Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

In addition to comments, I'd love to have guest posts. Please send ideas or full-blown posts to me at

Friday, December 31, 2010

Wait Till THIS Year for Reform?

Political reform in New York is a bit like the Brooklyn Dodgers, minus some of the bedrock faith.  Frustration builds, commitments are pledged, hope leaks back in, and then the result is not the one everyone wanted, and some had even thought possible. 

In each of the last several election cycles, dissatisfaction with Albany has set new high-water marks, but that has not translated into significant changes in the political process or--more importantly--the political culture.  It's safe to say that dissatisfaction with Albany peaked again this year--how else to explain Carl Paladino, for example.  So what difference will it make?

Maybe a lot, and here's why.

A new governor who is energetic, well-connected, ambitious, and experienced--and who has had the opportunity to go to school on the failures of past governors and of himself--is coming into office.  He wants to accomplish big things.  A new majority from a different party is coming into the Senate, and it's keen to solidify its position and provide a long-term bulwark against a lower house that will remain Democratic for the foreseeable future.  It too needs to show that it can actually accomplish things.

The problem, of course, is that there is no money to do anything new and substantial--the question instead is what to cut, and how.  Granted, just being able to make the right cuts and creatively reorganize the state's finances would be a great achievement, and in an era of financial retrenchment it could provide a resume to back national ambitions.

But more is wanted, and more is probably needed.  And the great thing about reforming the process is that it doesn't cost a lot of money--sometimes it doesn't cost a penny.  Even a public-financing scheme for elections is small beer compared against Medicaid or school funding. 

Also, don't forget that the national desire to see Washington change its ways put a lot of the wind in Barack Obama's sails in 2008--and the perceived failure to deliver on that hope turned into a gale-force gust in the mid-term "shellacking."  A governor who could show that he or she actually helped to change the way a state's political system worked would really have something to brag about in a presidential campaign.  And a State Senate majority that was able to deliver on political reform would mark itself as a new and fresh element in state politics. 

Everyone wins on this one.  It could happen.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Feature Guest Post -- Lingering Questions After Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The following is a guest post from Maria Rainier.  Maria has a background in English, writing, and piano performance, and has worked as a writer, editor, consultant, and piano teacher.  She describes herself as follows:  "Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, researching online degree programs and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop."

A president’s signature does not an easy policy make.  Even after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” victory remains incomplete for many victims, including those discharged under the old policy and those would-be ROTC cadets at schools that do not, since Vietnam-era tensions, host the program.  Mixed prospects now loom before the military.
Questions From Those Discharged Under DADT
The same could be said of Richard Collins, who, after 10 years of faithful and excellent service in the Air Force, was discharged under DADT after civilians reported off-base that he kissed his partner.  Unlike regularly discharged troops who receive a severance payment, Collins received only half the $26,000 he was due, thanks to DADT.
“It’s not just about the money,” he told NPR on December 27, “it’s about what’s right.”  Collins is currently part of an ACLU lawsuit attempting to claim the rest of his severance pay.
Still others are suing to claim pay as well, except they are attempting to recover the tuition fees the government shelled out for their education while in the military—until they were discharged under DADT, at which point the military recouped the tuition.
Others wish to re-enlist, as President Obama urged those discharged under DADT to do if they wished.  Those discharged under DADT may sue to regain the retirement benefits after serving 20 years—even if several of those years were spent discharged.  That’s what Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, is trying to do with an unnamed major who, after four years since being discharged from the Air Force, wishes to re-enlist in 2011.
According to NPR, the military remains quiet on how these issues will be handled, as well as how it will treat gays and lesbians with families (which would go against the current Defense of Marriage Act that currently prevents the military from recognizing same-sex spouses).
Questions From Those Who Want to Serve
Meanwhile, since the repeal, other bodies have been pondering rebuilding burned bridges with the military.  According to the Huffington Post, most Ivy League schools did away with ROTC programs during the Vietnam era amidst academic power struggles and boiling political tensions.  In its article, “Colleges Reconsider ROTC after DADT Repeal,” HP examines changing attitudes at Yale and other universities.
Although campuses did not “ban” ROTC (it was more a mutual break-up), the divide between university and military comes from a misconception: “People don’t think students want to serve in the military,” Yale sophomore James Campbell claims.  “We [just] haven’t had the same channels as everyone else.”
This may change since Yale president Richard Levin declared after the repeal of DADT that the faculty would consider reintroducing ROTC onto its campus next semester.  Some members of university faculty, including psychology professor Ewart Thomas at Stanford, think that bringing ROTC courses will do little to alleviate what he sees as the intrinsic discrimination against non-heterosexuals in the military.  Others say that military training has nothing to offer academically to students.  Still others shrug their shoulders—the military doesn’t want brainiacs wielding rifles around, do they?
Lt. Col. Steven Alexander (head of the Army ROTC program at Cornell) claims that civil engineering majors and other critical thinkers may be key in upcoming years.  “The military [right now] is solving all sorts of crazy problems we didn’t think we’d have to solve,” he says, “like building a sewer system or an electrical grid in a third world country.”
Growth in recruitment numbers might not hurt the armed forces, either, since their pocketbooks may be aching after the aforementioned lawsuits.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fatal Extraction, Part 2 -- Reflections on Professionalism, and on Medical Error

Two cheers for the Post-Standard, for its extensive follow up on the story about the Manlius dentist and the more general problem of lax policing of the profession (see an earlier post, "Fatal Extraction").

Why just two cheers and not three?  Two reasons.

First, because the story underplays the dental profession's own role--and responsibility--in creating and managing such a look-the-other-way process.  The way the story is framed and the way the relevant information has been selected, all the ire is directed toward the government.  But there was a time when being a professional, and therefore being part of a profession, carried with it a strong sense of the work's social importance, a vision of the public good and how one's activity related to it, and an ethical commitment.  Now, the focus has become more limited to expert knowledge and skills.  Steven Brint's In an Age of Experts provides an interesting summary of this shift during the 20th century.  For the medical profession more specifically, Paul Starr's Social Transformation of American Medicine is insightful (see my earlier reference to that work).

And second, because although the story points out that there are critics (such as NYPIRG) of the policing of medical doctors, who claim that it's also too lax, the contrast drawn between doctors and dentists might seem to suggest that things are OK regarding the former.  But note that the Institute of Medicine has estimated that in U.S. hospitals, up to 98,000 deaths each year are caused by preventable "medical error."  A more recent estimate by the health care quality company HealthGrades puts the number at 195,000.  Granted, the numbers are for hospitals and so the errors there are not being made solely by doctors, but according to these figures it's safer out on the highways.

Friday, December 24, 2010

How the Media Hurts Politics

I've written on this topic many times before, and I'm certainly not the only one to do so, but two items in the news recently caught my eye and got me thinking about this again. 

First, the productivity surge of the lame-duck Congress has been widely touted as a "win" for President Obama.  Why does someone have to win and lose?  Both institutions have seen their approval ratings drop, both have an interest in getting things accomplished, and the compromises struck to get these recent things passed should be seen as (at least partial) agreements and compromises--the way the system "works," when it's working.  Declaring a victor just feeds the very "either-or" problem that the media tells us citizens are frustrated with.

Second, more in the vein of revealing minutia, consider the following "Consider This" passage from Thursday's Post-Standard, written by the paper's editors, regarding the county legislature's approval of a pay raise for the comptroller, which will put his salary more in line with those of other county comptrollers:  "Meanwhile, those of us in the private sector (the real world) lucky enough to be employed have gone years without pay raises or, worse, endured pay cuts while watching our expenses--including taxes--rise.  Giving Antonacci a huge pay raise, and doing it now, shows just how far out of touch our politicians are with the public.  Are you working for us, or are we working for you?"

Criticizing the decision is of course fair game, and the paper has a point on the substantive issue.  But the disdain for politics and politicians dripping off these words does not advance the goal of productive civic engagement and political dialogue.  This is simply anti-government in tone, and counter-productive.  Furthermore, the invoking of a "we" here, through the use of "us in the private sector," invites a joining of the writers with the readers that might warrant some additional transparency on the part of the paper, if one wants to follow that logic to its conclusion. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Silver Lining in the Census Blues?

My title is pushing the bounds of reality, but I'm going to try.  There's not much good news for the state--or our region's political future--in the Census report out today.  New York is going to lose two congressional seats, from 29 down to 27.  That puts us at the lowest level in two centuries, and means that the state will come out on the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the federal dollars allocated to the states on the basis of population--according to one news report about $4 trillion over the next ten years.

With two less seats, there will almost certainly have to be some significant reshaping of the congressional districts Upstate.  It would be hard to drop two seats by just rearranging the deck chairs on the RMS New York.  So here's the first silver lining:  Perhaps the need for a major redrawing will occasion the shift to an alternative method of redistricting.  Just how to constitute an independent commission (or other approaches toward the task) is a topic for another day, but it's possible that this development could push the dial a little closer to real reform.

Across the nation, if you're a Democrat and keen to see President Obama re-elected, this is not good news, as the general shift in congressional representation--the basis for votes in the Electoral College--favors the South and the West, which are comparatively more friendly to Republicans, on the whole (save California and a few others of course). 

In our own region, the need to substantially redraw the districts will throw our congressional politics into greater flux, as within the state, Upstate has lost ground to Downstate, and therefore there will be more re-slicing necessary up here.  With two new Republicans elected in the greater Syracuse area, it's not clear whether Democrats or Republicans will ultimately be more hurt by all this.

But if we take a further step back and more generally consider the question of the political influence of the state in national politics, other factors arguably rival the loss of two congressional seats and two votes in the Electoral College--and thus supply the second silver lining.  Consider the following:  Chuck Schumer continues to climb up the ladder of influence in the U.S. Senate, and is now among the very top senators.  Kirsten Gillibrand has become a fast-rising star, and is even mentioned as a future presidential prospect (premature, I think, but the conversations are nonetheless happening)--and she replaced a senator who is now Secretary of State.  We've just elected a dynamic, ambitious governor who knows his way around Washington.  And the mayor of New York City has prominent national stature and is clearly not leaving the political stage anytime soon. 

Granted, none of this erases the loss of the seats, the College votes, and the federal dollars, but we may not have hit the political iceberg, just yet.

Can We Really Get Serious About Debt Reduction?

Len Burman, my colleague at the Maxwell School and Moynihan Chair of Public Affairs, has posed five pointed questions about the recommendations of the President's debt reduction commission, along with a very handy synopsis.  You can find it here.  Len is a nationally-recognized expert on tax and budget issues.  Please take a look and join the discussion here, on another blog or website, or with your neighbors and family.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who Are the Liberals, Who and Where Are the Rich, and Where Are the Taxed?

Two good columns in the Post-Standard today, one by David Brooks via the New York Times, and the other by Froma Harrop via the Providence Journal.

I often disagree with Brooks's interpretations, but I think he's got it about right in his distinction between the president as "network liberal" and "cluster liberal." 

One of the aspects of Obama's campaign that appealed to Independents and younger (potential) voters was the tantalizing promise that as president he might change the way Washington worked, to make it more problem-solving focused and compromise friendly.  That obviously hasn't happened, and the disappointment over the failure has played a significant role in the decline of his popularity, as well as the reduced Democratic turnout in the mid-term elections.  Yes, there are lots of other factors, but ignoring this one misses something important.  The president explicitly and rightly pointed to it in his day-after-the-election press conference, and promised to readjust his approach.

Brooks's "network liberal" gets at that readjustment, and it's one I think that tactically the president has to make if he wants to have any chance of realizing the broader political-process goals his campaign set forward.

Harrop writes an interesting piece about geographic patterns in the United States when it comes to who exactly is wealthy--in terms of lifestyles actually lived versus sums on a ledger sheet--and compares that against our red-blue political geography regarding the debate over the tax deal.  She finds some rich ironies in who is pushing for what in this debate, relative to actual experience.

But awareness of another aspect of this geographic pattern is required to fully appreciate the ironies Harrop brings out--the state-based variations in public policies and taxation.  I wrote about this last year in a Post-Standard piece titled "US Isn't Europe, But What about NY?"  The gist was that when you look at the overall tax bite of the US relative to the gross domestic product (GDP), we seem pretty lean in comparison with nations in Europe--but if you break it down further to look at the overall tax bite in each state relative to the gross domestic product in that state (GSP), New York begins to look more like Britain than Texas in many respects (even though we don't enjoy many of the services that Brits receive).  Bearing that additional variation in mind further adds to the ironies Harrop identifies.

The Post-Standard no longer appears to have this piece on its website, so I'm including text of it below.

Post-Standard April, 2009

Like Dick Polman writing on this page last week, I too have been ruminating over the criticism that President Obama's budget moves us too close to Europe.  By some accounts, the President's policies even threaten to mark us with the scarlet "S" of socialism. 

Polman emphasized the many differences between America and Europe, and pointed out that in some important respects, being more European wouldn't be such a bad thing.  But taking a further step back, we appear more similar than different, and some of those differences are not what we might expect. 

Overall, our economies are different versions of the same thing—a system that relies on regulated markets, mixes private and public ownership, and provides social insurance through tax revenues.  Consider the following:  Although labor in Europe generally enjoys more political power than it does in the United States, and social welfare policies there are more generous than they are here, even Sweden has its share of wealthy entrepreneurs and executives.  In Britain, there has been a recent move toward greater use of the private sector in areas such as transportation, health care, and education. 

And in the United States, while we might be comfortable with the government purchasing military equipment from private vendors, we would not want to rent our primary military personnel from the private sector, nor do we find it strange that the vast majority of our educators work directly for the government.

Granted, there's no doubt that when we place the various national economic arrangements along a continuum, the United States stands at a noticeable distance from the European pack, particularly in terms of our weaker public sector appetite. 

According to figures posted on and derived from Organization for Economic Co-Operation & Development data, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) overall government taxes in the United States in 2006 were about 28 percent, which is lean when compared with countries like Italy, Norway, and France, all of which gobbled up over 40 percent.  We keep company with Japan, Turkey, and South Korea.

Also note that the areas where we outspend our peers can mark us as different, most notably military and incarceration.

But the appearance of an overall American stinginess on taxes has been aided in recent years by our large federal budget deficits.  At the national level, we spend far more than we tax.  The current budget deficit alone exceeds 12 percent of GDP.  Indeed, one of the newest differences between the United States and Europe is Europe's resistance to deficit-financed spending to stimulate the economy. 

Even if deficit spending is reduced from its current astronomical level, the practice is likely to be with us for a while.  President Obama's budget for 2010, for example, puts federal spending at about 25 percent of our current GDP, and projects a deficit of 8 percent of GDP.

The other important factor masked by international comparisons is the variation among our 50 states. 

Ian Pulsipher of the National Conference of State Legislatures recently provided me with data on state and local taxation as a percentage of gross state product (GSP).  It may come as no surprise that New York is different from the rest of the country.  In Pennsylvania and California, for example, state and local taxes accounted for 9.6 percent and 9.4 percent of GSP, respectively, while in New York the figure was 12 percent.  The only state surpassing New York was Maine.

The tax effects of being in a New York state of mind are underlined by’s 2008 international “Tax Misery Index.”  When comparing the tax rates levied on those in the top income brackets (from all levels of government combined), a worker in New York City could proclaim Ich bin ein Berliner.  In contrast, a top earner in Texas was comfortably sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Ireland—8 spots below Illinois, 15 spots below Britain, 20 spots below New York City, and 37 spots below Sweden.

So while the United States as a whole is distinct from Europe in terms of taxation and spending, in some respects New York looks more like Britain than Texas—except, of course, for things like universal health care and an extensive public transportation infrastructure.

After noting a slew of important economic and policy differences between America and Europe, Polman concludes that the cry of Europeanization is “cartoon hyperbole.”  I think he's got that largely right. 

But further unpacking the differences uncovers some ingredients worth considering—and reconsidering—as we continue to follow our own economic recipe.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Not Lighting Up for the Holidays

Several short news pieces this morning--amidst the thick reporting on the tax deal or non-deal--about White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' discussion of President Obama quitting smoking--or to more precisely follow Gibbs' comments, not having seen the president smoke for the past nine months or so.  You can view the relevant excerpts of the press conference here.

It caught my eye because I had been thinking about this not too long ago, and in fact brought up the topic over dinner when Washington Post White House correspondent Anne Kornblut visited the Maxwell School in October.  I had been struck by the lack of attention the White House press core had apparently given the subject in recent months, which I found odd in light of the scrutiny the president's health normally receives, and the fact (I think) that Obama is the first president since Richard Nixon to regularly smoke cigarettes (as opposed to the occasional cigar).  The treatment of Obama's smoking--all I could recall hearing about it was the report from his otherwise aced health exam that his doctor had recommended that he stop--struck me as almost Kennedyesque in its looking the other way.  Add to that the moral overtones surrounding the habit, and the silence was even more puzzling.

Kornblut acknowledged that it wasn't getting attention, and wasn't sure why.

Given the stress that the president has obviously been under in recent weeks, with the mid-term elections and now the mutiny among his own party on his tax deal, it's natural that a reporter would ask whether the president was lighting up more frequently.  And thinking back on when he supposedly stopped and the political deals that have been struck since, members of the Left wing of his caucus might want to convince him to pick up the habit again.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

She Said That Already

The Post-Standard reported today that Joanie Mahoney said on Friday Dec. 3 that she is running for a second term as county executive, and is not interested in a job with the Cuomo administration.  Actually, she first said that publicly in a taping for The Campbell Conversations, which WRVO excerpted and aired as a news story on Friday, Nov. 19.  You can hear her talk about this in more detail in the podcast of the interview.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Deficit Reduction Commission?

The tax deal struck between President Obama and Congressional Republicans is being subjected to the usual dissection in terms of who won--Democrats and the President v. Republicans; rich v. middle-class and the poor.  It's a deal after all, so there's stuff for everyone.

The big loser of course--and once again--is the future taxpayer.  The deal consists entirely of lost tax revenues and additional government spending.  Not that some of these measures aren't arguably necessary for the economy right now, especially the extension of unemployment benefits.  And I personally will appreciate the almost one-third reduction in my social security taxes next year.

But we've just added yet again to our collective credit card balance, to the tune of (based on a couple estimates) over $800 billion.  To channel Everett Dirksen, there was a time when that was thought to be real money.  The problem is, it still is real money.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Wiki Approach to Police Surveillance Cameras?

The assurances that Mayor Stephanie Miner and Police Chief Frank Fowler made to cement support for the new police surveillance cameras on the Near West Side included promises that the cameras would not be routinely monitored by the police, and that the tapes would automatically be destroyed after 14 days (unless they recorded something relevant to a criminal investigation, I assume).  I'm not so sure that these limits don't diminish the cameras' usefulness, but the promises were made in part to allay concerns about a "police state" directed toward certain city populations.

I'm wondering whether it might be worth considering a completely different approach to this problem--and underline here that I'm wondering, thinking on paper and throwing out an idea, not making a strong policy argument.  This is intended as food for thought.

But rather than constructing narrow boundaries around access to the material, why not instead fully open it up by making the live video streams publicly available online?  A similar idea was proposed a few years back in Texas by Gov. Rick Perry in order to help monitor remote stretches of private land bordering Mexico.  Individual cameras were to be identified by a number, and citizens viewing the video streams could report suspicious activity by dialing a toll-free number. 

Needless to say, the politics surrounding this proposal were controversial, and tapped the sensitive nerves of race and ethnicity--critics dubbed it the "virtual posse."  Many of the objections voiced then were similar to those we've heard regarding the cameras on the Near West Side, and ultimately the project didn't fly.

But the approach may offer several advantages here.  First, it takes the issue of police control over the information off the table, and replaces that with what is in essence a community-wide neighborhood watch program.  Second, it introduces a potentially more effective preventive aspect to the enterprise, as activity leading to crime can be reported as it's happening.  Third, it has the potential to help solve the resource and person-power problem embedded in using the cameras, as now the wealth of material will have enough eyes looking at it to make good use of it.  Fourth, and probably most important, it allows the people who themselves live in the neighborhood, and who suffer from the increased criminal activity, to meaningfully participate in the process.

Obviously, this idea raises deep concerns of its own, and on its face, may seem to be over the top.  It evokes notions of Soviet-style ratting out of fellow citizens, and raises worries about our neighbors knowing our private behavior.  But remember that the cameras are installed in public places--the activity there is already observable to anyone who happens to be physically present at a given moment.  And the idea is that the video stream is publicly available, not available to just a few.  Taking the value of transparency seriously in the digital age suggests these kinds of approaches.  We may be safer from some of the intrusions we fear by opening processes up rather than trying to control them through government authorities.

Two resource-based challenges for such an approach also come in to play, however, which in a city strapped for cash probably make the idea a non-starter.  First, it would be essential to make sure that the communities where the cameras are placed have widespread access to the video streams, and that means supplying basic computer equipment and the training to use it.  Concerns about the "digital divide" become front and center.  Second, it would make sense to expand the number and coverage of the cameras to other city areas, so that one neighborhood wasn't singled out.  Both are expensive.

Food for thought anyway....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fatal Extraction

(Apologies to Mark Rom for the post title)

After reading James Mulder's account today of the trail of negligently poor treatment left by a Manlius dentist, I was stunned to also read that she had been fined a whole thousand dollars and suspended from practice......until she completes a "retraining."  Are you kidding me?  A thousand dollars is less than one root canal.  And one wonders what it would take for a permanent suspension.

I want to connect this to two broader problems.  The first was suggested by a recent New York University study of regulation in the State, which concluded that the problem with regulations here is not simply that there are too many of them, but that they are not well crafted, and in particular do not consider appropriate cost/benefit analyses.  Based on the article, it's hard to imagine in this case that the benefit to the local community of having one additional dentist practicing would outweigh the cost of having this particular dentist practicing.

Second, to the degree that these regulations from the State Board of Dentistry reflect the influence of the profession--that they are, despite occurring under the umbrella of the state, in effect internal policing--it illustrates a general problem with the way in which and the degree to which the medical professions monitor themselves.  Part of the unwritten social contract for the sky-high salaries many medical practitioners receive is that in return the quality of care we get will be consistent, and high.  We have expensive health care, but we have excellent health care, so the story goes.  A growing body of research on health care shows that this is often not the case.  Here's one small but jaw-breaking example of that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Newspaper Candidate Endorsements -- Practicing What Is Preached?

The Syracuse Post-Standard's candidate endorsements for the November elections gathered some criticisms--as they always do.  One set of endorsements in particular seemed a bit odd, taken as a group and viewed from the perspective of an emphasis on reform of the state's political process--the three State Senate picks, for Patty Ritchie, Andrew Russo, and John DeFrancisco (all Republicans). 

In an editorial previewing its forthcoming endorsements, and then again in response to one published criticism, the newspaper adamantly defended the practice of making endorsements.  And in the state senate case it also claimed that the endorsements were arrived at individually, and not from some general (but unargued for) desire to see the State Senate return to Republican control.

I think the paper has it right, that it should be in the endorsement business, that it has a responsibility to the community and to the political process to weigh in on such matters in its editorial pages.  But the validity of that argument prompts a further question that I don't think the paper has fully addressed, at least not to my knowledge.

This is the question of precisely how these endorsements are derived.  Although the public probably knows that the paper's top editors are involved in some way, I doubt that most people know the important details of this decision-making process.  But if these endorsements are appropriate and valuable because the newspaper is a public institution--even if it is not a government institution--then is it not also equally appropriate that the public knows how the decisions are made?  In other words, does the paper itself not need to do what it is currently calling out the Jordan-Elbridge School Board to do--be more communicative and transparent?  As it stands, the endorsements have a "black box" feel to them.

More specifically, what people might want to know is:

--Who exactly gets to participate in the decision-making?

--What is the process among those participating?

--Is there a vote taken, and if so, what is the threshold for making an endorsement?

--What is the role of the publisher and the ownership in the deliberations and the final decision?

Perhaps those questions have been answered before, but I cannot remember it.  If they were, then perhaps we would better appreciate the important recommendations that are being made.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Joanie Mahoney Announces She's Running for Re-Election as County Executive

The Campbell Conversations broke a story yesterday, when we taped an interview with Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, and she announced publicly for the first time that she is indeed running for re-election.  WRVO ran the story and some clips from the interview yesterday on its afternoon and evening news broadcasts.  Our conversation covered a lot of interesting topics--look for it soon.

Surprise! -- No Surprise: A Post-Mortem on the Maffei - Buerkle Numbers

The picture is clear this morning, and looking at the numbers, I think I had it about right in earlier posts from last week and the week before:  "Check my Math," and "Updated Math on Maffei - Buerkle."  After election day, the math was always tilting against Maffei's campaign.

The surge Maffei enjoyed at the beginning of the Onondaga County vote--which for a day made it look more possible for him to win (though I still wrote that things were tilting against him)--seems to be the result of the question that always gets feverishly asked in party command centers on election night:  Where are the results coming from?  Maffei had his best areas counted early.

The one aspect of this absentee count and vote-challenge process I'm most left with is that in the end it went totally according to Hoyle.  The numbers were about what you'd expect them to be, given the election day results.  And the challenge process didn't change the course of things.

That's in stark contrast to the election day results themselves, which did not match the pre-election day polling, or the expectations in this race, at least among the politicos I talked to (a similar though less dramatic pattern held in the 23rd and 24th districts).  I think a local factor that Ann Marie Buerkle kept talking about during the campaign--and pointed to on the day after the election--explains a part of this:  the difference in the ground game, right from the start. 

I plan to write something more generally on this campaign, and will come back to that issue when I do.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Buerkle the Almost Certain Winner

If the numbers I think I just heard on WRVO are correct, she has essentially won.  Underline think I just heard--was in another room.  UPDATE:  A second listen--yes, if those numbers are right, it's basically over, unless a recount uncovers something dramatic.

A second independent news story this evening.  This political scientist is calling the race.  Stay tuned in the future for some final reflections on this campaign.

Further Update Maffei - Buerkle

The numbers reported this morning (Nov. 19) in the Post-Standard are a bit different from what I read yesterday and what I heard last afternoon--specifically, that there are still 3,500 votes in Onondaga County to count.  More votes must have come in, or the "emergency" ballots are now part of the number.  I won't try to subject the results so far to another statistical calculation of possible outcomes--the big question remains the same:  Will Maffei emerge from the Onondaga County count with a large enough cushion to stave off Wayne County and the ballots that are reinstated in Cayuga and Monroe Counties?  I still think the answer to that is tilting toward a "no," given the numbers I'm seeing.  But that's a guess.

After all that, we're likely to have a recount, as the margin of victory--either way--is probably going to be small enough to prompt a request.

This process has also prompted bigger-picture questions about voting and about the campaigns' behavior (see some earlier posts), and I may return to those in future posts.  But right now I'm waiting and watching.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

More Updated Math on Maffei - Buerkle

I've run the numbers based on what was reported today (Nov. 18) in Michelle Breidenbach's piece in the Post-Standard (the piece does not seem to be on the website yet this morning), and here's what I'm getting, and what I still don't know.  I actually had to use my rusty Algebra to generate this, so beware.

There are 6,063 Onondaga County absentee votes, and Maffei picked up 325 votes after 38 percent (2,304) of them were counted.  If he keeps the same winning margin on the remaining votes in the county, he will pick up about another 530 votes.

Buerkle is currently 499 votes ahead, so again, if those margins stay consistent, and if it were just Onondaga absentee ballots to be counted, Maffei would emerge as the winner by about 30 votes.

BUT:  Wayne County, which voted heavily for Buerkle, has not counted its absentee ballots. 

AND:  It's not clear to me whether all the challenged ballots in the other two counties have been adjudicated and counted, and if that's not the case, then Buerkle will likely pick up some additional votes, especially since Maffei's team was challenging more of those votes than Buerkle.  If many of those challenges are overturned, then more of those votes will go to Buerkle.

AND:  It's not clear where the military ballots fit in here.  Are they still to be counted, or are they being counted along with the others?  If they are still to be counted, then that's also likely to work in Buerkle's favor, I think.

SO:  Add all those up and it's likely that Buerkle gets more than the 30 votes she'd need to make up for the Onondaga County effect.

Another way to look at these numbers as reported today is to focus on the total number of ballots yet to be counted--about 7,000 according to the article.  But of those, only about 3,760 are still remaining in Onondaga County, and that is where Maffei will have to look to make up the remaining difference.  That's only half of what's remaining to count.

SO AGAIN:  Based on all that, I conclude that the math is still tilting in Buerkle's favor, but it's going to be very close.  And I'm just working off the numbers I can read in the paper.

UPDATE:  I believe I heard on WRVO driving home, and again on YNN, that a spokesperson for the Maffei campaign said that earlier today, with 58 percent of the Onondaga County votes counted, Buerkle's lead was down to 303.  If that's true, and using the same method I used above, that would now mean that Maffei would emerge from the Onondaga County vote with about a 75 vote lead (consistent with what I calculated earlier), with those other absentee votes still yet to be counted.  Again, that's if I heard the story right and the figures are accurate.  But if that's true, then what I said above is still probably true regarding the other votes and the math--still slightly in Buerkle's favor.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where's a Political Scientist When You Need One?

As I read this morning's Post-Standard story by Michelle Breidenbach on the new developments in the Maffei - Buerkle absentee vote count, I chuckled when I got to the part where Maffei's attorney initially objected to a ballot from Ghana with an unreadable post office time stamp, but then left the room--presumably to phone out for a second opinion--and subsequently returned and withdrew the protest. 

You think?

Demographics and culture aren't the destiny that they used to be when it comes to voting behavior, but they still tell you an awful lot.  A former colleague of mine, who will remain nameless but who is now teaching at a prominent Massachusetts institution, used to play a game with the students in his large introductory class--a version of "stump the professor," in which individual students who were registered either as Democrats or Republicans simply stood up to be seen, and my colleague would then tell them what party they belonged to.  He rarely missed.  Perhaps he's on retainer....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Happened to Student Voters, and Will They Come Back?

An interesting piece in Politico by Matt Negrin and Gabriel Beltrone yesterday on the college vote in the mid-term elections.  The youth turnout for many Democrats running in districts with universities plummeted, and it might have made a difference in some elections.  In one student-heavy precinct in Tom Perriello's Charlottesville-centered district, for example, his votes dropped by almost 50 percent. 

Negrin and Beltrone's piece includes the Maffei - Buerkle race here in Upstate New York as another possible example, citing an interesting statistic, that although Maffei won Onondaga County by 8 points the other week, in 2008 he carried it by 15 points.  In a race that could come down to a few hundred votes--or less--the student drop-off could prove decisive. 

I noticed a LOT less student political interest on campus this year, and contributed that observation to Negrin and Beltrone's piece.  It seemed nothing like 2008 here on the Hill. 

Some of the activists quoted in the piece located the problem in the candidates under-emphasizing college voters this time around and failing to engage them.  I'm not so sure that's the main issue.  College students are much easier to motivate during presidential elections, when the election is decidedly national.  Granted, this mid-term was all about national-level economic issues, but at the end of the day, congressional elections are still largely local affairs, in terms of how they are experienced by voters--and most college students do not feel rooted to their university neighborhoods in the same way that other local residents do. 

Furthermore, the fact that this election was about the economy may have lowered the interest.  It's not that students aren't worried about the economy--they are for sure, but I doubt that they as easily translate those concerns into policy positions and electoral passions in the same way that they do regarding issues of war and the environment.  Note that there were two big recent bumps up in voting among youth--one in 2004 and then again in 2008, and the war played a large role in both.

Finally, and here I'm back riding a favorite hobby-horse, I would think that the negative attack ads would have their strongest alienating effect among the youngest voters.  These voters are already predisposed to distrust politicians, and the 2010 election season probably just confirmed their worst suspicions.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Future of Israel-Palestine and the Future of Barack Obama

Check out the upcoming Campbell Conversation interview with Middle East and Islamic Affairs analyst Roger Hardy.  I was struck by the central importance Hardy placed on progress in the Israel-Palestine conflict for President Obama's standing and success in the Muslim world, even in nations like Indonesia.  I think we have tended to lose sight of this factor in the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan and Iran.  Hardy also makes some provocative observations about the depth of Obama's challenges in these areas, and the sources of the administration's own ambivalence.

My conversation with Hardy also brought me back to one of the most vivid "Ah-ha" moments from my first summer working in London.  The difference between the way Europe views the Israel-Palestine conflict and the way it's viewed in the U.S. is so stark as to be disorienting to an American living abroad for the first time, and can't be fully appreciated until you actually live in a different country.  It quickly becomes clear just how much of an outlier we are among our Western peer nations on this issue.  I also happened to be in London this past spring when the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla occurred, and the experience repeated itself.  The reported facts were largely the same on both sides of the Atlantic, but the framing and the feeling of the media treatment were completely different.  This is not to suggest that we have it wrong, but it's an instance of "American exceptionalism" we may be less aware of than, say, our comparatively stronger endorsement of market capitalism.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Could the Maffei Campaign Be Writing Its Own Attack Ad for 2012?

The Maffei - Buerkle absentee count and recount has become a saga.  Both sides are doing what they can to give themselves the best opportunity of winning in the final tally, and it's perfectly understandable that they do what the law permits to further their chances.  Neither side has clean hands in this race or, for that matter, in almost any other race across the country that was remotely competitive.

However, an impression of the Maffei campaign's post-election behavior is arguably being built, which could come back to bite the candidate later on.  Three recent things in particular come to mind.

--The calling of absentee voters to determine how they voted (see earlier posts, "Countdown with Dan Maffei" and "Playing the Recount and Playing with Fire").  All the available reports suggest that it's the Maffei campaign which has been doing this.  Of course it's legal, and from an academic or theoretical perspective it brings up some interesting questions about the nature of the voting act--when the public aspect of it yields to the private aspect.  But many people may view this move as crossing a line.

--The labeling of Onondaga County Election Commissioner Helen Kiggins as "an agent of the Buerkle campaign," and a subsequent effort to remove her from the count process, on the part of one of the campaign's lawyers (according to Michele Breidenbach's Post-Standard pieces on Saturday, Nov. 13 and Sunday, Nov. 14).  That seems like an attack on the referee, and probably off-base.  In my recent Campbell Conversation interview with two political strategists, both my Democratic and Republican guest heatedly agreed that the Onondaga County commissioners are of the highest integrity.

--Maffei's own public absence.  Breidenbach's Saturday article ends with the observation that Maffei himself has not made any public appearances since declaring victory on election night, and Mark Weiner makes the same observation in his Sunday Post-Standard Washington Notebook.  It's been noticeable, particularly as Ann Marie Buerkle has appeared frequently, displaying the persona of the Happy Warrior. 

In combination, these three things could create the impression of a hunkered-down, aggressive, and secretive end-game.  Furthermore, the public narrative of the campaign is that all the votes should be accurately counted, but the appearance is more of a strategy organized around excluding votes.  The concern here for the Democrats is that the campaign may be writing its own negative ad for 2012, regardless of the ultimate outcome of this election.  The Republican candidate in 2012 might have a ready-made issue to trot out, as that election season will surely be as nasty as the most recent one.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Updated Math on Maffei - Buerkle

According to the figures in the Post-Standard on Saturday, Ann Marie Buerkle has a 729 vote lead over Dan Maffei, with 6,086 absentee votes received so far and still to be counted in Onondaga County.  That means Maffei would need to win Onondaga County by 12 points in order to make up the difference, leaving out (I think) the military and overseas ballots yet to come in.  In addition, the Maffei campaign has challenged 170 Republican ballots in Monroe County (versus 30 Democratic ballots challenged by Buerkle's campaign), and if most of those votes are validated, then Maffei's required margin of victory is likely to increase.  (For earlier thoughts on this see "Countdown with Dan Maffei" and "Check my Math.")

I think it's fair to say that the math is beginning to tilt a little against him, though he's by no means out of things yet.  But, he won the election day vote in Onondaga County by about 8 percent, so he'd have to outperform his original showing to close the gap.  If the military votes do not break his way, the hill becomes even steeper.  There is also, of course, the question of the re-examination of the ballots already counted.

The question:  Do we have a winner by Thanksgiving?  Update:  Christmas?

Friday, November 12, 2010


My colleague Brian Taylor sent me an interesting academic article about the use of "none of the above" (NOTA) in post-Soviet Russia, published in 2008 and titled "Voting 'Against All' in Postcommunist Russia," by Ian McAllister and Stephen White.  (See my earlier post, "Still Not the One.") 

From 1993 to 2006, Russian voters had the option of voting "against all" in elections to the lower house (Duma) of their Federal Assembly, and in their presidential elections.  NOTA was started in order to boost participation in a society with little faith in competitive elections.  The option grew in popularity after its inception, and in 2003, almost 13 percent of Duma voters chose NOTA, making it the second most popular choice in terms of party affiliation.  For at least part of its existence, the NOTA provision had real bite, in that election results would be invalidated if NOTA were to finish first.

The measure became increasingly controversial among academics and reformers, and was dealt perhaps a fatal blow when the Constitutional Court ruled that private funds could be used in campaigning for NOTA in a way that, according to the article, "appeared impossible to regulate."  One powerful argument against it was to point out that NOTA was extremely rare in Western democracies.  Furthermore, a change in election law eliminated the single-member district, where NOTA had been most popular and where, theoretically, it made the most sense (and indeed, that is the context in which I have advocated for it).  The authors draw on post-election surveys to show that NOTA voters "do no reject liberal democracy, but are critical of the contemporary practice of Russian politics and find no parties that reflect their views."  Demographically, they are "younger than other voters, more urban and more highly educated."  The authors predicted in 2008 that its elimination would lead to lower turnout.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TODAY -- You're Invited!

On Friday, Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. in the Maxwell Auditorium on the SU campus, Roger Hardy will deliver a Maxwell State of Democracy lecture titled "Islam and the West:  The Challenge for Barack Obama."  Roger will talk for about 45 minutes, and then there will be very brief responses by Bill Banks, a law and public administration professor and an expert on national security, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political science professor and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Maxwell.  Following that, we'll open the conversation to the audience, and then there will be a reception with food and drink.  Parking is available in Irving Garage for $4.

Roger is a former Middle East and Islamic affairs analyst with the BBC World Service, and the author of The Muslim Revolt:  A Journey through Political Islam.  It's a neat book that provides a lot of insight in a short space.  Currently, Roger is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in DC.  I interviewed Roger this past summer for the Campbell Conversations.

I think it will be a very thought-provoking afternoon--please consider attending.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Playing the Recount and Playing with Fire -- More on Maffei - Buerkle

In an earlier post ("Countdown with Dan Maffei"), I referred to the "no stone left unturned" strategy apparently being employed by the Maffei campaign, when it came to contacting absentee voters regarding how they voted.  It occurs to me that there is one more stone that might be turned over--coaching absentee voters to respond strategically (i.e., lie) when contacted by the opposing campaign.  Hopefully we don't reach that.

Remember, the likely purpose of finding out how citizens cast their absentee votes is so that you know which ballot signatures to challenge and which to leave alone--at the signature examination stage of the process, all you have is signatures; the vote is inside the envelope and unknown.  Therefore, if a Buerkle voter was contacted by the Maffei campaign and asked how she voted, she'd be advancing the chances of her candidate to say that she voted for Maffei, as they'd then leave that one alone.  And vice-versa.

I'm also reminded of a story I heard about another race in the region, which went down to just a handful of votes, and in which a successful challenge of a few ballots by one campaign actually knocked out its own votes.

Smile When You Steal That

With the Halloween shootings, the proposal to install police security cameras at particular high-crime locations is back in the news.  Concerns about the cameras include the "Big Brother" worry--that their presence and use will violate our privacy and lead to other kinds of government tracking and personal intrusion.  A related version of this criticism is that the selective use of cameras on certain streets and certain neighborhoods makes a negative statement--a statement coming from government--about those areas and about particular groups. 

For what it's worth, here's one person's take on this.  For the past few years, I've spent part of my summers living and working in London, the undisputed world capital of camera surveillance (CCTV).  The selective use concern is not an issue there, because the cameras are everywhere.  They're found across the country as well.  It's been estimated that in the U.K. there's one camera for about every 14 citizens, and although the country has one percent of the world's population, it has 20 percent of the world's CCTVs.  Outside their homes and offices, most Londoners spend a lot of their time being filmed.  The heavy use of CCTVs is controversial, and getting more so, as demands there for U.S.-style individual rights against the government grow.  There are also criticisms that the cameras don't help to solve or deter crime.

I consider myself to be a pretty private person--although I've started a blog you will not find what I ate for breakfast or my personal life goals in these posts.  I've never posted a personal video on the web.  I have, however, pointed out to doctors' offices that their reception area is not sufficiently private in the way they speak with patients or doctors.  And dining out with my late father was always a potential adventure in loud personal disclosure that could make me want to crawl under the table.

But the cameras don't bother me.  In fact, I find them comforting at times, and look for them when I'm traveling by Tube late at night.  I often stand directly in front of them while waiting for the next train.  My privacy seems much more at risk when I'm asked by a doctor's office to supply a social security number, or even when I use my shopper's card at Wegmans--I bet life insurance companies would like that information (a concern expressed in Britain about the use of store "loyalty cards").  The visual record of my whereabouts doesn't seem as threatening to me as specific (and privately collected) data about me and my activities.

The following effect should show up in aggregate statistics, and if those statistics show that the cameras don't actually lower crime, then I'm off-base in what follows, but:  If I'm feeling safer with the cameras around, chances are that others are too, and therefore chances are that there are more people like me--i.e., non-criminals--occupying that space, and in turn, chances are that space is likely to be safer than it would be, absent the cameras.

This is something that might be worth a trial look.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Countdown with Dan Maffei

Check out this week's Campbell Conversation, airing this Friday at noon and again at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and available now as a podcast here.  I'm talking with two folks with a ton of political experience in campaigns and political strategy--Christine Fix and Scott Armstrong.  We consider the elections in this listening region and across the state--why the outcomes were what they were, what races in particular surprised them, and what it all will mean for politics in the state in the coming months.  They also make some national predictions for 2012. 

One topic we spend a bit of time with in the conversation is the count and the recount in the Maffei-Buerkle race.  It's shaping up to be a full-blown affair that could run into December, and involve a bevy of attorneys.  Both Christine and Scott have been involved with past races that were very close, and Christine has been involved in a similar recount.  They draw on those experiences to assess the likely scenarios here. 

As a citizen, I left our conversation feeling better about the counting and recounting.  One concern I had about the process--as it's described in today's Post-Standard--is that individual ballots with clear intentions would be thrown out based on legalistic nit-picks.  Although each side can challenge votes for the other candidate, the commissioners serve as referees, and both my guests had very high praise for the two election  commissioners in Onondaga County, where most of the absentee ballots will be counted.

The newspaper piece also reports that Maffei's people are trying to get the entire set of ballots recounted by hand.  That's certainly reasonable and fits a "no stone left unturned" approach, but the fact that it's the Maffei campaign seeking this move suggests that, other things being equal, it sees itself as more likely to lose the race at this point.

The other interesting wrinkle is the report that Maffei's team has already started contacting individual absentee voters to ask how they voted--one possible outcome (as suggested by Ann Marie Buerkle in the article) is that it will then be better able to focus its efforts on throwing out the absentee votes for Buerkle, on the grounds that the signature on the absentee ballot application does not properly match the signature on file with the election commission.  Another possible purpose of this inquiry is to check and see if people who say they cast a vote for Maffei do actually have such votes recorded in the system.

Again, it's a "no stone unturned" move, but it also brings up a deeper question regarding the privacy of one's vote.  Voting is both a public and a private act, and the boundary between these two aspects can get complicated.  It's often considered impolite to ask someone how they voted.  Try it out on some strangers.  Some folks wear their votes on their sleeve, but others will look at you in horror if you ask them, particularly, say, in the check-out line at Wegmans.  At the same time, from a civic perspective, and thinking perhaps of the ancient Greeks, one might argue that we should own our votes, and be able and willing to defend them publicly.  But I'm not sure if that logic extends to an after-the-fact phone call from a campaign.

Update:  I've spoken with Keith Kobland at Channel 9 and he has told me that the Maffei campaign has told him that Republicans are also contacting absentee voters.  But so far (early afternoon), the station has received calls only from citizens reporting that they've been contacted by the Maffei campaign.  He gave me permission to report this information here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Still Not the One

Just before the election I wrote an editorial advocating a formal "none of the above" (NOTA) option on the ballot.  I still think the idea has merit.  The contribution that it could make is not in yielding whole new "do-over" elections with entirely new candidates--the evidence suggests that NOTA will very rarely win--but rather in supplying a small but real impetus for reform in the behavior of office holders, candidates, and institutions.  Check it out and share what you think.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An American Tragedy

The Jordan-Elbridge school board controversy has been in the news again this past week--The Post-Standard's editorial today has a decent synopsis of the story.  I played a minor role in the process, when I was brought in as the outside moderator for the big public meeting on October 6, when the board decided to set aside additional time for public comment before it fired its lawyer and went forward with proceedings against the high school's principal, among other actions.  800 people attended the meeting, and about 600 of them were really mad.  Afterward, I wrote about the experience in The Auburn Citizen, and made a plea to the community to focus on healing as best it could. 

It's rare that a political event makes me sick to my stomach, and I'm not talking here about the deflation I get watching a particularly distasteful negative political ad.  I'm talking about something more visceral, a reaction to violence, akin to the feeling you get when you witness a car collision, or a couple having a vocal, bitter argument in the middle of the shopping mall.  But that's the feeling I got that night as I watched members of the community rip into the board, and each other.  This was despite the fact that the meeting went fairly well by some standards--everyone who had signed up to speak was able to speak, hear a response from the board, and then provide a brief rebuttal, and there were even some others who had not signed up who were also able to speak.  But the anger in the room was deep and raw, and it flashed frequently.  One of the community members who came up to me afterward told me that going in, he had fully expected physical violence to erupt before the meeting was over.

Local education is always a touchy subject.  In this case, many in the community have rallied behind the dismissed staff, particularly the principal--that's to be expected when there is no information.  And the principal has been encouraging the community in that reaction--the ginning up was clearly on display the night of October 6.  Community members are furious that they don't know why this is happening, and they are rightfully worried about the future health of the school system.  The board asserts they have good reason to do what they are doing, but that they cannot divulge their reasons for doing it because of legal concerns. 

My hunch--and underline that this is just a hunch, based on things as murky as the vibes I picked up at the meeting--is that the board's disciplinary actions will be vindicated, if not its way of handling the communications regarding those actions.  Investigators from the attorney general's office coming in to the district a few weeks ago to inquire about student records is a clue that supports that hunch.  In this regard, the Post-Standard's editorial today, which seems to locate the main problem in the secrecy of the board and the government being "run on autopilot" may be a tad off the mark, I think.  To repeat, this is based on a hunch and I could be wrong.

The biggest tragedy though, and what made my stomach turn on October 6, and what I wrote about in The Citizen, is that the community is now headed down the path of a nasty divorce, with itself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Plus Ca Change.....

I opened up my college alumni magazine and came across this first paragraph of a feature profile:

"I used to tell people I worked in the world's oldest profession," says Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, making a joking reference to her career with her family's California land-development firm.  That was before she answered a call last fall from the U.S. State Department--while on a golf course--and was offered her choice of three ambassadorships.

Something's wrong with that paragraph.  Though to its credit the profile goes on to note the possibility that her appointment might have had something to do with the more than $1 million she helped raise for Hillary Clinton, this is--and stick with me on the double-negative here--not change I can't believe in.

Update:  As with all life, things can get more complicated.  Here's something I came across in editing a chapter for a new edition of a book, from Robert Maranto, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas:  "Even the use of noncareer ambassadors, which journalists and members of Congress love to attack, may in practice prove necessary.  As an Office of Presidential Personnel official told me, Congress simply does not appropriate sufficient funds to support major embassies, which makes the recruitment of wealthy (and one hopes charming) campaign contributors a practical necessity."  Fair enough, but I still don't like it.

Potted Votes

When I heard Tuesday night that the California referendum to legalize small amounts of marijuana failed, I didn't give it much additional thought.  It wasn't expected to pass, and both the framing of the initiative itself and the campaign in support of it had been roundly criticized.  But I've just read that the final tally of the vote was 54-46.  Though it failed everywhere except San Francisco, 46 percent is real support.  Let's put it this way:  Legalizing pot was a lot more popular than Carl Paladino.

Pundits are predicting that we'll see more of these initiatives in 2012, given the level of support that this one received.  No doubt, but what I'm left with is a thought about demographics and the slightly more distant future.  It's hard not to think that in five to ten years, as the oldest generation continues to die out and the 60s generation becomes the main body of seniors, these initiatives will pass easily.  The most vocal supporters of the measure were dismissed as "stoners" just wanting to get high.  I think they may just need to be patient.

GUEST Post -- More on Buerkle versus Maffei

Tim Bunn wrote in to endorse the legitimacy of the negative ad Dan Maffei aired regarding Ann Marie Buerkle’s property taxes (see “Check My Math”).  His comment was substantial, and with his agreement I’m running it here as a guest post, slightly edited for length—but like all the others, note that these are solely the author’s views.  Tim was a newspaper editor for 33 years before retiring in 2007 from The Post Standard.  He makes many good points, but I still wonder whether the ad itself backfired.  We’d need to spend some money on well-designed focus groups to figure that one out.  But here’s what Tim writes:

Maffei was well within the bounds of reasonable political debate in bringing up Buerkle’s tax delinquency. Paying property taxes isn’t a private matter. It’s a public one. Tax payment is a public record for a good reason. It’s a public act.  Buerkle’s tax record was fair game in the campaign on a number of counts. For one, any person who wants my vote to represent me in Congress – a pretty high public office – ought to live up to the first rule of leadership – set the example. Then, of course, she should do what any responsible, ordinary citizen is expected to do – pay her taxes when they're due. I have to –  and I do. I bet you do too and so do the readers of your blog. Why shouldn’t our congressional representative, if she wants our vote for that office? Also, she tried to mislead voters by trying to lay off her responsibility on her tenants.  As an editor, I have more experience than I ever dreamed I'd get with triple-net leases, which is the type she had with her tenants. I negotiated plenty of them when we leased news bureau office space throughout Central New York. In commercial real estate, the so-called triple net lease is pretty much standard fare. They usually have a clause requiring tenants to pay the landlord – Buerkle, in this case – a pro rata share of taxes on the property in addition to other rents. That’s fine. Landlords don’t know what taxes will be year to year, and with a triple-net lease they're covered if taxes soar. Tenants benefit too if taxes go down. OK.  But here's the rub:  Buerkle claimed her tenants failed to pay her the money for the taxes and that’s why she didn't pay them. Come on! She’s still the property owner. She's still the one with the responsibility to pay the taxes. The county doesn’t care – nor should it – about what lease provisions she has with her tenants. The county's got no skin in that game. If, as she said, she wanted to help her tenants because she's just that kind of swell person, fine. Let her work out a time-payment plan with them to pay her what they owe her. God bless her. But what’s that got to do with her obligations to the county? What’s that got to do with other taxpayers like you and me, who she’s asking, in essence, to front her tax money while she’s waiting around for her tenants to pay her? Buerkle was giving voters the old head-fake by laying the blame on her tenants. Why shouldn't all that be a matter for public discussion in a political campaign? What’s between Buerkle and her tenants is their business. What’s between Buerkle and the county is public business. That’s what Maffei was getting at, and he’s right.

Looking for a Brief Break from Politics (sort of)? -- New Campbell Conversation with Lakshmi Singh

I had the great pleasure and NPR honor to interview Lakshmi Singh, the mid-day newscaster for NPR.  The interview aired this week and can be found as a podcast here.  We talked about her personal experiences doing this job for NPR, but I also asked her about the politics of story selection and story delivery, given the NPR audience.  I threw in my local experience of audience reaction from deciding to put two local Tea Party leaders on the show last spring.

The interview was originally taped a few weeks ago, before the Juan Williams firing, but we did talk about the general political pressures the news team faces.  What she has to say is in some respects made even more interesting by its coming before the Williams incident.

Make sure you listen to the end of the interview--the three questions at the end are both fun and inspiring.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Check My Math -- Buerkle versus Maffei

According to the numbers I'm looking at, this thing could come down to just a handful of votes.  In the last article I read, about 8,400 absentee ballots have been received.  Maffei is currently down by about 680.  To win, he'd need to open up an 8 percent gap among those ballots.  Most of them are from Onondaga County, which on Tuesday he won by--you guessed it--8 percent. 

That leaves me with two thoughts.  The first:  Will Maffei's vote against the additional Afghanistan funding last summer hurt him among the overseas military voters, who will be part of this final count?  He gave an impassioned defense of this vote in one of the debates I saw, and concluded by saying that if that vote cost him the election, then so be it. 

The second is the hobby-horse I like to ride regarding attack ads.  No one's hands are clean in this election, but some of Maffei's ads were pretty sharp and character-driven--especially the one regarding Buerkle's delinquent property taxes.  Based on what I read in The Post-Standard on this, Buerkle may have actually been trying to help out her tenants.  Obviously there were national-level factors involved in this race, but did those ads turn off enough people to make a difference?  Could they have backfired?

Smilla's Sense of Justice

Tim Bunn had an interesting piece in The Post Standard the other day, about the political economy of Denmark. 

Some other factoids to add in:  The New York Times did a study a while back, which showed that upward mobility in the Scandinavian countries was actually higher than in the U.S., which ranked similarly to Britain.  An article of faith about our high levels of inequality and poverty (the latter defined relative to our own society and not in absolute terms) is that we also have high levels of upward mobility--hence the American Dream.  It turns out that we've slipped in this area over the years, compared with our peer nations.  By providing a firmer springboard at the bottom tiers of the income distribution, it appears that some other Western countries enable more people--or at least their kids--to jump into the middle and upper tiers.

Also, and perhaps counter-intuitively, many of the higher tax nations in the Western world have comparatively flatter income tax schemes.  Countries with smaller public sectors like the U.S. and even Britain favor more progressive arrangements.  This might be connected to the upward mobility statistics in ways that conservatives would recognize--their taxes bite the same from the get-go, so there's no disincentive to earning more.  And if you're going to have much higher taxation, as Denmark does, then it might also make more sense to have fully inclusive social programs and a revenue stream that takes the same from everyone.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Could Obama's Best Next Move Be to Leave the Country?

It may seem ironic after an election that was all about the domestic economy--exit polls indicated that few voters had Iraq or Afghanistan foremost in their minds when they went to the polls--but President Obama may be best served in the next two years by turning more attention abroad.  After all, there is little of significance that he will be able to accomplish domestically, given congress.  And to do things at home usually involves spending money, which is not popular at the moment.

In the international arena, the president has much more freedom of movement, relatively speaking--so much so that political scientists and presidential historians have argued that there are in effect "two presidencies," one for domestic affairs and one for foreign affairs.  Being commander-in-chief helps in the latter case, as does the need to act more quickly than congress typically can, and the benefit of being able to speak with a single voice. 

But now may be an especially opportune time for such an effort, because absent a new war, much of what the president might accomplish would not require a lot of additional spending.  And he still has a large store of political capital abroad.  If he can invest himself personally and show some progress on conflicts and threats beyond the middle east, and forge some understandings in Asia that benefit the U.S. (and the economy turns around enough that the domestic policies of the past two years start to appear wiser and better-timed), then he could generate a body of work he can stand firmly beside in 2012.

They Didn't Play Nice, But Will They At Least Clean Up After Themselves?

In the next few days, keep an eye out on the side of the road, to see who picks up their campaign yard-signs, and who lets them turn into litter.  Granted, it's not the most important behavioral issue in these elections, but it might reveal something about the campaigns' characters.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw a volunteer dutifully going along the road retrieving one candidate's signs.

Reality Bites -- Republican State Senate Leadership Will Have Its Hands Full

We're still sorting out which party--if either--will control the State Senate.  But either way it's going to be close, and either way, the Republican leadership will face a particular challenge similar to--but perhaps more vexing than--the one John Boehner will have to deal with in congress. 

Many of the Republican senators ran on a no-new-tax pledge, but there is a large deficit that will need closing, and there will be a heavily Democratic Assembly and a strong new governor to be bargained with.  Late state budgets generate as much public criticism as big state budgets.  And history doesn't help here--past Republican Senate majorities were not afraid to both tax and spend.

What will the rank and file Republican senators do when faced with the need to bend? 

Patty Ritchie, the newly-elected senator from the 48th district, is likely to be a poster-child for this dilemma.  She ran on a no-new-taxes platform and firmly tied herself to the mast on the question of additional spending.  In her "Campbell Conversation" debate with Darrel Aubertine, when I pressed her on where she'd find the savings to balance the budget, she turned to the three usual suspects:  waste, fraud, and abuse (and personal drivers).  I'm not sure that will turn up $9 billion.

The problem becomes easier if the Republicans remain in the minority--they can always just vote no.  But what if they're the majority and the leadership comes to its members with a "best deal possible" compromise?  Unless economic growth swoops in like some deus ex machina to save the day, either the voters will have to forgive and forget or those pledges will have to be reinterpreted.

Health Care Reform and the New Congress -- A Possible Scale-Back of Medicaid?

There's been a lot of buzz about what changes we might see in health care policy with the new congress.  Outright repeal of the reform package is out of the question, but it's quite possible that there will be several adjustments at the margins, such as a removal of the new 1099 requirement.  It's in both President Obama's and House Republicans' interests to show that they can get some things accomplished, though the big domestic policy initiatives are likely frozen for the next two years.

One potential larger change that I've not heard discussed, and that might actually have a chance, is scaling back the planned expansion of the Medicaid program.  This was a big ticket item in the reform--one of the features that actually did involve a lot of additional direct government spending--and a principal mechanism for getting more people covered. 

Republicans could find some political traction in pushing for such a change, as it would save real money (at least for the government), and the benefits from the expansion are concentrated among the poor, the lower middle class, and the non-elderly--groups that might be less on the President's mind if he continues to lose support among white, better-off, independent, and older voters.  House Republicans could also get some additional political help from state governors.  Despite the reform's provisions to have the feds pick up the tab for the expansion, many governors have been wary of the provision, suspicious that they'll be caught holding the bag down the road.

Bottom line:  Look for Medicaid to get back on the national agenda in 2011.

Update:  Since I wrote this I have read some things about a possible effort by House Republicans to de-fund the entire expansion, but I don't think this is nearly as likely to work--especially with Democrats--as a significant but marginal scaling-back of the expansion itself.  The mechanism for scaling it back would be to lower the income threshold for eligibility.