2008-05-23 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Second Thoughts
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

It's shaping up to be quite a political year, what with either a woman, an African-American or a really old guy in line to be our next president. On the local front, things also could get interesting now that Breezy Point resident Gerry Sullivan has declared his intention to seriously challenge incumbent Democratic Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer in the 2008 race. I did it two years ago and what an awful job I made of it!

My friends in the Republican Party never stop reminding me what a lousy campaign I ran. Of course, I only decided to run because no one else would and I just couldn't stomach the idea that Audrey would run unopposed yet again. Because I'm not a natural politician I didn't like getting out on the hustings and pressing the flesh. And I hated the idea of throwing fundraisers to raise money - so I didn't, and didn't raise much as a result. We did get some unsolicited contributions in the neighborhood of around $2,500 and I kicked in $800 of my own. It was the quintessential shoestring campaign.

I was banking on a belief that, if you showed the flag, if you gave people an alternative and talked about the issues, if you stood on principle, you could make a dent. No, I didn't seriously expect to win, but I didn't think I would do as badly as I did either: 23.75% of the vote at last count. Ouch!

So much for principle. On the other hand, maybe I really was just a lousy candidate. I campaigned on a platform that was primarily about state governmental reform. I wanted to change the way the state legislature did business, open up the electoral process to make challenges easier, and cut state spending and debt creation. My biggest campaign issue was a call to end so-called "member items." That's when our elected officials get a pool of our tax dollars to dole out, at THEIR discretion, to local groups. The idea is that no one knows the local needs better than the local officials. Of course, there's another dynamic at work, too.

As we've seen with the recent revelations of City Council slush funds ("member items" allocated to non-existent local organizations or used for the benefit of the officials themselves) and Governor Patterson's attack on "member items" at the state level, the potential for corruption and, certainly, unaccountability is substantial. During my campaign one of my supporters whispered that he had tried to convince his community religious leader to endorse me by noting that I stood for all the things they stood for. No dice, the leader had replied. Can't do it. Why not? My opponent, he reportedly said, provides funding to their group. Anything wrong with this picture?

The media is all alight over "member items" as the cause du jour. But during my campaign back in 2006 no one seemed to give a damn. Still, things have a funny way of turning around. Two years after my abortive race with no money and little passion for on-theground

politicking, I find myself involved in organizing the 2008 Rockaway Literary Arts and Film Festival, an event that grew out of our groundbreaking 2007 literary festival. Some reading this may recall that that festival, which we held in April 2007, was fairly successful (which is why we're about to try it again). We brought in more than 30 writers, sold more than $3,000 worth of books and had hundreds of visitors participating in numerous scheduled events throughout the day. What I hadn't known until then though, but know now, was just how dependent these kinds of events are on . . . you guessed it, funding from local politicians, i.e., "member items."

This year's literary festival, which is slated to bring together more than 40 writers on June 8th and be flanked, on Saturdary evening June 7th and Sunday evening June 8th, with the first ever Rockaway film festival (screening five feature length pictures and a number of shorts) will be totally free to the public, as it was last year. But that doesn't mean there aren't costs. Our budget comes, as it did last year, from the Rockaway Music and Arts Council. We have to buy advertising, supplies, printing and audio equipment and pay use fees, etc. In sum, it ain't free, even if the public doesn't see that.

The RMAC is covering our costs. But where do they get their funds from? It turns out they're sustained in part though "member items." But with this kind of funding now metamorphosing into a belated scandal (too late for my campaign, alas!), such funds have become scarcer and the RMAC has had to struggle to cover the costs of our event. So, like many issues in this world, it turns out that "member items" are complicated.

Plainly hard to justify as taxpayer money given to incumbents to dole out as they see fit to constituents in exchange for voter good will, "member items" may actually do some good when they help fund local activities like the Literary Arts Festival. Arguably, literary arts festivals, and many of the other things that "member items" help support couldn't continue if such funding dried up. Or else we'd have to find other ways to pay for them. Instead of free parking and free admission like we can now offer, we might find ourselves having to charge for these things. Would enough people still come? If not, how many events like this would continue to be held?

I'm of two minds on this question, though, in the end, I still come down on the side of reform. "Member items," whatever good they do, still look highly problematic to me. As the recent City Council (and previous state legislative) scandals have amply demonstrated, there's just too much room for abuse. And it's hard to justify incumbent officials using our own money to buy our support. Not only does it contribute to wasteful overspending of our tax dollars because of the lack of accountability and the often frivolous uses such money can be put to, it gives incumbents an advantage over their challengers - all at taxpayer expense.

Government funding of good programs and activities can and should certainly be handled in other, more accountable ways. So while I really do want to see this year's Literary Arts and Film Festival at Ft. Tilden do at least as well as last year's, and I really do look forward to seeing people from all over Rockaway come by on June 7 and 8 to meet this year's writers, buy some books, taste the delicious food offered by Belle Harbor's Rockaway Seafood Restaurant, on premises, and enjoy the music and performances with disc jockey Pete Fornatale, I can't help thinking it would be an even better event if it didn't also contribute to government waste and the undermining of our democratic process.

I hope the new Republican Assembly candidate, Gerry Sullivan, comes by and buys a few books, too. Maybe we can talk.


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