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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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Al Stirpe and the Puzzle of Legislative Effectiveness

The Buerkle-Maffei-Rozum congressional race is not the only election rematch in town this fall.  Democrat Al Stirpe is trying to recapture the State Assembly seat he lost to Republican Don Miller in 2010.  This is in the new 127th district, a slightly modified version of the current 121st.  The district’s towns run in a crescent around the East side of Syracuse—Clay, Cicero, Manlius, Pompey, Fabius, and Tully. 

Miller, a staunch conservative, won an upset victory over Stirpe despite being outspent by a large margin.  In my WRVO Campbell Conversations interview with Stirpe (which you can find here after Friday), he explains why he thinks being an effective legislator requires more compromise and nuance than he sees in Miller, and defends the criticisms he has made about Miller's constituency service.  He also discusses the state's role in economic development and education, the conflicts over hydrofracking, and the financial challenges facing Syracuse, including some of the issues involved in various consolidation ideas.

The interview brings up some interesting questions about legislative effectiveness—in Albany and more generally.  When trying to figure out which members in a legislature are making a difference, media observers and political scientists tend to look for either the splashy piece of legislation, or other things that can be easily measured.  Who’s passed the big new social program? (This, despite a drumbeat from some of the same observers that government must tighten its belt.)  Who chairs a committee?  Who’s introduced the most bills?  How many have passed?  Who speaks on the floor?  Who never misses votes? (In a chamber where all bills brought to the floor pass, being there for every single one of them is immediately suspect as a measure of meaningful involvement in the process.) 

Al Stirpe makes the case for a more subtle notion of making a difference—working behind the scenes, often sotto voce, changing larger measures at the margins and redirecting funds.  It’s a tougher sell for voters, because you can’t hang your campaign hat on a high-profile measure or a rousing set of remarks delivered publicly (even to a chamber with its mind made up).

It’s up to the listeners to decide whether Stirpe is convincing on the claim that he really had that kind of influence in the chamber the last time he was there, and that he knows how to work those levers were he to return. 

But my own experience of spending the better part of two years watching two different legislatures demonstrated to me that the concept has merit.  During that time, I was let in pretty deeply, into private meetings in the speaker’s and minority leader’s offices, to otherwise closed-door caucuses, and was allowed to shadow individual legislators for days at a time.  I went in to that process looking for the traditional measures that my political science training had prepared me to look for.  From the inside, however, it soon became clear that influence within the chamber was a more complicated affair.  There was a sub-set of legislators who constituted the active core of the body in terms of thinking about policy issues and trying to craft government responses to challenges—including creative ways to scale-back and redirect government initiatives.  But they weren’t always the ones at the press conference afterward.  Fellow legislators recognized them and could talk openly about them as a group—often they were experts on particular issues—but they were not the same folks who would stand out when using the more traditional ways of measuring effectiveness.  I asked several of these legislators about the usefulness of counting things like bill introductions and speeches on the floor, and they were in agreement that such an approach picked up more of the noise than anything else. 

All that leaves voters trying to figure out how effective their legislator is in a bit of a quandary, as it’s the other legislators who know best whether a colleague is exercising due diligence, and whether he or she is actually moving the dial.  You can often glean hints by the way legislators talk about their service, but it’s a murky enterprise trying to fathom this from the outside.  When it comes to how well the legislator fits with a voter’s views and values, there are voting records to examine, and public speeches can often tell you where they’re coming from.  But effectiveness is a somewhat different animal.

In the coming weeks, I plan to interview the incumbent Don Miller, and his case brings up another interesting facet of this effectiveness puzzle—the trade-offs between staunchly standing for a set of ideas, when you have one big idea that you believe is crucial, and using compromise to get some of what you want.  I’ll be exploring that with him, among other issues.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Barack and Bob

A juxtaposition just too good to pass up. Think of it as a Rorschach Test in prose.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
      --President Barack Obama, July 13, 2012

Hopefully we can continue to increase what we do in this community. It's always up to government and it's their choice.
      --Developer Robert Congel, August 2, 2012

Maybe I'm Back...

This space has been dormant for several months--so long in fact that a whole new process greeted me when I opened up the page.  Like so much in life, other demands pushed out the time to feed this.  To the one or two readers still left and checking in occasionally, thank you.  I'll try to get something going again.