2002-05-11 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk by Howard Schwach

From the Editor’s Desk by Howard Schwach

The United States is not a "democracy" by its strictest definition. If this were a democracy, each person would vote on each item proposed by the people in their community or by its leaders. While computers may one day make such votes possible, the technology does not exist today to have every voter cast his or her vote directly for every issue that faces our nation.

The nearest that we come in America today to the true democratic process is in the town hall meetings still held in small town New England.

At those meetings, landowners get up and propose budget items, school reform items, and methods for governing. Those proposals are then debated and voted upon immediately.

Does that sound good to you? Don’t be too sure.

For a couple of years in the early to mid 1970’s, I lived in Portland, Connecticut, a small semi-rural town east of the Connecticut River, across from Middletown, where I worked as an editor for the company that published Weekly Reader and dozens of other school publications.

I had just become a homeowner in Portland when the year’s first town meeting was held.

I proudly went to the meeting, interested as a political scientist in seeing how democracy really worked in small town New England.

Unfortunately, I found out.

The first gentleman to address the meeting said that the town’s road crew wanted to buy a new plow and that there was not a garage in town large enough to house that plow.

"I make a motion that we take all the money in the school budget this year, except for teaching math and reading and meeting other state rules, and give the rest to the road crew to buy new equipment and build a new garage."

I thought to myself that this kook really did not deserve to be heard. Taking all of the money from education to build a garage, what was this guy thinking?

Another guy got up quickly and seconded the motion.

The debate began.

I could not believe what I was hearing. Speaker after speaker got up to support the motion, arguing that it was going to be a snowy winter and we would need the new equipment, that the road crew did a wonderful job and deserved the town’s support, that the schools could go for a year with just enough money for math and reading.

"We don’t need all that other stuff anyway," one man said. "If kids can read, that’s all they need to know."

I got up and argued that education was at least as important to the future of the town as a snow plow, but soon found out that, if you were not a fourth-generation Swedish Lutheran whose relatives had come to town shortly before the Revolutionary War, nobody in town was ever going to listen to anything that you might say.

The debate went on for at least an hour and a half.

My son was school-aged at that time, and, after an hour of this, I was seriously considering selling my house and moving back to New York City, where, at least, education meant more than a snowplow.

The proposal was eventually voted down by a small margin.

What I am trying to say here is that democracy can sometimes be strange and frustrating.

So, however, can our representative form of government, often called a "representative democracy," or a federal form of government.

In that form of government, we do not vote directly on each proposal. We elect representatives to do that for us.

Those representatives then decide for us whether to take all of the money and give it to the road crew rather than the schools.

The question is, what do we expect of our representatives?

At the least, we expect them to represent our beliefs, our interests. That is why we voted for them in the first place.

Sometimes, however, that is not the case.

Take our two Representatives, Greg Meeks and Tony Weiner.


All kidding aside, Newsday just rated the local Congressional delegation on the basis of what they do and the impact they have on both their districts and the nation as a whole.

Meeks got "three capitols" out of four.

The paper says of Meeks, "Meeks has a growing interest in foreign affairs. He went to Asia to develop his stance on permanent trade relations with China; he supported it, bucking his party’s pro-union streak….he voted against Queens’ interests when he opposed giving the administration new trade-negotiating authority."

Two weeks ago, Meeks was interviewed by Wave editor Gary Toms. In that interview, he said, "There are three reasons why I have not been in Rockaway as often as I would like. On Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and Thursdays, I am tackling issues in Washington. That leaves me two days to get caught up on issues affecting my district, which is not a lot of time."

Two days for the district? What is that about? Meeks is involved with the minority caucus and other minority-driven issues that take up much of his time. He spends lots of time on foreign affairs issues. Would the voters rather he do those things than address local issues? That is up to the voters in his district, but I would much rather have even my federal representative address the issues that directly affect me.

On the other hand, Tony Weiner gets only two and a half capitols. The paper says of Weiner, "So Weiner concentrates on his district, which is both a strength and a weakness. Weiner still has the potential to shine. Young, savvy and hard-working, he could become a player in the Capitol if he broadens his outlook."

Meeks concentrates on the "big issues" and gets a good rating. Weiner concentrates on the needs of his district and gets a lesser rating.

Which man would you rather have as your representative? The answer is clear in my mind, but that is what federalism is all about. You get to decide who represents you.

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