2008-01-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Democracy Begins At Home
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Are you as tired as I am? I mean of the seemingly interminable presidential campaign, of course. I planned to write a bit about the current crop of front-runners and where they stand this week but, after thinking about it, I realized I didn't have anything new I wanted to say. The wider media has been covering it all quite nicely, thank you, and giving us a constant barrage of Hillary's missteps, Rudy's mishaps, Barack's kindergarten projects, and John McCain's remarkable comeback in the wake of Mike Huckabee's recent tidal surge and subsequent ebbing in the Iowa caucus and other early primary races. Are any of these folks presidential timber? Well I suppose any of them might be, but after getting bombarded with their stories in what seems like the longest campaign season in our history, do we really care?

So I thought it made more sense to focus on politics at a local level this time. The problem with that, of course, is that my only real recent experience with local politics (aside from the intraparty variety) was when I recently ran a quixotic race as the Republican nominee against 23rd AD Democratic assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer - and got my head handed to me. As one of my erstwhile supporters opined after the event, I might be a nice guy (he said!) but I was a lousy candidate. I refused to do fundraisers because I didn't want to be bothered begging people for money. I believed that just giving people a serious choice and offering a message of reform in Albany would be enough. I couldn't have been more wrong!

I never thought I had much chance of winning, of course, but I was rather hoping for a showing of about 40 percent, which would have been a significant improvement over my old Republican mentor Tom Swift's final run against Audrey when he garnered a mere 27 percent. Well I did even worse and barely captured 24 percent.

So what went wrong? I guess a lot of things. Aside from the fact that I didn't go out and raise money, believing that message alone would matter, and therefore never had much ability to get my message out, I also misjudged the electorate. I believed that people were eager for change. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear that they weren't.

Granted it wasn't a great year to run as a Republican in any event, but there were plenty of other obstacles I failed to take account of. Audrey Pheffer, of course, is a familiar face and her name is known throughout the area. She's ubiquitous at local events whereas I don't really enjoy that sort of thing (and so tend to stay away). More, because of member items (that's where state legislators secure a certain amount of state monies and spread them around to local organizations with their names attached to reinforce voter loyalty in the voting booth) Audrey, like every other state legislative incumbent, has the inside track. What local organization is going to bite the hand that feeds it and support a challenger? Voters, of course, are influenced by what local organizational leaders say.

So I learned that most voters don't always want an alternative. On the national stage everyone seems to want an alternative these days, of course. People are tired of George W. Bush and the fighting in Iraq he brought us and all the negative press he gets (even if much of that is a function of politicians and reporters who have their own ax to grind). People want new faces in the White House after eight years of high visibility critical scrutiny. Maybe that's not surprising.

But on the local level, 20 years of incumbency, as Audrey can claim, is no drawback. Indeed it's an advantage because voters don't think there's a lot at stake except preservation of the status quo, including the steady infusion of member items they can count on from their local legislator. I ran on a platform of reforming how the state legislature does its business, opening up the electoral system to make it easier to challenge incumbents, and reining in high taxes and wasteful spending. Well, who really cares about that kind of stuff when we're flush? And what's flusher than a 20 year incumbent with a familiar face, a readiness to show up at every local event and a willingness to hand out stipends to local groups on demand?

Until people are as unhappy at the local level as they currently are with the national administration, it doesn't look like change is in the cards. But why should they be when even the local media have no reason to rock the boat? In the 23rd AD it's all Democrats all the time and most folks seem okay with that. Until local voters take a good hard look at the problems of one-party governance, it's unlikely real change is going to happen.

The local Republican Party has its work cut out for it and will need to pick up its britches and find some good candidates, the kind who are ready to beat the bushes for cash and play the political game in a way a political tyro like me just wasn't prepared to do. While we watch the presidential sweepstakes grind on without a break, we need to think about the benefits of restoring a little political competition to our local electoral stew. Audrey may be a nice person (I don't really know her so I can't say) but she's been in for way too long and, aside from providing a source of ready funding for local groups across the district, how effective has she really been as a legislator? Aside from voting her party's line, what has she actually done to represent our interests in Albany?

Come this November she's up for reelection again (if she doesn't decide to take a flyer at the borough presidency instead and rumors are rife that that's where she's set her cap).

Is the 23rd AD ready for a real political race at last? Is it ready for new blood? And is the newly reconstituted Republican leadership in the 23rd AD ready to find a candidate who can reach the electorate this time in a way I couldn't? It's a presidential year but we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of the local political process. Reform and shaking up a somnambulant status quo is as important in Rockaway as it is in Washington, D.C. rockirreg@aol.com

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