It can be big mistake to underestimate Joel Tyner. Just ask my old friend Ed.
Back in 2003, Edward J. Haas was the incumbent Dutchess County Legislator for Rhinebeck and Clinton. Ed was challenged that year by some left-leaning activist known for his Woody Allen glasses and fistfuls of flyers. An attorney and Republican with strong land use planning credentials, Ed shrugged off his 40-year-old opponent as a non-starter: the type of electoral cannon fodder which Democrats in this area often put up as candidates when they think they can’t win and can’t find any other patsy to run.
This same opponent had run unsuccessfully five times before for various offices, including the State Senate and Assembly. So Ed didn’t think it worth even dignifying his challenger’s seemingly quixotic campaign with his attention—refusing, for instance, to debate Tyner.
But when the results were tallied up, the incumbent was stunned. Ed lost, 1,405 votes to Joel Tyner’s 1,450.
Tyner had won the old-fashioned way. He went door-to-door, organized volunteers to phonebank, spoke on public access TV and low-power radio stations, peppered the papers with letters and stood on street corners, always leafletting. He had accomplished the seemingly impossible through sheer energy and tenacity. He also won by speaking out forcefully on issues which some Dems had shied away from in this GOP stronghold, such as the War in Iraq and public health insurance.
Old-guard Democrats and Republicans alike in Dutchess continued to scoff: Tyner would be a one-term flash-in-the-pan in the Legislature. Yet since then, Joel has gotten himself re-elected four more times.
With his dogged and unorthodox style, Joel Tyner has carved out a place for himself in the Hudson Valley political landscape: the rare politician who gets elected by staying true to his values, by motivating supporters and often literally wearing out his own shoe leather. On issues from agriculture to education (Joel’s also a substitute teacher) to fracking to homelessness to universal health care, Tyner has won over doubters and fired up his fans by never giving up his principles or not being afraid to voice his beliefs.
He has earned the people’s respect, though interestingly not that of some do-nothings on the area’s Democratic committees. The Democratic Party in these parts spends a lot of its time fretting about what we shouldn’t say and how to avoid looking bad and how to avoid having to do too much work. That’s just not Joel’s style, and his positive counterexample makes a lot of committeemen and chairs angry. After all, his determination reminds them too much of their own lack of follow-through and gumption.
It thus is not surprising now to see scorn heaped upon Joel Tyner by some institutional Democrats in the region, despite endorsements of Joel’s current Congressional run by respected voices such as Pete Seeger. A Democratic primary is just one week away on June 26th against first-time candidate Julian Schreibman—like Haas, a lawyer. Initially, Schreibman and his surrogates took the Haas approach, simply ignoring Tyner’s efforts to differentiate their positions on issues such as hydrofracking an universal health care. But as Tyner started to show some traction, they have turned instead to third-party attacks.
Now, I probably never would have said a peep about this election. Schreibman and I overlapped at Yale, and I signed his nominating petition when it was thrust in front of me by some panting party operative. (I tend to support anyone’s right to get on the ballot, in this State which makes that process so unnecessarily hard.) I planned to vote in November for whichever Democratic won the June 25th primary. But the offensive, illogical, silly and most of all demeaning attacks on Joel Tyner require a response. And they reflect poorly on both the Schreibman campaign and the deeply-compromised Democratic establishment of our region.
Improbably touting Schreibman’s resumé as a lawyer for the C.I.A. (the one in Langley, not Poughkeepsie) and celebrating campaign cash as a principal reason to support him, the liberal blog Blue In Greene assailed Tyner on May 15th as “bumptious” for having the temerity to run. Normally, party functionaries expect the guy who’s never run for public office before to defer to the guy who has been elected five times locally. But here, that rule has been reversed.
Meanwhile, Chatham Democratic Chair Ernie Reis took to the pages of the Register-Star to explain why he had decided not to back Tyner... reasons mostly concerning Tyner’s looks and demeanor. Reis objected to what he called Tyner’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” image and was incensed that Joel—gasp!—wrote notes on his folder. (I guess Joel should have brought a legal pad instead.)
Like BIG and certain Chatham Dems, other Schreibman partisans have begun mouthing the words to the oldest and lamest whispering campaign in local politics: Tyner can’t win. They never really explain why they think Schreibman has a better chance against Gibson, except that he brings a lot of outside money to the table, has the backing of the national Democratic fundraising machine, has an Ivy League degree, and he’s a lawyer. (Money and status—that’s what we Democrats stand for, right?) Still, it’s always interesting how Committee folks who have routinely failed to win elections are the first to tar others as unelectable.
Looking down their noses at Tyner’s fundraising efforts is not something that groups like the Columbia County Democratic Committee should do, lest someone point out that at the start of this year the CCDC had all of about $2,000 to its name. That works out to about $100 per town. Paradoxically, that tends to make committeemen more hostile to Tyner: if they nominate a candidate who can self-fund or bring in outside donors, that candidate will use robocalls and mass-mailings in place of actual grassroots organizing and volunteerism by real, live people who live in the district. It relieves the Committee of the obligation to work hard.
Anyway, the case for Schreibman is essentially the same issue-free rationale which led Democrats to eagerly endorse Scott Murphy for Congress several years ago: He had a lot of money and a Harvard degree. He bought ties at Brooks Brothers, and he was a businessman. The Republicans, some Dems calculated, won’t be able to tar us as anti-business anymore! Just nominate a businessman, and insto-presto, decades of assumptions will vanish!
Well, Murphy just barely squeaked by a singularly atrocious opponent (Jim Tedisco) in a special election, with help from a lot of us at the grassroots who held our noses for him despite our many misgivings. After his narrow victory, Murphy promptly joined the conservative Blue Dog bloc in D.C., and pandered to the right on issues like health care reform. Despite his “centrist” stances and despite spending nearly $1.5 million on his re-election, Murphy was knocked out of office after less than one term when he had to face a tough adversary, Chris Gibson.
And as far as electability, the Schreibman camp would appear to be standing on quicksand when it assails Tyner on these grounds. As The Kingston Daily Freeman reported about yesterday’s lone debate (held in private, apparently at Schreibman’s insistence) “Schreibman was chairman of the Ulster County Democratic Party when county Democrats lost their majority in the Legislature in 2009; meanwhile, Tyner said he ‘survived the Tea Party onslaught in 2009.’”
Now, all of this is just background to what ought to matter most to us as voters: the issues.
Primaries are the lone opportunity for rank-and-file voters to express their true values at the ballot box, rather than engaging in our national ritual of voting for the lesser of the two major party nominees. Primaries are when one’s vote can help put a nominee on the ballot who actually reflects one’s politics. On the issues, one has no doubts about where Joel Tyner stands; with Schreibman, there is too much parsing and triangulating and calculating going on.
The issue which has made the most noise in this primary campaign is fracking. Tyner has repeatedly called for a complete ban on fracking, arguing cogently that there is no safe way to do it and no regulatory regime that would fully protect our water from rapacious gas industry greedos. Tyner’s endorsements include the celebrated director of Gasland, and respected environmental educator and activist Manna Jo Green.
Supporters of Schreibman have responded that in private conversations, their man is just as anti-fracking as Tyner. But his public statements don’t lend much trust to that claim.
In an interview with Alan Chartock on WAMC Public Radio, Schreibman hemmed and hedged on the topic, speaking in a roundabout way about having “concerns” and wanting to ensure that it’s “done safely.” Schreibman also stated that there was not that much “space” between his position and President Obama’s. (Obama has taken a sort of “trust, but verify” approach to the industry, one which dovetails with Governor Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Martens’ dangerous belief that fracking just needs to be better-regulated.) Tyner’s underdog campaign pounced on that statement, as ought to be expected, but Schreibman’s surrogates have been quick to scream that it’s unfair or that he’s been taken out of context.
Having heard that interview in full, and also followed the candidates’ public pronouncements on the topic, this listener thinks the critique of Schreibman on fracking is warranted. When interviewed by The Albany Times-Union, the paper pointedly noted that Schreibman “did not bring up the issue” himself. When pressed, he described the issue as if it were being decided in some far-off vacuum, and made the assumption that some way could be found to eliminate risks: “It's a decision that will be made one way or another, and my role in this is to ensure if this is done, it's done safely.”
That’s what my pal Jim (James Howard) Kunstler calls Jiminy Cricket thinking—the idea that if we just wish upon an star and trust in good ol’ American know-how, we’ll find some technocratic solution to intractable problems. I don’t buy it from Schreibman. (I will buy Jim’s new book.)
One gets a firm sense of a candidate who wants to have it both ways. Schreibman is privately reassuring rank-and-file Democrats that he’s in step with their concerns, while avoiding public statements that might be turned into campaign commercials against him. He’s making tepid statements about fracking “concerns” while ducking the wrath of industry interests. Most of all, he’s allowing himself wiggle room later if he wants to join some ill-advised “compromise” on the topic. On fracking, few well-informed environmentalists if any think this is an issue with a middle ground. And this Democratic voter takes a very dim view of politicians who use weasel words to talk around issues.
Many of us progressive Democrats also have questions about Schreibman’s C.I.A. pedigree, because we have a major issue with the continued drift of the Executive Branch under Obama away from, rather than back toward, protection of civil liberties.
Obama has maintained and even extended many of former President Bush’s most egregious policies. Unilateral killings by drones have risen fivefold or more under Obama, with “civilian casualties” artificially undercounted by treating any post-pubescent male who happens to get caught in the crossfire as an assumed terrorist. Whistleblowers who attempt to reign in government malfeasance and other corruption have fared even worse under Obama than Bush. Media outlets like Wikileaks and other information privacy advocates have been targeted for searches, seizures, and prosecution. (All of this is especially dismaying from a President who we counted on, as a Constitutional scholar, to right the wrongs of the Bush era.)
People accused of “national security” crimes have fewer opportunities than ever to face their accusers and the purported evidence against them before a neutral judge. This ever-expanding and ever-more-secretive security state is all too reminiscent of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, only it’s not fiction. And of course, agencies like the C.I.A. and N.S.A. are right at the heart of that darkness.
So a natural question is: Where does Schreibman stand on these civil liberty issues? How does he feel about the Patriot Act, or data-mining initiatives like Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness (which was nominally discontinued by Congress, but lives on in other forms)? Would he stand up to telecoms and his former employer if they are spying on Americans? Some critics have focused on what Schreibman did at the C.I.A. when he was there. But this voter is far more interested in what Schreibman would do if elected—whether he would be a Russ Feingold, or just another Murphy/Gillibrand/Schumer clone who follows the industry money and caves into fear tactics about terrorism on issues like telecom immunity. One finds no answers at his website, just some boasts that he helped prosecute some terrorists.
Joel Tyner can be counted on to say what he means, and to keep his promises when he votes. Superficial politicos can diss his style, but Joel’s real style is integrity. Win or lose in the primary, he deserves more respect as a five-time elected official and grassroots politician than he’s getting from some Democratic mouthpieces, who mainly have hurt their man Schreibman by attacking a true mensch like Joel.