2010-11-19 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Commentary By Stuart Mirsky

While most of the rest of the country voted to send a message to the party in power, the party whose spending has taken us to the edge of financial ruin both nationally and here in New York State, our local communities have once more chosen to send the same old politicians back to Albany and Washington. Why do we do it? Don’t we believe in fiscal responsibility anymore or worry about the consequences of having abandoned it? Or is it just about familiarity? Do we just vote the names and faces we know, with utter disregard for what they stand for? Or do we really agree with the policies they’ve been pushing – policies which have made New York one of the highest taxed states in the Union and well up there in terms of debt load? Only California now looks worse while New York’s economy, north of the Greater Metropolitan Area, continues to languish in near perpetual decline.

Writing in this paper after the election, Wave editor Howie Schwach bemoaned the fact that the same people have been re-elected again – yet he supported them in the weeks leading up to the election, or noticeably failed to support their opposition. Well, he told us that Anthony Weiner is one of his favorite politicians didn’t he, and that Audrey Pheffer is his friend? He did acknowledge that Belle Harbor podiatrist, Harold Paez, who took time out from his busy practice to challenge Audrey, was a credible candidate. But he still declined to endorse Paez’ bid to unseat his good “friend” Audrey Pheffer. But post the election it’s a different story, of course, as he tells us how awful it is that the same people get elected over and over again. Well why does he think that is? Maybe because people share his bifurcated take on the political process? There’s another issue, of course: Affiliation. New York famously has a massive imbalance between registered Democrats and Republicans that favors the former. Here in the 23rd AD we have one of the better balances actually, with only a 3:1 advantage for the Democrats. So we’re considered viable for Republican candidates. We even got one elected not too long ago when the Democrats were split in a special election and the youthful and attractive Republican, Eric Ulrich, won the City Council seat here. If the Democrats hadn’t been split among so many starved for that job – and if they had actually been able to field more attractive candidates – Ulrich wouldn’t have made it. But now, with the advantage of incumbency, he has a chance of serving two full terms, and of building a serious political career. The Republican challengers for Weiner’s Congressional seat and for Pheffer’s Assembly seat weren’t so lucky. They weren’t so experienced either and that worked against them though they put up a spirited fight despite the heavy odds. The problem is that with odds like that and an electorate largely wedded to the incumbents’ party, no matter how deep the ditch they have dug us into, it becomes harder and harder to find challengers as the years go by, allowing the incumbents to become complacent or worse.

In the months leading up to this recent election, it was remarkable that the management of Gateway National Recreation Area, which covers our own historic Riis Park and Fort Tilden, somehow found the motivation and funds to begin restoring the park after having allowed it to deteriorate to national scandal levels over the preceding decade. Does anyone doubt that Congressman Weiner pushed a few buttons to get a restoration project moving in time for his re-election bid, though it came rather late, no doubt reflecting his belated realization that he was about to face a serious challenge from Breezy Pointer Bob Turner? The real problem though is where has he been during all those years when he had no challengers? And how long can we expect the current work to continue before park service management loses interest yet again, as soon as they realize Weiner’s got no reason to keep their feet to the fire now that the election’s over? Meanwhile the national debt’s exploded while Weiner’s party has been in the ascendant and Weiner remains a proud advocate of the programs and votes that have exploded it. The state debt’s going nuclear, too, as Pheffer has routinely voted with her party in the decisions that have taken us there. Never mind her consumer affairs press releases or the jolly way she’s passed state money around, so-called member items, to cement local groups’ affection for her. Dr. Paez told me how difficult it was for him to find venues to speak during his campaign because so many of these groups didn’t want to annoy Audrey Pheffer, the source of so much largesse, by giving him a platform. I had the same experience the year I ran against her.

Given the state’s financial condition, it’s hard to justify member items any longer and even Pheffer’s acknowledged during the recent campaign that this year the legislature had actually been forced to curtail them. But in the same breath she promised to work to get them back! Member items, in fact, are no different than Congressional earmarks (which are slipped into bills to please individual congressmen) except that state legislators get the money with no strings, to dole out as they like in their districts. A few thousand to this group, thousands more to that one and pretty soon all the significant local groups are happy. But it’s pernicious. In the year I ran against Pheffer (and did much worse than Dr. Paez, by the way) I was told by a Far Rockaway supporter that his local spiritual leader agreed with my positions but refused to come out for me, or to urge his congregants to do so, because, he explained, “she gives us money.” That’s what’s wrong with member items and why incumbents who make use of them should be sent packing.

So there are lots of reasons we seem to be addicted to the same people and the same policies when we vote, lots of reasons we can’t seem to shake ourselves free of this runaway train that’s taking us down the same tracks California’s on, headed straight for Greece. It’s partly a matter of affiliation and partly familiarity. And partly it’s the advantage of incumbency, especially the ability of incumbents to grease the palms of local organizations which have perceived political clout with hard cash. I spoke to Rockaway Republicans president Tom Lynch after the recent election and he’s totally frustrated after having worked so hard to build a political alternative here and seeing so little payback from his efforts in this election year, a year in which Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives in Washington, made substantial inroads in the Senate, and swept state houses and legislatures across the nation. But here in New York and, especially here in Rockaway, nothing ever changes. Nothing’s changed at The Wave either where our editor supports the status quo in one breath – and bemoans the results in another.

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