The Kingston Daily Freeman’s editor made a telling point on WAMC this morning. Appearing on the Roundtable, he noted that despite Albany devolving over the past two years from mere dysfunction to utter farce, and despite the public supposedly being in a mood to “throw the bums out,” pretty much every incumbent State legislator in our region was re-elected.
The paper wrote:
With the exception of one race that was too close to call, all incumbent state senators and assemblymen who represent the Mid-Hudson, whether Democrat or Republican, were elected to return to Albany, long cast a place where dysfunction rules.
One re-elected legislator, Republican John Bonacic, dismissed this dispiriting degree of political stasis by reflexively pointing a finger toward the Big Apple, as if every mess in Albany can be pinned on New York City (said with a Texas twang, as in that old salsa commercial).
There are at least two more plausible explanations:
(1) that the Albany pork system is very difficult for challengers to overcome, since incumbents do little but dole out their member items (witness Saland’s relationship with fire houses) and arrange press availabilities;
(2) that the quality, funding and organization of challengers is pretty limp. Sending out a few emails, having lunch at a couple of diners, mass-mailing some clunky flyers, and giving away a few signs to hapless committee members does not a campaign make.
In Federal races, incumbents will sometimes lose, though not often enough. This is in part because the general public doesn’t keep much track of who’s really responsible for good and bad legislation in Washington, instead reacting viscerally to mass-media caricatures of national figures.
On the local level, voters tend to know little about their State Senators and Assemblymen, unless maybe they saw a picture in the paper of one giving a check to a local library, firehouse, or VFW. (Photo ops with farmers is another area staple.) These local “leaders’ aren’t really connected to the mess in Albany, even though they are the mess in Albany.
For real change and progess to occur, voters have to be communicated clear, strong reasons why they should change devils, rather than sticking with the devil they already know. They need to be engaged with something more personal than a robo-call or mass-mailer. They need to be drawn into the drama of a fun campaign by friends and colleagues they trust. They need to be motivated and inspired, not just hammered with attack ads from all sides, which can be dismissed as partisan he said/she said persiflage. And in the waning days of the campaign, all effort needs to focus on getting already-identified supporters to vote—the oft-discussed but seldom-executed “GOTV strategy.” (When crunch time rolls around, few campaigns have truly ID’d their voters, and even fewer have drummed up the volunteers necessary to get them to the polls.)
These rudimentary tasks are rarely handled at all, and even more rarely handled well. So the same old schnooks get sent back to Albany again and again. The result is a democracy in name only, where responsiveness to the public and the accountability of leaders is more often an appearance than a reality.