Friday, November 04, 2005
Rage Against The Machine
Raging Against the Machine in GOP Stronghold
[Editor's Note: Charlie Burr, a regular contributor to and political pundit for BlueOregon.com, is in Long Island, NY managing the campaign of Harvey Levinson for Supervisor of the Town of Hempstead.]
HEMPSTEAD, NY- The Town of Hempstead, New York is the largest town in America. With a population of 760,000, the Town is home to one out of every four Long Island voters, but more significant politically, hosts one of the oldest and most entrenched Republican political machines in the country.
At a time when Dems are struggling in the New York City Mayoral contest, Democrats here have our best chance for victory in a century in what the New York Times called “the Democrats' first serious attempt at the Town's top job.” (New York Times 10/2/05)
The political consequences are not insignificant. For decades, the Joe Mondello political machine has run the Town – and Nassau County – as its personal political fiefdom. The Nassau County Republican machine produced among others, Al D’Amato, who used his position as Hempstead Town Supervisor (like a Mayor) to launch his successful statewide run.
Here’s how Newsday recently described the heyday of the GOP political machine in a recent Sunday editorial entitled The Incredible Shrinking Elephant (10/2/05):
“Bob Dole couldn't believe his eyes.
It was 1996, and the Republican presidential candidate had spent an hour posing for photos with 200 high-rollers at a Nassau GOP fund-raiser. A good turnout for a local event, Dole thought. And when party leaders escorted him past the melting carved-ice elephant, he figured he was off to the next campaign stop. Instead, Dole saw the vast Hofstra University fieldhouse filled with 5,000 people in tuxedos and gowns. Except for national conventions, Dole said he couldn't remember a larger crowd of Republicans - especially gathered to contribute money to the party. Welcome to the world of Long Island's GOP - as it was.” (10/2/05)
The extent of Republican abuse, cronyism, and raw patronage waste in the Town is staggering. It is offensive. And due to a lot of hard work and a few lucky breaks, it is quickly becoming a key issue in this race.
Currently, there are exactly 324 Republican committeemen on the Town’s public payroll, filling such vital functions as Second Deputy Superintendent of Reproduction Services (Read: "I make $67K making photocopies!") and Third Deputy Keyboard Supervisor to the tune of $36 million dollars a year. Even the Supervisor’s father and two brothers are on payroll. The dad makes over $119,000 (plus benefits) each year as a legal assistant. That’s not a typo – he’s a paralegal – not an actual attorney.
A little more about our race: it has been exactly 100 years since the Democrats controlled Hempstead – with five votes the margin of the Dems’ big victory.
Our guy is a former Assistant District Attorney named Harvey Levinson. Two years ago, he won a difficult upset victory against the Republican political machine to become the Chairman of County Board of Assessors. He’s a reformer whose politics aren’t easily labeled and an aggressive campaigner.
This is what Newsday had to say about the race recently:
“In the past, Republicans could get away with purely negative campaigns. Democratic challengers were often weak, uninformed and lacked money to fight back. Levinson is none of those.” (Newsday 10/2/05)
While Harvey’s moved quickly to modernize the Assessment office, recruit professional staff, and bring fiscal sanity to the operation (after the Republicans’ nearly bankrupted the county in the late 90s), the Republicans have also been quick to blame him for out of control taxes, despite the demonstrable fact that his job is to value property, not set tax rates. The Republican attack’s a 100% total lie, but has some currency as a political argument.
We have a tough, uphill race. We’ve already been hit by over a million dollars of TV – in addition to over 30 town-wide four-color glossy mail pieces from the Supervisor’s public office. [This bears repeating, because in Oregon one of these taxpayer funded flyer would be a statewide scandal.] The incumbent is essentially running her personal political campaign out of her public taxpayer funded office.
There are mail pieces congratulating frequent voters for recent birthdays. There are pieces informing people how to renew their passport. There are pieces – no bull – thanking citizens for flying the American flag in front of their home, including a certificate of appreciation from the Town. But perhaps the worst are the town-wide pieces that not just promote the Republican incumbent, but actually hit Harvey – despite the fact that he serves on a completely different level of government.
Most pieces are mailed to a universe of about 240,000 households. Clearly, this is a government with a lot of time and money on its hands. (As a side note, I recently weighed the mail pieces altogether. They came to 2.014 pounds, which means at 240K households, the Town has literally sent out 241.68 tons of mail. 200 tons of fun indeed!)*
Meanwhile, Town taxes are through the roof. Spending is out of control. And while in other places you might expect a Republican to be making some of these arguments, voters in this historically Republican county rightfully view the Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is not, by the way, a poll driven march to the mushy middle to win an election; there truly is too much government in Nassau county.
To put it in perspective, under the Republican’s watch, we have arrived at a point here in which there are now 400 different levels of government in the county. There was even a special level of government to regulate elevators - which is insane. And before the Democrats elected their first county executive in three decades, Nassau was named the “worst run county” in America.
The details of the turnaround I’ll save for another day.
This race is certainly a tough nut to crack, but I truly believe that this is a good example of what we should be looking at as advocates of government reform: going straight into the heart of single-party strongholds where they have taken their vote for granted and holding them to account for cronyism, waste, incompetence, corruption, fiscal irresponsibility and an arrogance that is profound and deep.
I don’t know what will happen less than one week from now, but after 100 years of one party rule, it feels good to be putting what the New York Times called in their endorsement a “culture of cronyism in a one party town” on the defensive. After a century, creating a real debate here is absolutely the direction we should be taking. For more on the race, click here. But the fact that this race is even competitive at this point, bodes well for things to come.
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*Wow! 241.68 tons of mail from Kate Murray's Town Hall. No wonder we need all those Sanitary Districts!
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Closing Comments on Election 2005
PROPOSITION ONE. To Amend the State Constitution relative to the budget process (although you'd never know that's what this Proposition was about to read it).
No question, the way New York's budget is devised -- 3 men who can't stand one another sitting in a back room waiting for the other to blink -- has been nothing short of disastrous. With the exception of this year, every budget for the past 20 years has been late, leaving School Districts, municipalities, and the taxpayer in the lurch. Increasingly, the Governor has hijacked budgetary considerations from the hands of those who most closely represent our interests, the State Legislature, handcuffing our representatives in Albany who must either cave to the Governor's whim, or face outrage at home over unfunded programs and fiscal uncertainty.
In essence, Proposition One puts the process back into the hands of the people -- or as close as most of us get to the Senate and Assembly chambers -- by restoring the Legislature's power to reshape and reformulate the budget, while reserving to the Governor the right to propose the budget and to veto -- line-by-line -- that which the chief Executive believes to be imprudent.
Moreover, Proposition One provides for an earlier budget (April instead of May), and a contingency budget should the deadline pass without adoption, meaning that localities such as School Districts will no longer have to blindly place their budgets before the voters on that Super Tuesday in May.
There are basically three groups that oppose Proposition One -- Present Governors, Past Governors, and those who would be Governor. That shoud tell us something right there, the concentration of absolute power certainly not enobling the masses.
Good government groups, including the non-partisan League of Women Voters, support the measure, citing a more open and legitimate process for determining where and how our money is spent.
Proposition One represents a quantum leap forward for the way our State government, often described as dysfunctional, conducts business. The Community Alliance urges residents to VOTE YES ON PROPOSITION ONE!
Proposition Two. Transportation Bond Issue.
Every few years (seems like every other day), the State borrows money for transportation by floating a bond. Ostensibly, this money goes toward the repair and improvement of bridges, tunnels, roadways and mass transportation. Unfortunately, while we pay and repay on these bonds, rarely do we see any repairs or improvements -- and we have the roads, bridges and dearth of practical, efficient and user-friendly mass transit to prove it!
Face it. We all want to improve transportation, particularly here on Long Island, where roadbeds crumble beneath us, road signs are invisible, and public transportation is a joke. Throwing good money after bad just isn't the way to do it.
When the most vocal guardian of motorist safety and vanguard of transportation initiatives, the Automobile Club of New York (AAA), encourages New Yorkers to vote no on yet another Transportation Bond Act, we'd be wise to give their suggestion serious consideration. The Community Alliance agrees that, in this instance, floating a bond to improve transportation would not be money well spent. VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION TWO.
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And so, we reach the end of that long campaign trail (and without the help of a transportation bond, thank you :-). We now place in your hands the crucial decisions to be made on Tuesday, November 8th. Arm yourselves with every bit of information you can on the candidates and the issues. Consider the past performance of those who hold office, and the prospects going forward. Examine matters that hit close to home, impacting upon pocketbook and quality of life.
Then, on Tuesday, November 8th, vote with your head, not by reason of your voter registration.
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After the election -- whatever the result -- the blog returns, and the cause of community continues. Stay tuned. . .