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Perspective - Election 98

By Jose B. Rivera

An Activist Perspective on the Election of 1998 ( NY state elections)
Reginald Neale, Secretary - Citizens for Open Access to Legislation

New York State, where all 211 Legislative seats were supposed to be up for grabs, yet the historical odds against a legislator being defeated in a bid for reelection average 50 to 1, and a quarter of those running had no opposition at all. At the end of this edition, I’ll give you the surprising statistics on what actually happened this time.

Since our election laws allow those with big bankrolls to control the airwaves, many voters may have believed that the candidates they saw trashing each other on prime-time TV were the only candidates.

There were actually TEN candidates for New York State Governor. Al Lewis/Grandpa Munster has some serious activist credentials, but many pundits reacted to his gubernatorial candidacy with amused derision, focusing on the most extreme of his public statements. Hard for them to imagine that anyone but a mainstream pro could possibly have any useful input on the political process. Inconceivable that “leaving it to the experts” might be an ingredient in our most serious and persistent problems.

It IS true that only a mainstream pro can get elected in our state, and that’s no coincidence. Those who dominate the rule-making process have made sure that getting on the ballot and getting elected takes lots of money and the right connections. The money often comes from cozying up to special interests; the connections come through following the party line.

In the few races that were competitive, we were subjected to mind-numbing repetition. No distortion was too extreme; no ethnic slur too tasteless. Apparently nothing says ‘civic responsibility’ better than 30 million bucks worth of issue-deficient attack ads. It’s not difficult to figure out who loses when candidates who are anxious to talk about the issues are drowned out; when front-runners refuse to expose their positions to debate.

The commercial media did not seem anxious to have its spokespersons commandeer advertising time/space for careful examinations of candidate positions - when there were any - on crime, education, health care etc. Big temptation for them to jump right to the important stuff: the reported size of each candidate’s war chest. The top candidates, who were paying enormous sums for exposure in these same media, were probably grateful for the help
in diverting attention from real issues. It’s way easier just to trash your main opponent worse than he trashes you, and ignore the others.

There are reasons why campaigning in our state has degenerated into a disgusting farce. One of those reasons is that New York refuses to give up its greed-based campaign finance laws, laws that encourage legislators to develop close relationships with deep-pocketed contributors. Which also means that the rest of us have to be satisfied with whatever attention legislators have left over from constant money grubbing. You think this is a trivial issue? This year, the Legislature met for 62 days. During this period legislators held 201 fund-raisers. Continuing the trend of recent years, there was a better than 3 to 1 ratio between fund-raisers hosted and official days worked. Seems to me this reveals an unfortunate truth about legislative priorities.

Here’s the 1998 election statistic: If you bet against an incumbent legislator this year, the odds were a lot higher than 50 to 1; they were INFINITE! Not one incumbent lost a reelection bid!

Aren’t elections supposed to be about choice? Isn’t it the availability of choices that forces government to be responsive to voters? Maybe it’s time to tell your state legislators you want electoral reform and campaign finance reform. More on this in the next edition; also - the Budget, pay raises, pork, remedies…

Reginald Neale, Secretary - Citizens for Open Access to Legislation (C.O.@.L.)
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