I am the relatively new Chair of the Cortlandt (Westchester County) Democratic Committee. I am filling the vacancy created when the former chair stepped down. In the few weeks I have been chair, my ideas and ideals about being the chair of a town committee and the role of the Democratic Party in local politics has come into conflict with people who have other ideas.
As a Democrat, I believe in democracy. A well informed electorate will generally make good decisions in choosing leaders or in creating progressive policy. I believe the role of the party is to facilitate and encourage that process. The party should be actively recruiting people and developing those people to be good candidates and elected officials. The party should be recruiting and training grassroots level activists to support our candidates and help get them elected. The party should be engaged with voters to keep them informed and to get them out to vote.
Ideally, by doing that good work, we should get the best qualified, most progressive and most competent candidates elected to office. We don’t live in that ideal world. There are significant structural obstacles.
In New York, the primary date is early September to select the candidates to run in the general election in November. There is not enough time in September and October to heal the wounds of a primary and make a persuasive case to win the general election. New York’s laws related to getting on the ballot are arcane and campaign finance laws do nothing to promote the confidence of the public in the electoral process. All of these structural defects were intentionally created by already elected legislators, i.e. this is all about incumbent protection. The process also keeps the best people from becoming involved.
Another ill conceived process in New York governance is that we elect all our judges, except the judges of the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals. We force judges to run a campaign to get themselves elected, but we then tie their hands behind their backs when it comes to the actual campaign. They are not allowed to raise money for themselves, they can’t participate in campaign events with other candidates, and they have to be very careful of what they say about the issues of the day. As a result, judicial candidates are forced to kowtow for years to the political hacks in their towns, cities, counties or judicial districts. They must line up and pay their dues in time and money just to get the party’s backing and position on the ballot. Then they have to hope that having the party backing is enough to get elected.
What the Democratic Party should not be is a closed society which anoints candidates based on an unknowable deal-making process. Trading support for one candidate in order to get support for another candidate in a different race undermines the confidence of the public in our government. Let me repeat that. Backroom horse trading undermines the electoral process and undermines public confidence in government.
Why bother to get involved or vote, it’s all rigged.
On the flip side, if a candidate gets a chance to game the process, then why not? Voters won’t care; they’re already maxed out with cynicism.
In the past week, I have been confronted with angry party leaders, upset that I was unwilling to go along with the backroom deal making process. They want to trade an endorsement for a county executive candidate for future considerations, namely the support of a judicial candidate from my town. Another candidate, seeking an endorsement from the committee, showed up with about 20 friends and family, ostensibly to fill vacancies on the committee, but blatantly to stuff the ballot box for his endorsement by the committee. I’m not willing to play along.
I’m not naive. I know that these sorts of political games have gone on for ever. I’ve been involved in political campaigns for many years. There is a fine line between hackery and legitimate and necessary political work. Most of the time it is easy to distinguish between one and the other, sometimes it is not.
I’m at a stage in my life where I can afford to be idealistic. I’m an “aging boomer.” I can afford to err on the side of “small-d” democracy. I hope I am able to live up to that standard, so far it’s about 50/50. I don’t know how to fix this mess. If we can get good people to run and get elected, we have a better chance.