Friday, February 21, 2014

(  Spoiler warning...some readers will consider this article simply sour grapes. Maybe so, but it is still important to say some things that need to be said.)

     Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, there lived a system for selecting candidates for higher public office which required that a certain amount of dues be paid before candidates could advance through the chairs, like in the Elk's club.

Alas, that system no more. It has apparently gone the way of the horse and buggy. It is an anachronism in a new political world where fame and fortune count more than experience, guts and gusto. It's really all about the money. That is sad.

     It wasn't always this way.. But today, it's about celebrity and cash, not experience and judgement. No wonder our legislative process has become gridlocked. It becomes a clash of colossal egos rather than a contest of principle, balanced by compromise and cooperation.

     As a case in point, take the recent selection process used by the Democrats to fill a seat being surprisingly vacated by three term Congressman Bill Owens. of Plattsburgh.   I believe it was former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn who said , of the Kennedy crowd's penchant for selecting the "best and the brightest", "It would be nice if even one of them had run for Sheriff once” .    

North Country Democratic chairs, suffering from a thin bench of political candidates ready to move up the line, settled on a film maker and Phish songwriter who runs a health food store in Brooklyn and was not even registered to vote from his upstate " home" until the weekend before his selection as the candidate. He was chosen  in a closed door process that took place in a remote Adirondack Mountain location on a snowy February day. Oh transparency! Where are you when we need you the most?

     These days, the minimum entrance fee for anyone to be considered as a candidate by the Democratic Congressional campaign committee is $200,000 cash on hand. The ability to raise upwards of several million dollars for the race is also a plus.
     If you are unable to be a self funder like 26 year old millionaire Sean Eldridge who is challenging incumbent R Chris Gibson in NY's 19th district, you are required to make calls on a constant basis to surpass that $200,000 threshold level.  It was so daunting a task for Omaha City Council President Dan Festersen, that faced with a choice of making fundraising calls or attending his daughter's spelling bee. He
chose the spelling bee, and dropped his bid for Congress with its onerous dialing for dollars requirement. The days of Mr. Smith goes to Washington are long gone.

     According to the “Vital Statistics on Congress” ( a joint study of the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute), the cost of a winning campaign for congress has increased 344% since 1986, while the cost of a Senate seat has only increased 62% during the same time frame.  Part of this is due to the fact that the congressional districts are so gerrymandered, that there are fewer and fewer swing seats to contest, driving the cost up for each, since it is majority control of the Congress that hangs in the balance.  Out of the 465 seats in Congress, less than 100 can be considered possible swing districts or “toss ups”, which is what the NY 21st district is now considered.  It is all about the money.  That conclusion is inescapable.

     Money is the ticket to "higher office" these days. Not experience. Not seasoned judgment hewn by years of involvement in the local and state governmental process, It's all about money and/or celebrity, and money comes first.

     It doesn't take a genius to figure out why this is a broken system. It is also a process that can be more easily controlled by those who have a vested interest in perpetuating a system which works to their advantage.

     When Hillary Clinton was thinking of running for the Senate in New York, and she asked me as a former party chair what I thought, I told her that , while I meant no disrespect,she was a Chicago native , transplanted to Arkansas, and later Washington, who knew little about Upstate New York. I said to her then,

“Mrs. Clinton, when you can tell me the difference between Oswego, Owego, Otsego and Otego, then you should run". Six months later I saw her at an event in Watertown, and she approached me and said, " Oswego is in Oswego County. Owego is in Tioga County. Otsego is in Otsego County, and Otego is in Otsego County as well !" I replied, " Go for it"! She did, and her whirlwind getting to know you upstate tour was a resounding success. As they say, the rest is history.

Perhaps Aaron Woolf, the newly minted Congressional candidate for Northern New York will take a chapter out of Hillary Clinton's political play book, and learn all about where Croghan bologna comes from, what squeaky cheese curds come from which  hamlet, and the difference between Carthage, Copenhagen and Constableville.   When and if he does, he might make a fine candidate after all, but there is much homework yet to be done , and many more miles for him to go before North Country Democrats can sleep easy about their leaders’ choice to run for Congress. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

(The author is a former Mayor of Oswego and Co-chair of the State Democratic Party who flirted with the idea of becoming a candidate for the seat himself, before rejecting the possibility. )

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sullivan will not run in NY 21

     Democratic chairs will gather tomorrow in Long Lake, NY to interview , behind closed doors, potential candidates for Congress, and then make an endorsement. This is what happened in 2009, except , since it was a special election, the decision of the chairs, which was greatly influenced by the DCCC and the White House, was final, as there was no opportunity for a primary. This time around it is different, as there can be a primary, and so selecting a candidate behind closed doors seems to me to be too insular a procedure, without openness and an opportunity for rank and file Democrats and other political activists to either be heard or to participate . Why not an open,  District wide convention? That would spark media interest, and keep the manipulative forces at bay.  There is still time to do that. They should let the sunlight in. It can be a powerful disinfectant.
    A closed door top down selection process  is the wrong way to go about candidate selection, and consequently, I have chosen not to participate in that process.

     Our political and electoral system is broken. It is badly in need of repair. Without significant and fundamental reform, we are left with but an illusion of democracy which our forefathers would hardly recognize.
     For me, the question has been , should I work to fix it? Is it fixable? And if so, how best do I go about it... From the inside out, or outside in? Could I succeed in getting elected to Congress with my integrity intact, or would I  have to so prostitute my principles to achieve success in the electoral process that I would myself become part of the problem I have been seeking a solution for? If you are not The Lord of the manor, you are lorded over by the special interests. It is they who control the political process, and too often, the outcome.That is a sad, but true commentary on our system.
     After three weeks of travel, deliberation  and discussion with friends, family, and supporters,  it is my conclusion that any real effort to reform the system on my part, should be directed from the outside in, and consequently, I will not seek the Democratic nomination for the 21st Congressional District.

    For several years, I have owned the domain name "  I think the time has come to launch that website and work toward promoting that goal, instead of becoming so caught up in the process of raising money myself to seek elective office, that I could lose sight of that very goal.
     So I will continue to write, to speak, to teach, and to advocate governmental reform ,  unencumbered by the burden of being  a candidate for public office myself. I thank those who expressed offers of support and encouragement for my potential candidacy, and I would encourage their continued involvement in supporting a progressive populist to replace outgoing Congressman Bill Owens.
    In so doing,  I would encourage our local Democratic leaders to open up the process instead  of shrouding it in secrecy and closing  the doors to public participation and scrutiny. That would be an important step in the right direction. Barring that,
to quote Yogi Berra. It seems to me that this is "déjà vu all over again" .