History, We Hope

I’m writing this the morning after a historic primary election day here in Albany, and also the morning after a Presidential saber-rattling speech about a proposed act of war that, amazingly enough, even the general news coverage seems to admit Americans are not enthusiastic about. (Perhaps we are finalizing realizing our own internal inconsistency about what’s ok when we do it, or an ally does it, versus someone we don’t care about, versus a strategic enemy?)

Those things shouldn’t really be related, but somehow I’m finding them tangled together in my head this morning.

Local activist Dan Van Riper in his “totally biased election guide” wrote that young progressives disillusioned by President Obama’s disgusting embrace of civilian killing in the name of anti-terrorism and violations of civil rights and citizen privacy seemed to be skeptical of Kathy Sheehan as a mayoral candidate merely because she shares a generation with the president.

As someone who supported Sheehan, but recognized within myself that tug of skepticism Van Riper referred to, I’m not so sure it has anything to do the ages of the candidates. I think it’s just a faint echo of remembering celebrating a win for someone with basically good stands on the issues, a demographic first, and a strong appeal based on demonstrated competency and getting-things-done, who has gone on to mimic his predecessor more dramatically and disastrously than most of us imagined possible.

I am eagerly looking forward to the changes that Mayor Sheehan will bring, and I believe she will govern differently, in positive ways, than Mayor Jennings did. I don’t think she will bomb Syria. I do think, for example, she will bring a much more critical eye to the way tax breaks are handed out and a more long-term strategy to the city’s fiscal health and image. I think she has the ear of a whole bunch of committed Albany activists who had trouble getting heard in the previous administration merely for being out of the old boys club.

But forgive a little cynicism here: Sheehan had the support of the same Albany Democratic Committee that would have endorsed Jennings without a second thought if he had run again. She has that kind of soft spot for expertise which is a grand step up from a soft spot for inside connections, but can sometimes override concerns of citizen representation and unofficial lived-experience expertise. And remember Jennings himself started out as a reformer.

I realize this does not amount to actual critique, merely a sense that now is not a good time to count our chickens. (Though hey, maybe we can at least get backyard chickens now.)

So let’s just say this: I am all for diversifying our elected offices—by race and by gender. But doing so, either one, does not smash any machines. Smashing machines smashes machines. Changing the role and operations and composition of ward committees and county committees and introducing healthy other political parties smashes machines. Changing incentive structures and assumptions about politics has to work smashes machines. Resisting the pull of efficiency and smooth operations when they conflict with conscience and accountability even after several years in office smashes machines. Staying committed to vision and citizen input even when it’s messy smashes machines.

(Changing the audio system so that the public can actually hear what is said during public meetings in the council chambers wouldn’t hurt either, on a symbolic level.)

For those who know me, of course, I am not actually a cynic. I think the lessons we should draw from Obama and the pushback he’s getting on Syria are not that change never comes, nor that we necessarily shouldn’t support candidates that remind us of him in some way, but that once they win the honeymoon should be brief and unforgiving. No passes for bad decisions based on historic barrier breaking. Anything we would have critiqued Jerry for, we should be equally grumpy to hear about from Kathy’s administration.

Forgive me for being the skunk in the garden party here. Hopefully, and quite possibly, this is a totally off-base, unnecessary warning and we can all soon dance on the remnants of a smashed machine, and celebrate real movement to helping Albany to become a thriving, equitable center in a thriving, equitable urban region. It could well be. But to make it happen it will take non-machine-like support and input. Let’s not be shy.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Sept. 12, 2013.)

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