As Barack Obama
looked out among the thousands of supporters and celebrators in
Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008, he reassured us that,
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on
this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to
But with seemingly insurmountable problems in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Gaza, the Labor Department announcement that another
524,000 jobs were lost last month and Democrats and Republicans still
struggling to find a strategy to get the economy back on track, people
are left wondering:What does change really mean? In a country desperate
for relief, change sounded good to all of us, even if we had no idea
what it meant. During the seemingly endless campaign, it seemed not
even the candidates knew. Once they started seeing immense popular
response to Obama’s rhetoric, they wanted in on it. McCain was forced
to impart the impulse of change; he couldn’t afford to be seen as a
continuation of Bush. And we can still all recall Hillary Clinton’s
angry response in New Hampshire last January: “I’m not just running on
a promise of change, I’m running on 35 years of change.”
many New Yorkers are still pondering what exactly this “change” means.
“I’m more than ready for change, but I always wondered throughout the
campaign season: Is this just a slogan?” said Cora Fisher, 28, of
She was initially a Hillary supporter who turned to Obama
after learning more about him. “I’m skeptical,” she explained. “I’m
worried that it’s a whole lot of talk and not a whole lot of walk.” The
millions who turned up for the inauguration festivities in Washington,
D.C., this week were expectantly jubilant and optimistic—two things
that easily describe Obamaphiles. When asked what change means, Diane
Fitzgerald, a Pennsylvanian in Washington for inauguration festivities,
responded, “It’s a new direction, a new energy.
this stage in my life, I needed to see it because there was none. As a
62-year-old white woman, I was told I was one of the sectors of people
who wouldn’t vote for him. They didn’t know us. Certainly not my age
“With Obama, the change was in the ability to reach
across all sectors of society,” Fitzgerald said. “He wasn’t speaking to
a select few. He was speaking to our whole country and across the
world. His voice had a spirit that I thought I wouldn’t see ever again
because of the last eight years [of George W. Bush].”
said that political change was something we were all looking for, but
the real value for her was the message of personal change and
responsibility. “How do we become a part of the picture of making the
change that Obama envisioned? He woke me up to how we all can change to
help one another.We needed leadership to make that change.”
a two-part equation Fitzgerald said. “Obama always told us what he
would change, but he gave us a guide as to how we can change. He kept
talking to ‘you.’ And that gave us the reason to move forward.”
According to Fitzgerald, “When he kept saying, ‘I need your help,’ he
was already empowering us. He puts a lot of trust in us and that is
putting power back in our hands.” But Anna Law, a professor of American
politics at De- Paul University in Chicago, warns that people should temper their expectations.
“Change is constrained by institutions and the people that come with
it. People may be surprised by limits of change that come with an Obama
administration, given his rhetoric. But what do you expect with the
level of expertise that’s needed given all of the problems Obama faces?
He needed former Clinton people because of that condition, but those
experts from the Clinton years will also mean constraints on Obama’s
brand of change.”
swearing-in of our 44th president, we’re now able to return to the
things closer to home. A number of recent events, decisions and New
Yorker reactions show that change is a little more elusive.
In October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg won the right to seek re-election after New York’s
51-member City Council voted 29- 22 to extend the two-term limit for
elected officials. Under the two-term limit, about two-thirds of the
council would have been out of office, but they can now run for a third
term in the November 2009 election.
Some suggest the numbers
of elected officials about to be forced out of office is the only
difference between Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to do the same
in 2001. The former Wall Street trader and selfmade billionaire, who
was elected in both 2001 and 2005, wants to run again, arguing that his
financial experience will be valuable in moving the city through the
fiscal crisis that New York is facing. Message to New Yorkers:This is not the time for change.
Bloomberg said in a prepared statement: “Those of us who work on both
sides of City Hall must now move forward with the important decisions
that face us, particularly finding ways to soften the fallout from the
economic downturn and balancing our budget as revenues decline.”
But an Oct. 1 New York Times editorial
made a different argument: “Term limits are seductive, promising relief
from mediocre, self-perpetuating incumbents and gridlocked
legislatures.They are also profoundly undemocratic, arbitrarily denying
voters the ability to choose between good politicians and bad,
especially in a city like New York
with a strong public campaign-financing system, while automatically
removing public servants of proven ability who are at a productive
point in their careers.”
The Times’ editorial page did not go so far as to advocate an extension. They wanted term limits to be abolished altogether.
makes a lot of people uncomfortable to legislatively rewrite a law that
voters have twice approved at the ballot box—in 1993 and 1996. It makes
us uncomfortable, too, and we previously took the position that any
change should be left to the voters. But we have concluded now that
changing the law legislatively does not make us nearly as uncomfortable
as keeping it.” Bloomberg is a slippery figure when it comes to the
idea of change, since he has gone through his own changes over the
years. A longtime Democrat who became mayor as a Republican, he is
currently an Independent. Bloomberg’s fickleness, to some, points to
his perpetual opportunism—and to view the term limits move any
differently would be incredibly naive.
“Oh, come on! This is a joke,” said New York
hotel employee, Janice Walker, who is 43 and lives in Queens. “We know
he’s doing this for himself, but I think a lot of people are willing to
look the other way if he can help fix our economic problems.”
Last week, a federal judge rejected a challenge filed by New York’s
comptroller, public advocate and several council members and citizens,
all of whom want the term limits to remain in place unless it was
overturned by public vote and to bar the Board of Elections from
listing term-limited city officials on ballots in the 2009 elections.
Despite the number of New Yorkers who support the challenge, term limits will be extended to three terms. In 1993 and 1996, New York voters limited the mayor and other city officials to two four-year terms.
a recent Quinnipiac University poll found 89 percent of voters who felt
that a popular vote, not a council vote, should be the deciding factor.
“I guess we don’t get change in New York,
unless somebody else decides we do,” said Walker. President Obama’s
decision to appoint Hillary Clinton to the position of Secretary of
State—a choice that could be seen as more status quo political
maneuvering than indicative of institutional change—is forcing another
level of change within the New York political landscape. The Senator, who had only been in office since 2001, leaves a vacancy that New York politicians may not have been prepared to fill and has caused a chain reaction in New York State and City politics, with political jockeying all the way from the federal down to the New York City Council level.
still don’t know exactly who Governor Paterson will select, but it
looks increasingly like the final two options are Caroline Kennedy and New York
State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Both are familiar names, with
family ties to politics but neither is seen as a harbinger of
change.These insider politics, however, don’t seem to bother many
people when asked.
Paradoxically, Fisher, who was skeptical
about change with Obama, is “down with having another Kennedy in
office.” Many New Yorkers value the political pedigree that comes with
the Kennedy name and would welcome a female celebrity into the office
vacated by Clinton. But there is some dissent among citizens. “How much
change is it when the elite are still the ones we automatically turn
to—even if they don’t have one bit of experience?” Walker asked. It’s a question that should reverberate among Obama supporters.
Hillary Clinton’s replacement isn’t the only one Paterson had to
juggle. He spent the last couple of months deciding which nominee to
appoint as the head of the New York judicial system.
New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, after her 15-year tenure. As the top judge in New York, Judge Kaye presided over not only New York’s Unified Court System but also the New York State Court of Appeals, which takes approximately four million cases each year. The 12-member Commission on Judicial
Nomination submitted its list of seven nominees to Paterson on Dec. 1;
the governor responded that the list of nominations for Court of
Appeals Chief Judge “disturbs” him. The all-male, nearly all-white
options were not what he had hoped for given the mandate for change
that was still echoing less than a month after Obama’s win on a
national scale. Paterson’s spokesman Errol Cockfield later explained
that Paterson believed the list did not “reflect the diversity of the
demanding change and subsequently coming to the realization that he
would have no choice but to name somebody from the original list, on
Jan. 13 Paterson nominated Justice Jonathan Lippman, 63, a lifetime New
Yorker who spent his entire career in the New York court system.
recently, in 2005, he was elected to the State Supreme Court for a
14-year term, from 2006 to 2019. Not only was Lippman a qualified
candidate who knows the court system well, it was widely understood
that he was Kaye’s top hope as her replacement.
announcement of Lippman as successor was a backhanded compliment of
sorts. Still appearing bitter about the lack of diversity in the
nominees, Paterson said, “Though I am thrilled to choose Judge Lippman
to serve as out next Chief judge, I firmly believe that we must revise
the process for future judicial nominations to ensure that those under
consideration represent all New Yorkers.” Patterson continued, “That is
why I will propose revising the judicial nomination statute.”
Senator John L. Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat and chairman of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, said he was planning hearings regarding the
criteria used by the Commission on Judicial Nomination.
Paterson, Sampson found it “incomprehensible” and “deeply disturbing”
that no woman appeared on the list of qualified judicial candidates to
succeed Kaye. After all, she was the first female Chief Judge of the
Court of Appeals.
Sampson went on to say, “As the birthplace
of women’s suffrage and civil and political rights, the Commission
failed to meet the high standards and great tradition of our state when
it failed to include a woman on its list of candidates for our highest
But many New Yorkers don’t see it the same way. Martin
Portman, a retiree who has lived in Brooklyn for over 50 years, said
“just because a minority is the first to hold a certain position
doesn’t mean that it stays in the hands of minorities forever.”
is about to become our president. Speaking as a black man, I don’t
expect—or even want—a black man in the White House next just because
there’s one now,” explained Portman. “I think real change means that
things can go either way, and we all have to be OK with that.” “The one
thing that I know about New York politics is that change never happens unless somebody stands to gain—big time,” said Portman. “Maybe Barack can teach New York politicians what real change is about.”
Allen McDuffee writes about politics and Middle East affairs. He blogs at www.governmentalityblog.com and is currently working on a book project titled No Child Left Unrecruited.