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Friday, December 12, 2008

My Democrat Dilemma

Instead of going to the New Paltz Democratic Committee meeting tonight I am going to stay home and write about what I call my Democrat Dilemma.*

New Paltz has a reputation for being a progressive community, but it was not always this way, at least electorally. In 1999, Sue Zimet was elected Town Supervisor on the tails of her successful work with in the anti-Walmart campaign. On the night of her election there were conservative Democrats at Republican headquarters sympathizing with the Republicans and grieving the election results.

In 2003, in the village we elected the first Green Party mayor in New York State. We are the home to one of the very few communities across the nation that has ever had an elected official solemnize gay marriage. However, since Jason West lost his reelection bid in 2007, the local Green Party has lost its steam. Aside from getting Edgar Rodriquez on the school board in 2007, and despite a competitive run by Margaret Human for Town Board, the local Greens have not gained any local seats since 2004.

Most of the local Green Party people I know are ideologically pretty much equivalent to most of my progressive Democratic friends. So, how come progressives don’t flock to the Green Party? How come they, like me, are registered Democrats?

  • Greens are Spoilers. Brittany Turner’s late entry into the recent Town Board race reinforced the spoiler argument. A steadfast environmentalist with an impressive civic resume - Democrat Bob Hughes - lost by about 30 votes to a more moderate Jeff Logan. Brittany garnered about 125 votes. Her presence in the race was indicative of the same math that came into play when Gore and Kerry lost the presidencies in 2000 and 2004. Old school Democrats have not forgotten or forgiven the damage they found Ralph Nader guilty of inflicting: eight years of George W. Bush. The local Greens gained no new friends as a result of Brittany’s short campaign, and perhaps may have even lost of a few of their own.
  • Infiltration! The progressive Democrats I know that sit at the committee table all believe the only way to beat the system is from within. Registered Democrats in general question the efficacy of the Greens with their outsider status. While the Green Party’s platform may be quite in line with their own vision, they believe the only way to achieve the goals of such a platform is within one of the two mainstream parties. As one Dem committee member likes to say, “You have to be in the house, not out on the street.”
  • Primaries and Caucuses. I was registered independent for many years, but when I moved in the summer of 2007 I switched my status to Democrat so that I could vote in the Ulster County D.A. primary that fall and the presidential primary the following spring. I figured I would switch back to independent after the primaries, but at times I have considered going Green. Yet, I still find myself a registered Democrat.

I am not a member of the New Paltz Democratic committee. Last fall I started going just to check things out and have found these meetings to be equally boring and scary…

When Sue Zimet joined the New Paltz Democratic Committee in the late 1990s the table was chock full of conservative Democrats. And while yes, there may now be more progressive members on the committee and in elected positions in both the town and the village, what has it gotten us?

For example, with such overwhelming Democratic presence, how can it be that we have no wetlands protection law in either the town or village? How come it took like what felt like ages to get the village employees a signed union contract? And as Don Kerr recently said on New Paltz News – I paraphrase - why with all of our elected town leaders being Democrats is the Crossroads development even on the table? (Although I must give a shout out to our mayor and village board members who have been highly critical of Crossroads: Terry Dungan, Michael Zierler, and Shari (ok, Holden) Osborn.)

There are some weird dynamics going on right now. Our current Town Supervisor Toni Hokanson, who will be up for reelection next year, will be lucky to get the Dem votes from her peers at the committee table who oppose Crossroads, but ironically these very same people are aligned with the conservative old school cadre – which is pretty much lead by the Nyquists, both formally and informally since Corinne Nyquist is the Chair and Tom Nyquist (the incumbent mayor that Jason West ousted) is the temporary Treasurer. I posit that because of her stance on Crossroads, in the general election, Toni will get the support of conservative Democrats, many Republicans, and perhaps senior citizens irrespective of party. But who will the Democratic electorate support at the caucus? Will a progressive candidate emerge to steal the stage? Will perhaps even a Green storm the caucus and grab the nomination? (Margaret Human nearly did so in 2007.) And what about the two town board seats that will be up?

So, I guess I will stick it out with my Dem registration status so I will be permitted to continue to be pesky at the committee meetings. You can only attend if you are a registered Democrat; to which Rachel Lagodka (a registered Green) can attest is strongly enforced as she is regularly kicked out (it is often the only fun of the night). Despite my misgivings, I have been trying to get young upstarts like Dan Torres and Jeff Fonda to come along. Maybe, if you are like minded and are registered with the party, you would like to join me sometime? The meetings are held the second Thursday of the month at Village Hall.

And yup, I think I really want to keep my ability to vote in the 2009 caucuses… But I must say the Working Families Party is looking better every day. What’s a gadfly to do?

* I just heard through the grapevine, there is a sign on the door to Village Hall, tonight’s meeting was canceled due to weather.

12 comments:

Brittany Turner said...

I'll reiterate Democracy 101.. everyone has a right to run for office.

While I was recruited by some Dems early on to try and take the caucus, I believe in party autonomy. I'm not a Democrat, and if the Dems have a candidate they support, more power to them. It's not fair for an outsider to try to usurp that. If they didn't have a candidate, I would've considered accepting Democrat support. But that's not the way things played out.

In addition to being a registered Green, I'm also a dues-paying member of WFP and this happens to the WFP ALL THE TIME. An outsider disagrees with the decision of the committee (usually a Democratic candidate, but occasionally a Republican) and they obtain a Wilson Picoula to primary for the line. I don't think people should try to circumvent the will of the party, especially one that they don't even belong to.

This is why I took issue with Bob's decision to run. If he was that committed to the seat, as a Democrat, he could've gone through the process that the Democrats set up and the best choice for Dems would've had the line. Oh, right, he was "away." So much for commitment?

Finally, and I've said this a zillion times, I DID NOT RUN AS A GREEN. With your logic, I was just as much a WFP candidate as a Green, since I am affiliated with both parties. Does that make WFP a party of spoilers too? No! I ran as an independent candidate, which was within my right to do and the appropriate choice given that I did not reach out to any party for support. If there was any merit to spoiler logic (which there isn't), you'd be justified in saying "Brittany Turner is a spoiler." But neither the Greens, nor WFP, had anything to do with it.

As for your question of "where has it gotten us?", you answered it yourself. The reason there are "weird dynamics" is because the idea of changing the system from within doesn't really work. "Progressives" are either absorbed into a mentality that they never really supported or are ineffective in speaking up against the status quo. Why, even Toni Hokanson gives money to Republican New Paltz candidates. So the NP Dems really aren't as progressive as they like to sometimes believe. Half the people in the party probably aren't REALLY Democrats (like yourself), which is a perfect example of why the two-party (or three- or four-party, etc.) system doesn't work. Politics isn't black and white (or red and blue). It's a spectrum. Yet instead of being marginalized by outside factors, as is so often the case, most major-party members marginalize themselves.

Registering with a party that doesn't share one's values or beliefs is bizzare and misguided, and anyone who does so is essentially eliminating any political clout whatsoever (not to mention the compromised ethics). The same is true with regard to voting for someone who doesn't represent you and will be unable to bring about the changes you desire. Talk about "throwing away" a vote...

lagusta said...

Wow, KT, this is really depressing.

Can I point out something that is so blindingly obvious that I can't believe I have to point it out, but apparently I do since no democrats can seem to understand it? When Democrats say that they agree with the Greens' ideology but aren't Greens because of primaries or because Greens don't have enough power or members or influence, that is what is known as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I'm proud to not be a Democrat, since this kind of stuff is what Democrats keep throwing out into the world. KT, I think you're a great worker and have great beliefs. I will never understand why people like you aren't Greens.

And the spoiler argument is so silly, so un-Democratic and ridiculous, that I won't even deign to respond to it (especially since Brittany did such a good job).

Also, since you do not come to our meetings or events, I'm not sure how you can say that we have "lost steam." I'm the head of the NPGP, and I can tell you that we are busy bees fomenting revolution at every turn in this town and this world! One of the great things about the Greens is that we are very individualistic---we don't necessarily act as a group. But if you look at the deep-down movers and shakers in this town, the people doing good work on all levels (not necessarily the politicians), you will find Greens everywhere.

Hooray for the Green Party, the party of values and non-wishy washy voters!!

kt said...

I will reiterate Sociology 101. Perception=Reality. You can slice and dice it all you want but most voters do not have a very nuanced view of the role the Green Party plays in elections and Brittany’s recent run for Town Board (maybe not technically as a Green, but to contend that she is not viewed as a Green is a difficult claim to substantiate) reinforced voter beliefs in the spoiler argument. Do I personally espouse it? No, many in your own ranks can attest to my ability to articulate the holes in the spoiler theory. But this is not an academic debate – politics is a competition for support and votes. Therefore, if it is a perception of voters, then rather to feed into it, the best strategy is to prove it wrong.

The leadership of the party has to lead, which means recruiting and running viable candidates who get elected. Aside from Edgar this has not happened since Jason. The momentum is gone.

Rebecca can attest to my vehement belief that the only way out of the current entrenchment of the two party system is to initiate change at the local level. (In tandem with electoral reform but I can’t go down that long lonely road at the moment…) Jason was a bright light in that pursuit, the loss of the mayoralty was a huge set back. The Green Party was playing a critical part in clearing the path for alternative parties but now yes, the party has "lost steam.” Realize that, acknowledge it, and act on it or it will just get worse.

As far as deep partisan loyalty and respect for party autonomy, I’ll save that debate for another day. Suffice to say I do not believe it is fruitful in all cases or contexts.

Lagusta, it is absolutely not a self-fulfilling prophesy – “I will never understand why people like you aren't Greens.” – I just told you why! People need to feel their membership and votes will produce the results they seek, and yes, you are absolutely right to say it is really depressing – why? Because neither the Greens nor the Dems are doing a very good job proving they can produce results.

Please don’t misconstrue, it is not for lack of commitment or the contributions of many… I don’t have the answers, that is why I started the conversation and I am glad we are talking about it.

Brittany Turner said...

Wouldn't that have made Bob Hughes a spoiler for Jeff Logan? Spoils = bad, unless they go your way?

kt said...

No actually, not at all

Jason West said...

This is one of those cases where everyone is right -- i appreciate KT's dilemma, and she makes some very good points. I also agree with Brittany and Lagusta's points, though they a re bit more angry and even though I agree, it makes it harder to hear what they're saying.

The conservative Democrats have simply out-organized everyone else, and this with a minority support for their positions. Their main source of power is that by consistently doing absolutely nothing, they fly under everyone's radar. You don't make enemies out of stranger unless you're taking action and getting things done. Think of it as the "Terry Dungan" theory of a political career -- he is wildly incompetent, bland, and unable or unwilling to grasp even simple aspects of how government works (i.e., not knowing what a erserve fund was for even after having voted on two budgets). He ran and won his Trustee seat against Bob Hebel because people hated Bob Hebel -- they voted against Bob, not for Terry. In the same vein, almost no one even knew Terry when he ran for Mayor -- he didn't inspire support or voters, he banked on enough people hating me to vote for him, it was the anti-Jason West vote.

That's the strength of the conservative Democrats. By bitterly fighting to keep the status quo, they can maintain power with small number.

Add to that the nominally progressive Democrats who say all the right things, but do absolutely nothing, such as Michael Zierler (whose only big projects have been to help Woodland Ponds and Stoneleigh Woods get built, a transportation project that consisted entirely of making it easier to park and opposition to a village wetlands law. Hardly progressive. And yet the public sees him as progressive, he has progressive values, and at the same time is unable or unwilling to put those values and ideas into real-world practice.

So that's the political values system that runs the Town and Village. A combination of status-quo-at-all-costs conservatives and an array of paper progressives who don't actually do anything progressive.

So that leaves the Greens and the progressive Democratic faction.

KT is right in her criticisms of the Greens.

While the whole idea of a 'spoiler'is undemocratic, un-American and empirically wrong (i.e., the article in the Democratic LEadership Council's magazine 'Blueprint' which proved that, far from spoiling, Nader's presence in the race out it within striking distance of Gore, who would have otherwise lost in a landslide). However, that's how many people see the Greens. The Greens need to undo that. End of story.

The larger point is more important, though. While I'm sure that Lagusta is right in having a thriving group of Greens, at this point, the larger community barely know they exist. They're not visible. Yes, it's true that there are many Greens in important appointive positions on Planning Boards, etc., they are simply the farm team, not the major leagues.

The Greens need to take governing seriously. That farm team can help train the others in how local government functions. They need to be serious about raising money. For some reason Greens, while building a political party, seem to have a moral aversion to both money and power. If you don't want either, you're wasting your time in politics.

The Greens need to have a serious, intense re-alignment towards the goal of governing. That means training, gaining the confidence among the leadership that they not only could govern, but should, that they themselves are the best people to lead the community. The Greens also need to develop a consistent mass communication and marketing program to educate the politically active about who and what the Greens are, and change the Green Party 'brand'. Right now, the Green Party brand is one of hippies, amateurs and a stale rehash of a caricature of a 60's counterculture. Im not saying this is true -- but in this case perception does equal reality.

If the Greens could instead develop a public identity as visionary, pragmatic, deadly serious and incorruptibly honest politicans, and if the Greens themselves became this, it would help to get taken seriously.

The bottom line is that the Greens need to be able to identify both current and future problems, have the competence and be seen to have the competence to fix those problems, have the end goal of governing New Paltz, and be trusted by their neighbors to govern. The Greens need to take a good look at themselves and ask if those who are publicly identified as the face of the Greens are people they would trust to govern them.

The progressive Democrats have a different problem. The Democrats already have the power to effect whatever changes they like, yet they refuse, through cowardice and spinelessness to put progressive public policy in place. Ask yourself, as much as you like them, what have Toni Hokanson, Susan Zimet, Hector Rodriguez, Michael Zierler, Shari Osborn or Kitty Brown actually DONE? These are the most recognizable progressive Democrats in New Paltz, yet i can't think of a single progressive policy they have pushed for, let alone implemented, with the exception of Toni's pushing hard for the recommendations of the Transportation Study.

The progressive Democrats need to take control of their own party, and then find the backbone
to lead. It's not that difficult to get rid of the Nyquist faction -- there hasn't been a contested Democratic Committee seat in years, and yet any Democrat can run. Most Democrats meekly wait in line until someone leaves, and is then appointed if no one objects. How about, instead of meekly asking to be let in, the progressive Democrats with some backbone ran slates of candidates for Democratic Committee? Not a lot of voters would turn out for a Democratic primary for Committeeman. Small turnout plus a serious organizing effort could easily unseat enough conservative Democrats to take control of the Committee.

The progressive Democrats have a fear of using power similar to that of the Greens' fear of taking power. They need to stop watering down policy because some people may get mad at them, or yell at them at a meeting. It really is a truism that, as far as progressive politics goes, if you don't have any enemies you're not doing you're job. Yes, you want to govern wisely with the interests of all of New Paltz at heart, HOWEVER, there are serious differences of opinion as to what's best for New Paltz, and the progressive Democrats in power have to realize that a progressive vision is what got them elected, and the community expects progressive results. They DONT want conservative solutions folded into policy just because the conservatives are noisy. Progressive solutions are better, and they need to start putting them in practice.

Finally, there is no reason that the progressive Democrats and Greens can't form an alliance against their common enemy the conservative Democrats and crypto-Republicans. The basis for this alliance should be getting a state law passed allowing New Paltz to use some form of Propotional Representation, thereby eliminating the spoiler effect and allowing a range of progressive parties to ally politically without getting in each other's way and allowing the conservative coalition to run the table.

The second element of such an alliance should be a respect for each other's independence. Specifically, the progressive Democrats should understand an alliance to be based on the Green Party running Democrats on the Green Party line. A better use would be, for instance, if a newly progressive-Democrat controlled Party did not contest one or two of the sixteen town/village offices, allowing the Greens to go head to head against the Republicans if the Greens agreed not to run a Green for one of the seats.

Jason West said...

Oops -- sorry, that last paragraph is wrong, it should say, "Specifically, the progressive Democrats should understand an alliance does NOT mean running Democrats on the Green Party line."

rachel lagodka said...

KT, stay a Democrat, they need you. That committee needs a takeover not a makeover. And thank you for posting the reasons. It’s good for people who have made different decisions but want the same things to discuss it. So thank you also Brittany for posting it to the Green’s list, even if it was with a “ha ha” 
I agree with the second to last paragraph of Jason's and I want to start there. We need to work on changing the system. I honestly don’t know how, but I would help because I think it’s a really good thing to focus on if it’s possible, we would all benefit. I also agree that we need to form alliances and the environment is one issue where we could surely form stronger alliances with the right kind of Democrat. That's why I thought it was great when the committee voted to "recommend" Bob Hughes. And some Greens still worked on his campaign even though others supported Brittany, but it wasn’t enough, Bob was 30 votes shy. And yes because prominent Greens supported Brittany, people did think it was a Green campaign (mostly Green party members who don’t go to meetings or read the list thought that). There were 2 members of the Green party steering committee including the chair working on it and Brittany is a Green so you can hardly blame them. Sure in a democracy anyone can run, but if we want the Green Party to succeed at making things better for the community it wouldn’t hurt to use a little strategy.
It’s not fair to blame Bob Hughes for not being at the caucus. He didn’t think it was necessary because he felt that there was an environmental candidate there – Charlie West (not a Democrat). Why would running in the caucus be getting in the Democrat’s space any more than running a write in? It would be dishonest to pretend that there would have been any write in candidates at all if the Democrats hadn’t screwed up getting their man on the ballot. So, it’s OK to take advantage of their mistake about the ballot but not OK to take advantage of the open process at their caucus?
Jason is right about the inactivity of local officials when it comes to protecting wetlands. They are so far uninterested, unwilling, or inept, but that could change—I have to hope. To get a wetlands law passed in the village we need three votes. Who will help us?
I want to mention this-- while the village elected and appointed officials sat back and allowed the developers of Woodland Ponds to violate the buffers they had agreed with the community to respect, even though there was no law in place to restrict them. Bob Hughes was among those who demanded the developer live up to their agreement and sued them. It shouldn’t have to come to that. The developers need to be held accountable. We need a wetlands law. And thank you KT for helping us with this, and Jason for the quality work you did on it before you were unelected. Now even the county recommends municipal wetlands protection. I just hope we can get it before there are no longer any wetlands to protect.

Anonymous said...

KT: You’ve jumped on in and seen that the water is fine; a little murky, perhaps, but not so different as Democrat than as Green. The purpose of joining a political party is not to define your philosophy for you, it is help reach others and coordinate putting your philosophies into action. Your political soul has torn from the Greens because THEY DON’T HAVE A F$%KING LINE ON THE BALLOT! That makes them less effective in reaching the electorate. I don’t pretend to know much, and certainly can’t wax eloquent like you nice lefties, but it’s awfully hard to make a difference when you have to work so hard just to get on the ballot. And that is why you are doing this, to make a difference for your family and your community.

The Election Law in New York State is designed to keep people off the ballot and out of the voting booth. I think the two party system is failing our increasingly diverse society. But, I support the platform of the Democratic Party and I feel like I can continue to do so if it continues to move forward.

Progressives of all stripes, shapes and sizes would do well to band together in the days ahead. The impending economic shit storm is likely to induce folks to lean a bit more conservatively on social issues, right when we need it the least.

As far as spoilers go, if you are running for the purpose of causing another candidate to LOSE, rather than for you to win, you’re a spoiler, all right. It is all in the intent. If Brittany wanted to do that, it was her absolute right. Personally, I did not see that as her motivation, but my mind reading powers are weak with the moon so full.

Stay with us on Row A, KT, at least for a little while. See if it will help make a difference.

Good Solstice,

Jon Sennett
P.S. - See you at In Good Taste Tomorrow afternoon to benefit Family of New Paltz.

Anonymous said...

I actually had no clue when the meeting were. But now that i know I will certainly start attending.

-Dan Torres

Brittany Turner said...

Retracting my comment re: Toni Hokanson. I misunderstood. The rest stands. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a democrat and I strongly believe in the Green Party platform. I refuse to participate because the leadership sees everything in black or white, good or evil terms. The world is not that simple (though I wish it were). Many Greens I've met in New Paltz are so quick to condemn or embrace without wanting to understand the nuances. In contrast the democrats are always fighting with each other over these same details. I'd rather be with the fighting party so I can learn and contribute more!