Dozens of candidates in the borough are campaigning for City Council runs in 2021, but because of a section in the City Charter the winners will only serve a two-year term.
“I think this is going to be a surprise to a lot of voters as well as candidates,” said Brian Browne, executive director for university relations, assistant vice president for government relations and a political science professor at St. John’s University.
More elections will be held in 2023 for two-year terms before returning to four-year terms in the 2025 elections. Citywide election winners including mayor, public advocate and comptroller will still operate with four-year terms.
In the late 1980s, a charter revision commission decided that every 20 years the winners of City Council seats would serve two-year terms as a result of redistricting that takes place following census counts every 10 years.
New district lines would be put into place in 2022 or 2023.
“The whole goal of this was to try to have the best way for the new redrawn one person, one vote lines to square up with the elections,” said Eric Lane, executive director and counsel of the 1989 New York City Charter Revision Commission.
He said if the elections were only in 2021 and 2025, it would mean two extra years of people living in districts “out of proportion.”
The revision isn’t done every 10 years because 2033 elections, for example, don’t have the same redistricting issues as an election closer to the start of a decade. This won’t occur again until 2041.
“We didn’t do this for the legislators, we did this for the public, to make sure that one person, one vote would matter with respect to these council districts,” Lane said, adding, “It costs more money but there’s a principle behind it, a democratic principle.”
Only 16 of the 51 councilmembers are up for re-election. Browne said something political insiders will be watching for is who the next speaker of the Council will be.
“I don’t think there’s any real indicator of that because you’re going to have such a whole new crop of members,” he said.
There are similarities between the 2001 and 2021 election years. Nearly twenty years ago, the city saw a new mayor, comptroller, public advocate, four borough presidents and two-thirds of the City Council take office, in part because of recently enacted term limits.
The Council had to work on the city recovering months after 9/11. The Council coming into office in 2022 will be working with a new mayor and comptroller on Covid recovery.
“I give them a lot of credit because I know what they’re up against,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), who was elected to the Council in 2001. “They have to hit the ground running. It’s no ‘one toe into the pool.’ They’re getting thrown in.”
Addabbo won re-election in 2003 and again in 2005, serving a four-year term.
“I was much more focused when you have that four-year term because you can really just focus on work and watching your projects move along as opposed to always thinking about the next campaign or fundraising,” he said.
Addabbo grew up watching his father, who served two-year terms in Congress.
“I always, as a kid, would wonder why we only went on vacation in odd years,” he said, later realizing that in the even years, he was running for re-election.
“It’s the same thing I do now with my family,” Addabbo said.
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) was another member elected to the Council for the first time in 2001.
“The hard one is always the first one,” he said. “The second one is always easier. If you get elected in ’21, there’s a good chance you’ll get elected in ’23. You’re an incumbent, you served for two years. It’s that much easier than if you were running for the first time.”
Weprin said there is more pressure because incoming members won’t have four years to build a record before running for re-election.
“Sometimes that’s the nature of the beast,” he said, adding, “You deal with the hand that’s dealt to you.”
Addabbo said social media means constituents want answers quicker than ever.
“You can’t be inaccessible at this point,” he said, adding, “It’s a roller coaster. They better be prepared. Strap yourself in.”
Some seats will see a special election, a primary and a general election.
“It gets crazier when you have to run three times in one year,” Weprin said.
There are more than 300 City Council candidates running in 2021.
Amy Loprest, executive director of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, said the 2023 redistricting election will give voters an opportunity to elect leadership that reflects the city’s evolving demographics.
“The improvements to the public campaign financing program have drawn many new candidates into city politics for the 2021 elections,” she said in a statement to the Chronicle. “We anticipate there will be similar enthusiasm in 2023 and the CFB will be ready to help candidates prepare.”
Addabbo and Weprin said there will be a lot of learning on the fly. “You have to find out where the bathroom is, where things go, how do you call commissioners? And you learn real quick knowing it’s a two-year term,” Addabbo said.
Weprin has advice for the winners who will serve two-year terms.
“Try to hit the ground running,” he said. “Try to do good constituency service from the beginning and the sooner you accomplish things, the better it is for running again.”