings Country Chair whose leadership in Brooklyn has slowly been eroded by competitive elections and legal investigations. The Espinal v. Gonzalez bout (which also included legacy candidate Deidra Towns coming in a distant third) was seen as a battle between the machine and the reformers, between an old-school party and a coalition that included the Working Families Party (on whose line Gonzalez ran), New Kings Democrats and organized labor.

This round, the Party won. In the Congressional race, the Party lost. Call it a wash? Hardly.  The Democratic Party in New York City should feel like it's being challenged on all sides -- because it is. This isn't just about sinking poll numbers on a national level, though that doesn't help.  It's about transforming loyalties in local and state politics.  It's about a popular Democratic Governor who, perhaps by his own trans-partisan design, hasn't created coattails for fellow partisans down the ticket.  It's about races that used to be shoo-ins becoming competitive.  And if more challengers sense blood in the water, you'll just see more incumbents and party favorites fighting for their jobs.

Which could be a good thing.  Competitive races are good for democracy.  Incumbents should work for votes.

For progressives, the real question is who can take advantage of this opportunity.  If reform-minded clubs have the courage and vision to buck the odds and keep running inspired primaries -- as occurred when Gustavo Rivera ousted Pedro Espada one year ago -- they will infuse New York with a much-needed political energy that will engage communities of new New Yorkers in the civic life of today.

If, however, Democrats close rank, the bleeding might continue and Republicans will have something that seemed impossible a few years ago: An opportunity to increase their presence in New York City.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."