On The Beach
As we thrust into this political season, there is one contest that is generating quite a buzz and raising eyebrows. The campaign for the State Assembly in the 23rd A.D. between Stu Mirsky and Audrey Pheffer has taken on a David (Mirsky) against Goliath (Pheffer) tone. Mirsky, clearly the underdog, made a startling assertion when he announced his challenge of the long-entrenched incumbent Assemblywoman, a Democrat, who has been in her position for nearly twenty years, most of this time without any serious opposition. Most would agree that Pheffer is a well-known face in Rockaway, a fixture in our political firmament, so what came over Mirsky and made him decide to take her on?
Looking for answers, I recently caught up with my old friend Stu and asked if he'd sit for this interview. I've known him since the early nineties when we were both members of the Gateway Republican Club. In those days, Mirsky was one of the heartiest supporters of Tom Swift, who twice challenged Pheffer, and Tom Carney, an elder statesman, considered by many to be the driving force behind the Gateway Club. But the club fell on hard times after both Carney and Swift passed on and Mirsky went to work for the city, first for the Sanitation Department and then the Health Department, all but dropping off the political radar screen.
In 2002, after he had taken an early retirement, Mirsky re-emerged on the political scene, becoming one of the founding members of the newly chartered Rockaway Republican Club, a grassroots effort that began when a couple of middle-aged men got together in George Greco's garage to smoke cigars, drink vintage wine and complain about the current state of political affairs in our district. The club is led by self-styled "9/11 Republican," Tom Lynch, a Belle Harbor resident, former registered (recovering) Democrat and a local boating enthusiast. It was Lynch who introduced Mirsky this past spring when he announced his candidacy, noting that Rockaway Republicans had found in Mirsky a "Jewish Leprechaun" to carry their banner this election cycle. He may be short of stature but he has some pretty big ideas of which I queried him in our recent tete-a-tete. My first question was the most obvious.
Stu: You mean run? Well, I just couldn't take it anymore. I got tired of walking into the voting booth every Election Day and seeing the same names on the ballot without any competition. It didn't seem right. If you don't have at least two parties and two candidates representative of two different points of view, then how can you call the process a democracy? The purpose of my candidacy is to help breathe life back into our sleepy, single-party system.
BB: Indeed, most would agree that competition is vital to a healthy political process, but voters want to know, "what do you stand for?"
Stu: I want to offer voters a choice, a differing political point of view. As most people know, I'm a conservative. That's why I became a Republican. There are many kinds of conservative. I come from the libertarian side of the spectrum. We believe in the importance of individual freedom before nearly everything else. But we share a number of common notions with other conservative groups. We all believe in the importance of individual responsibility, for instance, and the need to keep government from taking too great a hand in our private lives. I think things have gone wrong in New York. Our state government routinely spends more than it takes in and racks up debt, through a variety of contrivances, that threaten our long term fiscal health system. The way the system is set up, our legislature is little more than a rubber stamp. They don't watch the state purse and, because of this, we're now about the highest taxed state in the country. Unrestrained spending leads to higher taxes and debt, and both hurt economic activity. That's why upstate N.Y. is such a basket case and why downstate we're at huge risk with the next economic downturn.
BB: How has the incumbent shown an inability to handle this?
Stu: Well she hasn't handled it so far! I've nothing against Audrey. I actually think she's a nice lady; but there's more to representing our interests in Albany than being the nice motherly type. Audrey is not up there to reform things. For her, it's just a job. And because she rarely, if ever, has any competition, there's no serious demand for her to deliver the goods. She just "goes along to get along"-and we, our community, never get very far. Famously dysfunctional, the State Assembly is run by the Democratic Leader, Sheldon Silver, who tells the majority how to vote and they do what they're told. Period. There's no one up there fighting the status quo, no one demanding that serious legislative initiatives and reform measures be allowed to come to the floor. It's all about the self-perpetuation of incumbency, everyone fiddling while our state burns. Well, I want to go up there and stop the music.
BB: What makes you think you can? Why should voters in the 23rd AD put their faith in you?
Stu: First, I'm new and Audrey's not. Second, I made my career in city government so I know a thing or two about how governments operate. When I retired as Assistant Commissioner for Operations at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, I had been managing a hundred million dollar, multi-year capital budget. I ran a division of over 400 people and had jurisdiction over the department's police force, it's transportation unit of over 300 vehicles, a staff of architects and engineers, more than 50 facilities around the city, materials management and distribution, telecommunications, printing and various other logistical services. During 9/11, I was part of the city's massive response and the rebuilding that followed. Previously I'd been involved in operational and policy issues in other city agencies including the Sanitation Department and, before that, HRA. But I think the most important quality I bring is the fact that I'm not a career politician! I never had political ambitions and am running only because somebody has to attempt to break the political logjam.
BB: How would Rockaway be the beneficiary of a Mirsky win?
Stu: I'm not looking to be a "lifer." My aim is to go to Albany for a couple of terms and advocate for reform. I want to fix the ballot access so more newcomers can compete with lifelong incumbents who dominate our system today. I want reforms that enable our Assemblypersons to actually have a say in what they vote on rather than mere compliance with the status quo. We need critical changes; but in order to make changes, we need a constitutional convention. The legislature would have to vote for it and then it would have to be ratified by the voters. We need such a convention to impose spending limits. Legislators should never be able to spend borrowed money to run daily operations. They shouldn't be able to raise taxes without a super legislative majority or without a clear revenue stream to support spending.
Discretionary programs should have a built-in sunset provision to force periodic review with an eye toward shutting down non-performing programs, and state budgeting must be done transparently so that all costs, all revenue and debt, no matter where its hidden, is exposed. I'd like to see a complete review and tightening of the current practice of using non-governmental authorities to issue debt the state is still obligated for. A constitutional convention is needed for many of these things.
BB: A big conservative issue is the death penalty. Please elaborate your stance.
Stu: While I believe that there are certain people who deserve to be put to death, I don't feel the government should be in the business of killing people. We're all fallible. We make mistakes while execution is permanent. I'd rather imprison even the worst offenders instead of putting them to death.
BB: Discuss your position on school funding.
Stu: I don't believe that throwing money at problems is the best way to solve them. I'd want to see greater use of school vouchers and charter schools. If a school is doing a good job, it will attract students to it and, if parents have vouchers representing their share of state revenue for their child's education, they can direct those funds to more successful institutions. When people have to compete for their money, they tend to do better.
BB: What are your views on local issues?
Stu: We have the dunes problem and what certainly looks like overbuilding, and the question of downzoning, and ongoing transportation concerns. Some advocate for subsidized ferries and others want the return of the LIRR. There are mosquito problems in various parts of the district, and underdevelopment in some of the business districts. Of course many of these issues are more local rather than state legislative questions; but on the other hand, at least one role of the State Assemblyperson is to act as a kind of ombudsman. Even when you don't have a direct say in who's doing what and where, you have access to officials and offices and can help your constituents. Audrey has been a local fixture at community events and activities though, I fear, she's often more visible than effective. I've seen her take credit for things in which she'd only a peripheral role. It's easy to give the impression of doing things if you've mastered the art of shooting out press releases and getting your picture in the paper. My experience at the highest levels of city government will prove useful in negotiating complex issues. But I'm not that great at getting my picture in the paper!
BB: Do you feel you can win?
Stu: Maybe. It's not going to be a cakewalk! Audrey's been around for a gazillion years and has lots of name recognition; however, if people want change, if they want to reform a sclerotic political system, if they want new blood and fresh ideas and they want to break the logjam of incumbency that has turned us into a virtual one-party state here in Rockaway, then I'm their guy!