Saturday, September 8, 2007

wanton schoolboys

A story: here in Monroe County, the Democrats, who outnumber the Republicans in registration, have decided (for reasons best known to themselves) not to field a candidate against Maggie Brooks, the fairly popular incumbent County Executive, which is the most powerful position in Monroe Country. Maggie Brooks, for those who aren’t familiar with her, is sort of like Mike Bloomberg to Rudy Guiliani, a less offensive Republican who succeeded a considerably more offensive Republican, and with these low expectations, people seem to like her because she is quiet and isn’t nasty.

However, she has let her advisors and handlers do her dirty business for her, and the chief dirty business doer is Stephen Minarak, the Monroe County Republican Chair. He did just a fine job as a Republican boor, saying insulting and stupid things about local Democrats that the state Republican Party, thinking they had a budding Karl Rove on their hands, promoted him to state Republican chair, where he quarreled with Joe Bruno (not hard to do) and lost all the elections in his charge (quick, who ran against Hilary last year?) and he was kicked back to Monroe County.

So to return to the story, with the fecklessness of local Democrats, the only candidate running against Brooks this fall will be a Working Families Party candidate. Brooks will cruise to an easy re-election, and there will probably be no debates or discussion of the issues. Until earlier this week a third party candidate, Andrew Stainton, who was to run as the candidate of the ad hoc Sustainability Party was also going to be in the race.

But it is very easy to get third parties off the ballot in New York State. Minarik challenged Stainton’s petitions, and the courts found enough of the requisite 1,500 signatures were somehow not in order, and he was removed from the ballot. My understanding is that ballot challenges have become somewhat more difficult to do in recent years, and the wrong color ink or the use of abbreviations in addresses (Ave for Avenue) is no longer enough to get a signature tossed. But it still is ridiculously easy for a candidate, particularly a third-party candidate without much financial support, to run afoul of New York State’s obscenely complex election laws.

Given that Brooks was hardly challenged by an obscure third party candidate, why did Minarik challenge the petitions? Because he could, and like wanton school boys killing flies, he can squash third parties for his sport. All New York politicians do.

This is the original sin of New York State politics. The two political parties control everything; independent people or third parties more or less control nothing. Every political institution exists to strengthen the parties. In the early 20th century there were two main models for Progressive reform in the US, New York’s where under Al Smith and Thomas Dewey, the goal was to make the parties more responsive and work more effectively. The other model is California, where with recalls, referenda and propositions, open primaries, the goal was to break down and challenge the two party system. Neither system is a panacea, and Peter Schrag’s fascinating book, Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, strongly suggests that things, since Prop 13, have gone too far in undermining the effectiveness of the party system.

But New York State shows, again and again, the danger of the other extreme, an ossified political party system that exists only to protect itself, and gives little or no scope for independent citizen initiative of any kind. . This situation has become worse in recent decades, with the declining importance of the cross endorsement lines (American Labor, Liberal, Conservative) that helped keep the two major parties honest, the valiant efforts of the Working Families Party notwithstanding.

I’m not sure what the answer is; an answer could consume many posts; certainly a bit of the openness of the California system would be in order.

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