11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Morgenthau Era Comes To An End, But The Jury Is Still Out On Some

Imagine how surprised and delighted New Yorkers must have been this morning, when they awoke to find the city is embarking on a Democratic runoff -- a two-week political steel cage match to decide the nominations for public advocate and comptroller.

Yes, welcome to Round Two. For the job that the experts think shouldn't exist and the one that the non-experts don't know is elective.

Both contests drew crowded fields in Tuesday's primary and no one got the necessary 40 percent of the vote to win. Now, Democrats now have two weeks before the runoffs to decide whether they prefer John Liu or David Yassky for comptroller and Bill de Blasio or Mark Green for public advocate.

The comptroller's job is actually very important, even though most people have only a dim notion that it's an elective office. This is the bean counter, the official who conducts audits to see if the city is spending its money and delivering services efficiently.

Liu and Yassky are both city council members. And the good news is that, during a Daily News interview, they were the only two candidates for the job who were able to guess the size of the comptroller's own budget.

"Good question," said one of the people who had no idea.

Virtually the only actual comptroller-related controversy during the campaign was the revelation that Liu seemed to have fudged his resume. While his campaign commercials had him spending his childhood in a city sweatshop, laboring at his mother's side, his mother told a reporter that he just helped her work in their home for extra money.

Nevertheless, Liu came in first on Tuesday, even though he was running against two other candidates from his own borough of Queens, while Yassky had all of Brooklyn, and most of the major newspaper endorsements. Yassky said he was hurt by low turnout. But if turnout was terrible for the Democratic primaries, imagine how many people are going to show up to vote in the comptroller's runoff.

The public advocate's race is complicated by the fact that nobody understands what the advocate does, or why we have one. When it was created in the mid-1990s, the idea was to have a sort of ombudsman. Unfortunately, the advocate's budget isn't large enough to do any serious investigations. Basically, the job boils down to Person in Charge of Calling Press Conferences to Complain About Things.

Bill de Blasio is, by New York standards, a new face. He's only held office since 2001. Mark Green is an extremely old face. He's known in New York for two things -- his work as a consumer advocate and his gift for losing big elections.

It takes a talented politician to snare as many nominations and then lose as many elections as Green has. He's been the Democratic nominee for Congress, the Senate and Mayor without winning any of the jobs. His only actual successes were clinching two terms as public advocate back in the 1990s.

During his eight years in office, Green was as good at the job as it's possible to be, so there's no doubt that he's qualified. The only issue is whether, after all those campaigns, people are just flat-out tired of seeing him around. The fact that he actually came in second to de Blasio does not seem to bode well.

The biggest questions New York voters will have to answer this fall may actually all be about how long a politician can stay in office before he wears out his welcome. Bill Thompson, who won the Democratic nomination for mayor Tuesday, is going to spend the fall arguing that in the case of Mike Bloomberg, two terms is plenty. Or, as Thompson likes to put it over and over, "Eight is enough."

Meanwhile, Green will be spending the next couple of weeks claiming that eight is hardly even an appetizer.

The one big contest that got settled Tuesday was Manhattan District Attorney. Cyrus Vance Jr. is going to succeed Robert Morgenthau, 90, who's held the office since 1975.

Vance, 55, survived a debate where he had to admit having experimented with cocaine as a twenty-something. He overcame the revelation that as a defense attorney, he had represented the man who had planted jars of cyanide-laced Sudafed on the drug store shelves of Seattle. He even got past a New York Times story that said he "seems more California surfer than New York prosecutor."

What he had was Morgenthau's endorsement. Over the last few weeks, Vance has reassured questioning voters that no, he wouldn't stay on the job until he was 90. But when it came to the D.A. at least, Manhattanites actually seemed to feel that 8, or 18, or even 28 was not enough. They just wanted to keep the Morgenthau era running for another few decades.