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. )