Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Reformer's Tale, Part I

I tried to do for a county in New York what Sarah Palin did for the state of Alaska. She succeeded where I failed. In a nutshell, that is the key reason I admire her politically. Throw in her affirmation of the value of the life of her son Trig, as my own mother and father did with the life of my Down Syndrome brother Ralph (and the world is a better place for them having done so), and you will know why I admire her so very much personally. It is my sense that the magnitude of her accomplishment politically is significantly under-appreciated, not least of all by the curmudgeonly conservatives who have been so reluctant to embrace her. I think the unhinged Left doesn't care a whit about her reform credentials, and are threatened by her as a living, breathing embodiment of a person for whom "pro life" isn't a political designation, but a philosophy of life. As I say about my mom, she was pro life before being pro life was uncool.

Back to politics: I want to review my own (mercifully brief) experience in politics in an attempt to convey what some fellow reformers and I were up against in a small rural county in upstate New York. I first ran for the office of County Legislator in 2001. It was viewed by most as a bold and stupid move, as I was taking on a popular incumbent who had served since the position was created in the mid-'70s. However, a close friend had begun paying attention to the legislature, as it affected him in his business as a builder. He wanted to run (and he too was running against a popular incumbent) and recruited me to join him on the GOP slate. This was all new to me, and I hit the internet, reading whatever I could that I thought might help me run a campaign (I didn't get much help from the party). In addition to tactical advice, I poured over county financial data available through the New York State Comptroller's Office. I hit upon a way to present the data in just a few bar graphs, showing that per capita spending in our county was substantially higher than it was in bordering counties, as well as in counties of comparable size. I did the door-to-door campaigning thing, becoming intimately familiar with street names, presenting my graphs to the voters, and thoroughly enjoying the experience - I thought it was a neat way to meet a lot of neighbors I otherwise would never have known. It was cool swapping stories, discussing issues, and just jawing with the voters. (It wasn't all sweetness and light, but that can wait.) I could really feel the momentum building, and I thought that maybe the naysayers would be in for a big surprise. The voters really responded to my appeal to them.

Now, I want to be careful about how I say this, as I don't want to create the impression, in any way, that events of 9/11 are any more important to me than for any other citizen of this country because of what I am about to say: I truly believe that I lost a very close election in no small part because I lost a couple of weeks of campaigning in the wake of that horrific event. Whether right or wrong in that analysis, it doesn't change the fact that I lost, by about 30 votes (about 2,000 were cast, I think). I came much closer than anyone thought I could have. One of the things I showed voters was my prediction of the size of the coming tax increase (it wasn't hard: I simply saw that they drained the reserve fund in order not to have a tax increase in an election year, used the data to predict the budget for 2002, and realized that the tax levy would have to be increased by 28% to cover costs). Our opponents put out an infamous document the day before the 2001 election, warning voters not to fall for "Chicken Little" politics - the sky wasn't falling and the tax increase wasn't going to be nearly as bad as we were predicting. I might have lost that election, but when the inevitable occurred, and Chicken Little was proved right, it made the 2003 campaign a heck of a lot easier. The incumbent I ran against announced his retirement, as did a couple of other long-serving incumbents, and the Republican party took control of the legislature for the first time in many years. We had laid the groundwork for the landslide to come.

Before we get to 2003 and my time in office, though, let me briefly review the 2001-2003 term. The friend who talked me into running won his race in 2001, but he was one of only two reform Republicans elected. The GOP incumbents who were reelected ranged from clueless to passive. My friend didn't get into this for the health insurance bennies or the status (such as it was); he entered politics to make a difference, to do something about the rising cost of the government and the declining standard of living in our county. He would often vent when we would talk at school or church, but rarely as much as he would during our weekly racquetball match, which included two other friends. He would hit the ball with an anger born of frustration at the way things were, and at the inability to make anything positive happen. He would sometimes be so out of sorts that he had trouble concentrating on playing the game. He had no support from his own caucus, and he had to butt heads with the entrenched Democrats and bureaucrats who made effecting change one step short of miraculous. I realized I had better run again, and win, if just for his sanity. As it turns out, we won 14 of 19 seats, with 7 reform-minded Republicans joining seven passive Republicans and some new Democrats who, at least initially, worked hard to make things right.

The elephant in the GOP caucus room, which my friend had reminded me about over and over during his first term in office, was the Treasurer. He was a senior member of the GOP (he was the campaign director, but not much help to me, in 2001) and had the full support of the party leaders. However, his performance as Treasurer was abysmal, from his lack of basic accounting skills (no financial background is needed to be elected Treasurer in Cortland County, and he had none) to his lack of accountability. Several formal warnings from the Albany state government demanding mandatory fiscal data that had not been submitted went unaddressed. Our ability to reform the county government without trustworthy financial information, we knew, would be crippled. He did not discipline underperforming employees in his office. He did not attend Budget & Finance Committee meetings. He did not provide monthly financial data to the legislature. He was the face of GOP incompetence, and we knew we would have to deal with him. We also knew that this would be difficult, given that he was a member of our party, and that the 6 or 7 passive Republicans were not going to join us in fighting to make things right.

This is how we embarked on our journey to make the county government accountable to the voters, fiscally sound, and transparent in its operations: with a major obstacle in our path that had Sacred Cow status with the party elders. Sarah Palin must have felt the same way we did early on, when she was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She realized early on that there were ethical problems with Republican officials on the Commission and in the state, and did not back off from making her concerns public. In the end, she forced the resignations of two high-ranking GOP officials, with one paying a hefty fine as well. Rather than being dragged down politically, she went on to bigger and better things.

In a future post, I will relate how we tried to play with the hand we were dealt. We didn't fail for a lack of energy, resolve, and willingness to work. We failed because we were opposed by the party apparatus, legislators who offered neither support nor a viable alternative, a lazy and often malicious press, and some double-dealing Democrats. We didn't fail without a fight, and having put my reputation as a physician in a small town on the line, I didn't take it lying down. I will talk about the progress we made but our ultimate failure to get things done. As I have said, Sarah Palin succeeded where I failed, and I regard the failure to appreciate her success as a shortcoming on the part of the David Frums, Charles Krauhammers, and Heather MacDonalds of the world. As I tell more about my own experience, I hope that the political skill she must have brought to bear will become evident. Stay tuned.

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