Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Local Politics

Well, we swept in Dryden, elected another Dem in Newfield, got two on the board but lost the supervisorship in Lansing. It's been a long slog, but the results were largely good, despite strong opposition here and a messy special election in Ithaca. Some random thoughts:

All Honeymoons Come to an End, Part 1. For those of us who thought Svante was a lock for coronation, this election season proved otherwise. Mostly due to clashes over the size and placement of development, people came out of the woodwork to smack the mayor over perceived machinations involving the special election for county. Although no one could tell me what Svante would get out of having friends on the County Legislature (breaking news: he already has friends on the County Legislature), some determined that his support of ex-roommate Nate Shinagawa and one-time City Hall intern Elie Kershner was a power grab that only the People could stop. It's worth remembering, perhaps, that four years ago, when Svante ran for the first time in a three-way primary, he seemed like an outside shot to most party members. Because the party doesn't support anyone in a primary, we mostly sat back and watched. That fall he won 54 percent of the vote against two independents and a Republican. I guess it doesn't take very long at all to become the Establishment candidate and head of the machine.

All Honeymoons Come to an End, Part 2. Some of the very people who fought hard to elect Nate to Congress turned against him when he tried to get reseated in District 2. Their reasons ranged from disdain for carpetbagging to perception of a mad power grab (see above), and surely some of it was colored by his vote on the Old Library, which he changed at the last moment in a possibly misguided effort to move things forward. Of course, he faced a strong and well-liked competitor in Anna Kelles. The two campaigns kept it clean, but the word about the Fall Creek listserve is that the commentary back and forth was vile.

Organization = Machine? People tossed around the terms "machine politics" and "cronyism" all month. One professor who surely knew better compared Ithaca to Chicago, and his remarks were picked up by the media. I've lived in Chicago, and let me tell you: This is no Chicago. I laughed out loud when the Dryden Independence Party referred to the Dryden Dems as a "machine" and a "steamroller." If being organized and effective makes us a machine, I'll take it. But machine politics involves a system of patronage and favors, and honestly, I have yet to get bupkes for the 23 years of work I've done as a committee member. Maybe I'm bad at this machine stuff. Or maybe you're using the wrong term. Want to see Crony Politics in action? Visit Groton, or maybe the Etna Fire Station.

Special Elections Suck as a Concept. Either they cost the taxpayers extra, or they result in next-to-no turnout, or they don't leave enough time for anyone to mount a real campaign. (Anna Kelles wouldn't have had to stay up till 2 every night if she'd started in August like the rest of us.) At lower levels of government, you can appoint someone to fill a vacancy until the next election cycle. That's not necessarily any better—it gives that appointee a leg up in the next election—but at least it's more visible to the public, should they be paying attention. The Dems are asking for a change to the county charter, but it's not quite clear what that change will look like. To some extent, the county's hands are tied by definitions and calendars in state election law.

People Ask the Wrong Questions. Here are a few questions I wish had been asked: Did anyone tell Nate not to run? Should home ownership be a prerequisite for a government position? Should fiscal incompetence that results in dismissal be a red flag in a run for town supervisor? Is "Independence" another word for "Republican"? Can a vacancy ever result in a primary? If either committee vote had tied, would both candidates have had to run as independents? If committee votes had been publicized better, would other citizens have turned up, even knowing that they would not be legally allowed to vote on a candidate? Who chooses candidates in the case of regular elections? How did Democrats win in Newfield? Why did Rich John leave the Democratic Party in the first place, and why was he willing to return? Why hasn't a strong third party ever emerged in Ithaca, of all places? (We've had independent mayors, but their parties have been only as strong as their candidacies and have had little or no influence beyond that.) How long does it take to build a machine? (Ithaca had an independent mayor as recently as 2003, and our most recent pre-Svante mayor, in an anti-machine sort of move, supported Anna.)

The Best Intentions May Have Bad Results. Others have mentioned that the departure of Kathy Luz Herrera and the failure of Nate and Elie to win seats on the County Legislature means a decrease in diversity there. As I've said before, even had Elie won, the average age of legislators would still have topped 50, in a county with a median age of 30. And the white, upper middle-classdom of that body has just increased. The only way to fix that is through the electoral process. There's always next year.


stoneface85 said...

I feel like I drew different conclusions from this recent election, specifically with regard to filling the vacancies on the county legislature.

First, if I'm being honest, all four of the candidates (Full Disclosure: one of whom's my uncle) were probably more than qualified to serve. If there's fault to be found, it's not in how the candidates ran their campaigns or the factors that voters used to make their decisions. Instead, it's how the Democratic Party selected its candidates in the first place.

As you noted previously, the state election laws essentially mandate an inherently undemocratic process. This seems to me like all the more reason for the committees that chose these candidates to be aware of how their decisions would be perceived by the public. Did no one besides Nate's sister think that nominating the mayor's ex-roommate and former intern would raise enough eyebrows among voters to create the foundations of the challengers' campaigns?

Second, even if you think the committee got it right, and Nate and Elie's qualifications were so strong as to outweigh any concerns about the "appearance of corruption," that decision ultimately rests with the voters. Asking John to promise not to run as an independent to be considered for the nomination seems like a short-sighted strategy that ultimately backfired.

Third, I can understand frustration with the charges of corruption and crony-ism levied against the Democrats. Despite what the party chair might say, being involved in local politics is not glamorous. For the most part, it's a labor of love from people, like yourself, who truly care about their community. I'd probably be pissed too if I volunteered my time with an organization for very little reward that then got pilloried in the press with charges of malfeasance in a situation created by forces largely outside of its control.

Even if I knew the charges were objectively false, I'd still want to know why they resonated with voters which is why it's so strange to see some party leaders respond to these charges with a combination of surprise and indignation. If a large portion of my constituents feel like their party doesn't listen to their views or represent their interests, maybe their party isn't listening to their views or representing their interests.

The treatment of Elie's age illustrates this nicely. You can't say having a student to represent student interests is important and not expect homeowners to want a homeowner to represent their interests. Dismissing these concerns out of hand is both silly and symptomatic of the larger problems that led to these recent defeats.

Diversity is both a goal and challenge for democracy. Local Democrats are a right to push for more equal representation of race, gender and, yes, even age. Where the party falls short is acknowledging and engaging with the diversity of views outside its inner circle.

KAZ said...
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KAZ said...

Thanks for commenting. When you say "how the Democratic Party selected its candidates," you are falling into the trap that many have fallen into this season. It was a small group of committee members who selected the candidates, not the Party as a whole. It was the candidates themselves who decided to run, as your uncle did. The Party did not recruit them. I, as a committee head of our local Party, didn't know about the resignations until they happened, whereupon I sent a media request for candidates that was wholly ignored by our media. If it had been published, we might have had additional candidates for those offices.

So recruitment does happen, but it didn't happen in this case. There wasn't time even if we wanted to, the media let us down, and credible candidates stepped forward.

The appearance of corruption is in your head. First, Nate was already on the County Leg and had been for close to 10 years--long before the mayor was elected. Second, the legislature does not report to the mayor. It is a branch of state government. It makes sense to me that someone interested enough in politics to intern in City Hall would want to run for office, would put out feelers, and would hear about vacancies.

Asking a losing candidate to support the nominee is something that's done every single time there's a primary election. Yes, it's a strategy to strengthen the party nominee's chances, but it's neither new nor short-sighted. Some people say no, as Anna did. Others say yes and renege, as your uncle did. Some say yes and go home to sulk. Many say yes and then openly support the nominee, as has happened dozens of times locally in my memory.

Elie did not run to represent student interests; that was a suggestion that came from the committee who elected him. I'm pretty sure he knew he was running to represent everyone in the district, as I'm sure your uncle also knows. Raising the property owner issue was a throwback to the 19th century, when such prerequisites for voting and running for office were thrown out for obvious reasons.

You and I weren't in the rooms for the committee conversations, but I did hear that Elie was very impressive and had done his homework on county issues. It is also often true that people who are registered Dems get looked at more fondly by those who have been in the Party for years. I have strongly objected, both publicly and privately, to people's disrespecting other people's votes, which were made in good faith with the information they had at the time. The notion that those people got anything out of their vote (other than grief and abuse) is nonsense.

A couple of good things have come out of this: The county is looking at its charter and trying to see how to make special elections if not fairer, at least slower. And we will once again try to publicize every one of our meetings, with the hope that maybe after this, the media will see how important such publicity is. I'm not holding my breath on that, though.

Finally, if you think the inner circle of the Democratic Party in Tompkins County is monolithic and single-minded, I invite you to attend any quarterly meeting. I guarantee that the diversity of views outside the circle is fully represented within the inner circle, sometimes to our detriment. It's what separates us from Republicans.

stoneface85 said...

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply and sorry for double posting my previous comments; it's been a while since I've blogger'ed.

Since we could probably go back and forth on this forever, I'll offer just a few (longwinded) responses to your points and leave the final word to you if you feel like replying.

First, with regard to "how the Democratic Party selected its candidates," I meant how the committee members, as representatives of the local party decided who to endorse. It's unfortunate that media ignored your requests to publicize the call for candidates.

Second, the "appearance of corruption" may be entirely in my head, but it was the behavior of the party and committee that put it there. You can't argue that the mayor already has plenty of friends on the legislature and then dismiss concerns about insider politics by claiming the two institutions are separate legal institutions. If the committee wanted to avoid these charges in the first place, they could have endorsed two qualified candidates who lacked these prior associations. That they valued the prior experience of Nate and Elie with the party is fine. But if they were surprised voters would be upset by their decision, I suspect they might be shocked to learn there was gambling in going on in Casablanca.

Third, party loyalty pledges during a primary are fine in theory. Of course, by law there was no primary, nor was their a Republican challenger whose election Rich and Anna's campaigns might have made a possibility. In practice then requiring a loyalty pledge of candidates to be considered for the Democratic nomination in these races would have the effect of disenfranchising the voters of these districts in favor of the opinions of a few committee members. While that may not be technically corrupt in a legal sense, it certainly seems undemocratic. Voters were right to express their frustration by supporting an independent and write-in candidate.

Continued below...

stoneface85 said...

...Continued from above

Fourth, some people assumed the worst about the committees' behavior. I don't. (Also, for what it's worth I haven't talked to Rich at all since this campaign began. All of my views are my own and come mainly from lurking on the pages of the Ithaca Voice). I simply disagree with their decisions, as did the majority of voters in each district. While the charges of machine politics are inaccurate (Daly's candidates generally won) and unfair (no good deed of a volunteer goes unpunished), the underlying sentiments that gave rise to their expression are not inherently unfounded. Citizens have a right to voice their frustrations, and parties have a duty to treat these views with respect, not indignant exasperation.

Fifth, Elie may not have run to represent student interests, but his status as student appeared to be a factor in the committees decision. If it factored into the committee's decision, why shouldn't it influence voter's decisions? You can talk about respecting the votes of the committee members, but it seems like this same tolerance is missing from your evaluations of how voters in the general electorate decided who to vote for. Should we care whether a candidate for school board has children in school or not? It seems perfectly reasonable to expect a candidate with school-aged children to have different priorities than a retiree more focused on property taxes. When candidates share similar positions on the issues, it's natural for voters to evaluated them on other relevant criteria. Elie's age certainly doesn't preclude him from running for office, but it doesn't instantly make him the best choice for position (After all, I legally can't have a beer with him yet). One person may think Elie's age and early experience with City Hall make him more qualified than Rich. Another person may value Rich's experience as homeowner and lawyer. It's certainly possibly that the latter person may be an intransigent ageist bigot who can't abide by all those kids with their myface and instantgrams. Don't get me wrong, ageism is a real problem (particularly outside of politics in the workplace). But questioning a candidate's age and experience is a perfectly valid line of reasoning and it shouldn't be surprising that voters gave more weight to tangible measures of experience rather than fungible campaign promises. That people disagreeed about the relative qualifications of the two candidates in this race is not a priori evidence of unchecked ageist prejudice in the 4th District. It seems more likely to be a case where reasonable people can disagree. Democracy, for all its imperfections, remains the best mechanism for resolving those differences.

Finally, I just want to thank for you writing and responding to my comments. It's honestly been a lot of fun to feel involved in the politics of a community that remains near and dear to my heart. Keep up the good work, and don't sweat the Internet cranks like myself.


KAZ said...

You're hardly an internet crank! There are plenty of those, and it's my (volunteer) job to set them straight when they veer off the facts into la-la land. You have certainly not done so, and I appreciate it.

I far prefer politics out here in Dryden, where the issues are cut-and-dried and we don't turn on our own. The danger of a one-party system, which the city and town have been in for a while (mostly because the Party is so organized and competent--when I was growing up, Ithaca had Republican mayors), is much the same as the danger of letting people hang on in their government positions too long. I'm all for competition (and term limits!), and I live for primaries. I am absolutely not in favor of hegemony in any form, but I do want people working from a basis in reality and not eating their own due to some trumped-up perception of a conspiratorial, monolithic Party that's out specifically to get them. We're organized, but we're not that organized.