Morgan Pehme

Getting Along

Few organizations in New York can bridge the partisan and ideological divide like City & State. Under the same roof at our recent party in celebration of the launch of our new Buffalo bureau were Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, and 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee and Tea Party darling Carl Paladino; State Senator Tim Kennedy and his colleague from across the aisle, Mark Grisanti; political machine leaders and good government advocates; top lawyers and labor officials; environmental activists and energy industry bigwigs; representatives of the Working Families Party and members of the Conservative Party; high-powered lobbyists and grassroots gadflys.

While this unusual mélange may conjure images of a lunchroom on the verge of a food fight, in actuality there was something of a Tower of Babel feel to it. Rather than speaking in strange tongues, when brought together these disparate tribes had more points of accord than one might suspect, particularly given the acrimonious impasse our politics is generally portrayed to be.

Most striking to me was the agreement among everyone I spoke to about the ruinous effect that the explosion of money has had upon our electoral system. In interviews with City & State, all three major candidates for State Senate in Western New York’s 60th SD—Kevin Stocker, the Republican nominee; Marc Panepinto, the Democratic Party’s choice; and Grisanti, who is running on the Independence line— bemoaned the influence big dollar campaigns are having upon the state.

All three said they favor campaign finance reform—though the scope of what they believe should be done to rein in the system differs. Panepinto points to public financing as the key to curbing the pay-for-play culture that permeates Albany. Stocker expresses just as much outrage with a system he views as fostering legal corruption, though he has reservations about taxpayer-funded elections, preferring instead strict spending limits and equal media time to level the playing field—measures that would be tenuous from a legal standpoint, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent decisions pertaining to this area. Grisanti, who has been both the beneficiary and casualty of fierce independent expenditures, also endorses a host of campaign finance measures, though he too stops short of embracing publicly financed elections.

The fact that three candidates vying against each other, who on paper are fundamentally at odds in their world view, all felt so strongly about one of the root causes of our government’s dysfunction and were passionate to tackle it gave me the sense that our political divisions may not be as intractable as those that benefit from them make them out to be, and that if only we could bring ourselves to concentrate on our concordances rather than our conflicts than we could achieve meaningful progress in many of the areas that seem intractable.

Unfortunately, emphasizing our harmonies is not the effective campaign technique that stressing our discord is. Take the Women’s Equality Act. While personally I agree with the effort to codify Roe v. Wade in state law, I disagreed with the decision of Democrats in the Legislature last session not to pass the nine planks of the bill upon which there appeared to be universal concurrence, and from which the women of New York would already have benefitted immensely had they been enacted. In my mind, it is manifest that the Democrats drawing a line in the sand over the abortion plank was a cynical ploy to force Republicans into a position where they either had to compromise their core values or be branded women-haters, unfairly, during this election cycle, as has occurred already and will continue to be the case through November and beyond.

New Yorkers deserves better than these self-serving stalemates. I know it will come off as ridiculous to our battle-hardened readers to even proffer this olive branch, but my experience in Erie County reignited in me the hope that we could refocus our politics and fashion a platform of unity based upon our shared beliefs.

As long as we are divided we will never conquer the greatest challenges to our society, like inequality and the disastrous influence of money upon our democracy. For a change, let us put aside our differences and work for the greater good of the people.