Too few people focus on local politics. That allows corporate interests and corrupt machines to dominate. My wife and I have been involved in our local political scene since 2004. And each year we have walked our neighborhood in Brooklyn carrying petitions and working to get candidates elected. This year is no different, and this weekend we kicked off our efforts. Saturday we did some extensive petitioning with City Council candidate Jo Anne Simon and Comptroller candiadte John Liu in Park Slope, Brooklyn. And today we attended a fundraiser for Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel, my all time favorite candidate and one you would be proud to support. I found people were far more so than past petitioning seasons. John Liu, a City Councilman from Queens, even noticed that a lot of young people seemed very interested and eager to talk to him. I suspect the enthusiasm of the Obama election has really made some difference and people, especially young people, are more engaged than ever politically. I hope it lasts.
I noticed a few things this weekend. First of all, just about everyone knows and greatly respects Norm Siegel. In fact I find many people across the country know about him. He has a record of fighting for civil rights and civil liberties going back 40 years. Of anyone I have supported running for office, I he seems to have the greatest name recognition. And that wasn't just among Park Slopers. People who were from Bed-Stuy and Queens who were in the neighborhood also seemed familiar with him. At the find raiser his daughter was there and she described how throughout his career, people would call him at 2:30 in the morning, needing help. He would never turn them down. Every single big civil liberties issue in NYC, Norm Siegel is there. Fighting for Critcal Mass bicyclists when Bloomberg decided to crack down hard on their protests. Fighting for the illegally detained protestors against the Republican Convention. Fighting for 9/11 widows and firefighters. Fighting for bloggers denied press credentials by the NYPD. You name a tough civil liberties case and Norm Siegel is probably involved. I think if Norm could just tap into this wide range of people who know him from his many years of service in helping people defend their civil liberties, and he could get those people to the polls he'd be doing fine. He will need a strong and organized GOTV strategy, but his name is widely known...far more so than any other name in the race other than Mark Green...and Mark Green's name recognition has some negatives as well as positives. Of all the candidates I am helping out, I most strongly urge you all out there to help us out if you can.
Somewhat to my surprise, John Liu seemed to come in second for name recognition. Far more people than I expected in Brooklyn knew John from personal interactions and community organizing even though he is from a district in Queens. I have to admit I hadn't paid much attention to him until this election. But his name recognition is quite high for a city councilman and most reactions were quite positive. I also got to watch him interacting with people on 7th Ave and people responded quite well to him. People were enthusiastic to meet him and he was quite personable. My 4-year old son, Jacob, took quite a liking to him (and I have found his reactions a good measure of character...after all, while a baby he cried when meeting Giffiord Miller...twice!). My son insisted on passing out campaign literature for John, and believe me, people don't turn down a 4-year old handing out campaign lit. John Liu was quite impressed. When I asked Jacob later what he thought of John, he said, "he waas great!"
Now, interestingly, we were actually campaigning for Liu in the district of one of his main rivals for Comptroller. David Yassky represents this district (my district), but almost across the board people's reactions to Yassky were negative. One person made such a violent gesture when he said how much he hated Yassky that my pen (which I had handed to him to sign a petition) flew from his hand and broke. I have to say I have never seen such a strong negative reaction to a candidate before. And this is his own turf!
I used to like Yassky. It has been a long, convoluted route from supporting Yassky to an intense dislike. My wife made the transition far faster than I did. But eventually my dislike for the weasel caught up with hers. But that's another story. What I found interesting this last weekend was that this dislike for Yassky seemed far more widespread right in his own district than I had ever imagined. Many voters felt betrayed by him on several issues, including the term limits vote, his scandalous participation in funding the fake DiBrienza non-profit, his willingness to give in to developers even while claiming to stand up against them, etc. I know of at least two instances where people would refuse to carry his petitions in Brooklyn, forcing organizations to specially print petitions without his name.
But even more interesting was the hostile reaction towards a candidate in a race I wasn't even petitioning in. In the district neighboring Jo Anne Simon's, there is a candidate named Brad Lander. I support Brad's main rival, Josh Skaller, who was recently personally endorsed by Howard Dean. Although I wasn't carrying his petitions, I was wearing my Josh Skaller button. Lots of people when I asked them to sign a petition asked with an odd tone to their voice, "Is this that Brad Lander race?" I had to explain no it wasn't, but pointed out my Skaller button. I was then told stories from several people (off the record) about Brad Lander's anger management problems. I was told he has a history of flying off the handle at people and is, in fact, fairly well known for this. I have heard this occiasionally before, but usually in circumstances where I could understand his being a bit touchy. And I have found his interactions with me hypersensitive and strange, but then some people still don't quite know how to react to bloggers. But according to several people I talked to this weekend, Brad has a habit of being overly sensitive to any criticism or to the revelation of information he preferred to keep hidden. Speaking of such information, I also found that Brad's connection to the Dov Hikind, a politician with well-known racist views, is fairly widely known and definitely hurting him in the Park Slope area. Brad has tried to keep that under wraps outside of the Hasidic community, where it helps him. Yet this weekend, people specifically brought it up and made it clear it was a deal breaker. Problem with allying yourself with someone like Dov is people in the district don't like Dov Hikind's intolerance.
In contrast to the races where I found high name recognition for people like Norman Siegel, John Liu and Josh Skaller (positive name recognition) or Dov Hikind, David Yassky and Brad Lander (negative name recognition) I found less name recognition in the race where Jo Anne Simon is running. And yet this is actually an important race because the two frontrunners are Steve Levin, an aide to Brooklyn's corrupt Party Boss, Vito Lopez, against Jo Anne Simon, a well-known reformer. Hopefully Jo Anne Simon can increase her visibility in the district. She has served the district for years as a district leader, but ironically may be better known nationally for her support for disabled rights. Interestingly, Jo Anne Simon has even argued before Judge Sotomayor, and has quite a bit to say about her.
Now why is all this of interest to all you out there? After all, every name I have mentioned is a Democrat. But there are Democrats like Norman Siegel, Josh Skaller and Jo Anne Simon who represent reform, grassroots, and liberal politics. Then there are those, like Steve Levin and Brad Lander who, though fairly liberal, have strong corporate and developer ties and shady connections. In Brad's case there is also what seems to be an issue with his temperment. And finally there are those Democrats like Dov Hikind (Brad Lander's ally) who, despite being Democrats, are in favor of racial profiling of Muslims, are anti-marriage equality and in favor of keeping blacks out of "good" neighborhoods. All Democrats should be interested in electing better Democrats and avoiding those who will prove to be sell outs, corrupt or DINOs.
But the most important message is that THIS is the meat of politics. Getting to know your local politicians, fighting for the good ones who are in races where your efforts are going to be critical and where a few hundred votes can mean the difference between a corrupt judge and an honest one or someone who favors developers vs. someone who favors communities. And often you only learn these things and only know who the best people are if you get involved with local primaries.
For those who want more information on some of these candidates, you can read about the 33rd (Jo Anne Simon's race) and 39th (Josh Skaller's race) City Council races here, to learn more about Norman Siegel read here, here and here. Learn more about David Yassky and my long declining relationship with him here, here, here and here...to name just a few. For more on Brad Lander, read here, here, and here.