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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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Ways To Be a Legislator

My interview this week with Don Miller, the Republican incumbent in New York’s 127th State Assembly District seat, makes a very interesting pair with my interview from a few weeks ago of his Democratic challenger, Al Stirpe.  This race is a rematch—Miller defeated Stirpe by a slim margin the last time around, despite being heavily outspent. 

If you listen to both interviews, you’ll find very clearly articulated differences between the candidates, not just in their policy positions, but also in their core notions of what the job of a legislator is all about, and the personal style that best brings the results they are aiming for.  After the Miller interview airs this Friday, you can find them both here.

The softer spoken Stirpe emphasizes cooperation, working within the system, and a focus on specific economic development projects that produce tangible benefits for the district and the surrounding region.  This message is very similar to his pitch for re-election in 2010—and indeed, his campaign literature this fall looks a lot like it did before, except perhaps for a more sustained repetition of the word “jobs.”  But in 2010, the mood of the country—and this area—was not as receptive to the “look what your government did for you” kind of political approach. 

The more animated Miller protests the state’s “addiction” to spending and taxes, and is something of a crusader on the topic.  The issue permeates his responses to almost every question, and even informs his conception of constituency service.  His fight is a state-wide bout, and he takes it pretty far.  In a year when most people think that all things considered, Albany did fairly well, he remained deeply critical of its workings, and opposed budget measures that his own party supported and that would have brought state money in to the local area.

The differences between the two candidates remind me in a way of Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay on the fox and the hedgehog—with the fox knowing a lot of little things and the hedgehog knowing one big thing.  At the very least, these guys are two different animals.  I’m also reminded of the difference between retail and wholesale politics, with Stirpe being much more the retail operator of projects, and Miller the wholesale dealer in ideas. 

It will be very interesting to see what business model the 127th district opts for this November.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Outsourcing Wisdom

As we move into our third year of the Campbell Conversations—and it’s hard to believe that it’s been that long—it’s interesting for me to note that my favorite interviews so far have all been with people who were born outside of this country, talking about themes that relate to American ideals. 

First was Jan Carnogursky, the former dissident in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.  He was jailed prior to the Velvet Revolution, co-founded the Christian Democratic Movement of Slovakia, and then went on to become the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic and the Justice Minister of independent Slovakia.  In my interview, he spoke with passion—and humor—about his country’s struggle for freedom, and his own trials and tribulations.  (You can find that interview here.)

Then came Hazim Hamed, Chief of Staff in the Office of Vice President of Iraq from 2008 to 2011, and former advisor to Iraq’s President Talabani.  In an interview that obviously touched on sensitive professional and political issues for him, he mourned the lost promise of democracy in the American invasion of Iraq, especially in its aftermath. (I'm working on making that interview available.)

And now, in this week’s broadcast, is my conversation with Lopez Lomong.  He’s the former Lost Boy of Sudan who became the American Olympic distance runner, and the author of the new book, Running for my Life.  His story was so powerful and inspiring that it was very difficult for me to focus on the mechanics of the interview.  He spoke about his love and gratitude for the U.S., his personal faith, and the efforts he’s making in South Sudan through his charity, 4 South Sudan.  Would that the political candidates I’ve been interviewing had as good an answer as he regarding the one thing he would change about America.  It’s definitely worth a listen.  After the 9/14 broadcast, you can find it here.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What's in a Record?

My interview this week is with Dan Lamb, the Democrat who’s challenging Republican Richard Hanna in New York’s 22nd district (formerly the 24th).  You can find it here. 

The conversation brings up an interesting question for citizens:  How do you judge an incumbent’s record?  The incumbent Congressman Richard Hanna has established for himself a political identity as a moderate—as The Post-Standard once called him, in a feature piece, “Central New York’s man in the middle.”  Lamb’s campaign, however, has tried to portray Hanna as far more to the Right. 

Is Lamb’s characterization fair, and how well will it stick, given the apparent consensus that Hanna is willing to buck the Republican establishment on a number of issues?  I pushed Lamb on this question, and read to him a list of Hanna’s positions and actions which suggest he differs from the Republican mainstream in Congress—for example, he refused to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, and was one of only seven House Republicans to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood.  Lamb countered that Hanna’s image has been skillfully crafted by positions taken at the margins.  But on the big spending and tax issues, and the big votes, Hanna has been a reliable foot soldier for the Right. 

One of the votes—two votes in fact—that Lamb focused on in my interview to prove his point was Hanna’s support for the Ryan budget, which included a voucher plan for Medicare. 

In a Utica Observer-Dispatch piece on the race, Hanna noted that he had problems with the budget bill, but that “You have to start someplace.”  And this is the difficult part in considering an incumbent’s record.  Hanna did vote for the bills, but votes also have contexts.  In this case, it was known that the plan would fail in the Senate.  Perhaps his vote was driven by a desire to get something started (though the current Congress doesn’t give much hope of progress beyond a start).  Lamb wants us to focus on the yes votes as a definitive statement of where the Congressman’s true preferences lie—and true, a vote is a vote.  But as I suggested last week in a post on the Al Stirpe-Don Miller State Assembly race, the way a legislature works is complicated, and just as it’s difficult to assess a legislator’s effectiveness, it can be almost equally difficult to get a good read on the kind of influence a legislator is trying to have on the chamber by a simple tally of votes.

No doubt, candidates can spin the interviews they give, and they do, but I think if you listen to the interview with Dan Lamb, and then listen to the forthcoming interview with Richard Hanna (still being scheduled, but I’m reasonably confident it will happen), you’ll have a pretty good handle on where each candidate is coming from.  Listen and decide.