2010-10-22 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The Debating Game: A Prelude To The November 2nd General Election
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Last week Congressman Anthony Weiner swept onto the west end of the peninsula with an entourage of campaign workers. He’d been invited to speak at a meeting of the Rockaway Park Civic Association in the Belle Harbor Yacht Club and, while his campaign had kept the Civic Association in a state of uncertainty for days, he finally made his grand entrance after everyone else had arrived and informed organizers he was prepared to debate!

His opponent, Breezy Point businessman Bob Turner, a political tyro who had sought but failed to secure debate opportunities with the Congressman before, was already on hand and under the impression there would be no debate. But Weiner’s surprise move instantly changed the dynamics and Turner gamely accepted as Weiner’s supporters, who had been waiting for him in the rain on a very soggy Beach Channel Drive, trooped in behind him to fill the room.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer also showed up as did her challenger, Belle Harbor podiatrist Harold Paez. Like Turner, Dr. Paez is new to the political game but was hoping for a debate, too. It was not to be. Ms. Pheffer pleaded another engagement (a dinner and photo op at Russo’s on the Bay) and after delivering a quick talk about how hard she fights for the community and how pleased she is to do it and answering a few questions, she ran out the door. The organizers turned to Dr. Paez.

He proceeded to speak at length about the fiscal state of things, our ever growing debt load, the big spending and taxation levels driving businesses, jobs and people out of New York to friendlier jurisdictions and leaving us with a future net loss in our Congressional delegation, reducing New York’s national clout. Dr. Paez pointed out that it’s not about the pork you can bring back anymore but whether the state will be able to stay solvent. It’s about restoring job growth and addressing a looming fiscal crisis before the state fails to meet its obligations. He emphasized the need to bring the state’s budgetary process and debt creation machinery under control but was anybody listening – or were their hearts off with the 23-year incumbent at Russo’s on the Bay where she was probably already mugging for the cameras?

Unlike Pheffer, Weiner was eager to share the floor with his challenger. He knew what he was doing. After decades in politics, he’s an old hand with an audience, got his shtick down pat. He should. He must have said it all a thousand times. After leading with an attack on Congressional Republicans he praised his own work in bringing us the stimulus bill and the health care makeover. In the process he had a few kind, if condescending, words for his opponent, Bob Turner.

Turner responded by methodically recounting the problems with the stimulus and health care bills which Weiner had proudly taken credit for. As Turner spoke, Weiner allowed a sometimes wolfish grin to flash briefly across his face and occasionally grimaced for the audience at some of Turner’s statements. Quicker on the draw than Turner, Weiner jumped in repeatedly to cut his opponent off as the challenger painstakingly enumerated the high costs of the new health care bill, the unconstitutionality of its mandate to buy insurance, the use and cost of IRS agents to enforce that mandate, the provision requiring small businesses to file with the IRS for transactions in excess of a $600- plus threshold, the looming increases in health insurance premiums and on and on.

As the night wore on Weiner waxed increasingly confident, as he began to see his glibness and speaking experience carry the evening for him. The incumbent even found time to offer Turner a few condescending head pats for “offering voters a choice.“ At one point the sincere but hardly eloquent challenger went after Weiner’s claim about the jobs creation effect of the stimulus bill, noting that it had cost the taxpayers a bundle but failed to move the needle on the national unemployment meter.

Weiner responded by pointing to the government jobs he said had been saved and Turner countered that governments don’t add to economic activity, they live off it through the taxes paid by the private sector. But Turner stumbled when he likened government work to being “on the dole” as he tried to point out that the key to jobs creation lay in policies which remove economic impediments, not those which add to them.

Delighted with the gaffe, Weiner pounced. “You had me until you referred to firemen, policemen and teachers as being on the dole, Bob,” he said smoothly. People at the Turner table audibly groaned. Their man had misspoken and everyone knew it.

Even Turner, whose own brother is a retired cop, seemed flustered by his own clumsy word choice as Weiner rolled in for the kill and his operatives moved about the room getting it all on video. Weiner never took his eyes from those cameras for very long. Like his mentor, Chuck Schumer, about whom it’s been said you take your life in your hands if you stand between him and a camera, Weiner knows how to play to the lens. So the debate he had sprung on his challenger that night went his way because he knows the terrain while Bob Turner, a non-politician, hasn’t had enough time to learn it. A semi-retired businessman with 40 plus years in the private sector starting and running companies, earning a living, creating jobs, Turner never took the time to learn to play footsie with the camera.

Yet, with national unemployment at a continuously sticky 9.5 percent, the policies of the last two years, which people like Weiner and Pheffer have given us, have clearly failed and newcomers like Bob Turner and Harold Paez, ordinary folks trying to make a living and care for their families, have taken on the daunting task of challenging the culture of incumbency.

If you really want to know what Weiner’s done for our district, look at the dilapidated condition of Gateway’s Riis Park, once a crown jewel in New York City’s park system and now, under federal mismanagement and Weiner’s oversight, a public embarrassment with rotted and collapsed railings, crumbling and sinking concrete walkways, weed-choked pathways, abandoned handball courts and a National Park Service management so disdainful of Rockaway residents that it refused this year to work cooperatively with the Rockaway Music and Arts Council to keep our historic festivals and concerts going. That’s what we’ve gotten while Weiner’s been preening for the cameras.

And on Pheffer’s watch we’ve gotten restoration of a costly bridge toll because the Metropolitan Transit Authority still hasn’t learned to operate within its means. But not to worry because Audrey Pheffer writes letters to the editor denouncing the increase and joins the periodic picket lines for a bit of performance theater instead of exercising her prerogative as an Assemblywoman to demand answers and investigate years of mismanagement and incompetence and maybe even get some legislation passed to straighten things out.

As this campaign winds down and Democrats are on the defensive across the country for the damage their policies have caused, we can do our part locally by replacing a couple of perennial incumbents here at home with two sincere and thoughtful amateurs who want to help fix what the perennials have messed up. This year it’s about sending in a new team, not the same old media savvy crew that’s better at posing for the cameras than voting our interests.

If you want a smooth talking, selfinterested Congressman with a record of doing little at home while helping pass legislation that’s strangling the economy, or if you want an affable Assembly person who knows how to do photo ops but not how to represent her district where it counts, then choose the incumbents.

Otherwise choose two earnest amateurs, Bob Turner for Congress and Dr. Harold Paez for State Assembly, because they’re the ones who have stepped up to the plate this year – and it’s the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and it’s time to bring the players home.

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