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.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Somehow, Even More on J-E

In the opening of his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte--a work about the 1851 French coup d'etat by Napoleon's nephew--Karl Marx, remarking on Hegel's observation that history tends to repeat itself, quipped that "He forgot to add:  the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." 

What about the third time? 

Now the new superintendent of J-E is embroiled in a scandal regarding a contract and an apparent relationship with the director of operations.  This was the superintendent who took what I thought to be a too aggressive and overly closed-off approach toward public comment in the wake of the strong reactions against the board's dismissal of several administrators.

In a separate set of recent Post-Standard stories, it was also reported that there are state-level investigations into actions that occurred while these administrators were in place--the subject of my recent and now missing blog post (see below).  The most significant inquiry seems to be the state AG examining the treatment of student records.  It looks like the outcome of these investigations may suggest that the original decisions of the board were justified, but we'll have to see.  I had wondered about something like this months ago, and wrote as much--things just didn't make any sense otherwise.

But back to this latest development.  Everything has been under microscopes for months.  What was the thinking in drawing up and approving that contract, especially given the other matters suggested by the paper?

The other day I had written--in the now-missing post--that it will likely take a very long time, and some expert outside help from people J-E residents trust, in order for the community to recover from the past year.  Double that now.

Lost Post

I posted something on the Jordan-Elbridge saga the other day, and mysteriously, it is now not here.  Did anyone see it, or did it never appear?  There have been other smaller-scale strange happenings using this basic blog tool.  I will investigate.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Radical Proposal to Unchallenged Republican County Candidates -- A Real Debate Versus a Campaign

Yesterday's Post-Standard reported that the three top county-wide incumbent elected officials are not likely to face any Democratic Party opposition next fall, and may not even have minor party opposition.

In each individual case there are good reasons why a serious potential Democratic candidate might decide to sit this cycle out, and there are some good overall reasons for this as well.  Some of them are related in the story, which you can find here.  Serious, quality challengers tend to pick their runs very carefully.

My purpose in writing about this is something different, however, and it relates to the small-d democratic concern that the story points to--is it good for our system to have people running unopposed?  The short answer of course is no.  But if it proves to be true this fall, this feature could offer a silver lining--which I propose here as a challenge to the incumbents as well as thoughtful critics in the community.

Official campaigns have become overly guarded, packaged affairs, with the adversaries more worried about not screwing something up than with convincing people to sign on to a coherent and bold set of policy ideas.  The candidates rarely engage each other intellectually.  In other words, we've come a long way from Lincoln-Douglas.

Since this time around the incumbents literally can't lose, why not take this opportunity to have some real conversations in the public interest on the issues that relate to each position?  What I have in mind are a series of debates, or rather let's just call them spirited, authentic discussions, in which the incumbent would pair off with someone in the community who has a view different from the decisions the incumbent has made and the path he or she has followed.  They don't necessarily have to be directly opposed, just different.  This discussion could then lead to a broader discussion of the macro-level ideas and values that guide their more specific policy positions--what H.W. Bush used to call "the vision thing."

So, for example, a retired judge might debate District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick about evidence and disclosure rules, which could in turn lead to a discussion about philosophies of criminal justice and the best ways to reduce crime.  Or County Executive Joanie Mahoney might debate someone from the suburbs about the proper relationship between the city and the towns, which could lead to a broader discussion about consolidation and the meaning of political boundaries.  Personally, I'd love to see a debate on the role of party, party discipline, and the nature of executive leadership.

Would this still seem risky to an incumbent?  You bet--what if they "lose" the debate?  But if it were set up in the right way, and the participants approached it in the right spirit, I think it's possible to avoid this trap.  The media would have to help out with this part, and it may require an act of great restraint by the paper and other outlets not to report the events as zero-sum games.  But we remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates not because of who "won" them, but because of the importance of the questions, the process used, and the substantive quality of the entire argument.

Incumbents:  What do you think--are you game?  And are there people out there who are up to the challenge?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Can't Anybody Here Play This Change?

I get a lot of partisan communications and solicitations for donations, from all sides and through all mediums.  It comes with the territory.  The messages almost all of them contain are absurd caricatures of their adversaries, and it will come as no surprise to anyone that I've seen no evidence of a tone-down or a fact-up since the "change I could believe in" election of 2008.  Policy has moved, but not politics. 

But I received one such piece the other day that's particularly notable for the irony--hence this post.  It happens to be from the Democrats.  Senator Charles Schumer and Democratic Party Headquarters, on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sent to a misspelled version of me an alarmist warning about the "Radical Right's" imminent takeover of the U.S. Senate.  The Cracker Jack prize inside the envelope was a notepad with the following line printed at the top of every sheet:  "Stand with President Obama for Lasting Change:  Silence GOP Lies." 

Really?  That's the change we can believe in?  Like I'm going to jot down a note on that and leave it for a work colleague or the UPS guy.  I wonder what the actual President Obama would do with this.  My last thread of civic faith says he tears it up--that's what I did.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Wisdom of Crowds?

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, there's been much discussion about the morality of the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in several American cities, most notably New York and Washington, DC, the two cities most closely associated with the 9/11 attacks.  I too had an immediate reaction when I saw the crowds cheering, but my thoughts went not so much to whether it was wrong--or just bad form--but rather to whether it was wise.  Others have since made this point, but I'm sure this footage is being viewed, re-viewed, shared, and stored by some we'd rather not have seen it.  While I understand, empathize with, and even share the impulse that led these folks into the street, a second chance to think on it beforehand would have served us well down the road.

The footage also led me to wonder what the British were doing.  They too have much reason to celebrate bin Laden's death, but they also have much more experience living with terrorism.  I wrote several London friends and colleagues, and none reported hearing of or seeing any kind of public celebrations.

Looking at the pictures of the crowds and observing their youth, I'm left wondering how much of this was a social media celebration--a strange and more trivial bookend of sorts to what we've seen in the Arab Spring.

And circling back to the title of this post, it also bears noting that most of us didn't take to the streets.  In the new media age, however, that basic fact is just context.

Honoring All Our Heroes

My colleague and friend Terry Newell let me join a worthy effort he is helping to organize to make sure, as a nation, we properly honor federal civil servants who die in service to our country.  Shockingly--at least to me--we currently have no policy regarding this.

Please see our Post-Standard opinion piece on the issue, which you can find here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Really Neat Conversation

Please check out my recent Campbell Conversation interview with Jan Carnogursky, which you can find here.  It's probably my favorite interview so far in the series.  Jan was a dissident leader in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, who was jailed prior to the “Velvet Revolution,” which freed him.  He went on to serve as the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, and then later its Justice Minister.  In this interview he relates growing up in the Soviet-controlled system and becoming a dissident, his experiences in prison, and the exciting and challenging times as a leader of an emerging democracy and a politician who had to learn the political skills required in democratic politics.  He then connects some of these experiences to current revolutions and current politics more generally.  The stories were amazing and he was just a really neat person to talk with.

Say Not?

Our local school district, Fayetteville-Manlius, has a school board election coming up on May 17, along with the annual budget votes.  I recently phoned the superintendent's office to ask if the candidates had held any public forums so that citizens could ask questions, and whether they'd be having any additional forums prior to the election.  The answers, which stunned me, were no and no (there is a budget public hearing on May 9).  I guess it may not matter as there are three seats to be filled, and three candidates.

(p.s.  I've been consumed with work lately and have not been posting--I'm hoping that's about to change.)