Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Incumbents Imperiled

Voters Want Change,

But Few New Yorkers

Are Entering Politics

By Henry J. Stern
May 19, 2010

Today, Wednesday, May 19, the New York State budget is 49 days late, but who's counting?


The gold rush to California in 1849 inspired the name of the San Francisco football team, the 49ers. The East Coast equivalent is the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, which recalls the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 in a place also called the City of Brotherly Love.

The 49th state to be admitted to the union was Alaska. Statehood came in January 1959, just 92 years after the United States, through Secretary of State William H. Seward, purchased the land from the Russian Empire under Czar Alexander II for $7.2 million, which is a trifle less than two cents per acre. The state's area is 586,412 square miles, which is more than twice the size of Texas. The Census Bureau estimated its population in 2009 as 698,473. That is about 1.2 people per square mile.

We report to you on intercontinental visibility, which has been a public issue. On a clear day, it is possible to see across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia, but only from Little Diomede Island, which is 2 1 /2 miles from Big Diomede, part of Russia.

The Diomedes are located in the middle of the strait between the two countries. Little Diomede is home to about 170 Inuits of the Inupiat tribe. Big Diomede had an Inuit population as well, but they were deported by the Soviet authorities to the mainland, and the larger island now has a military presence. So saith Wikipedia.


As the mainstream press has reported, the voters in primary states showed their discontent with incumbent politicians by the defeat of Senator Arlen Specter in Philadelphia and the victory of Dr. Rand Paul, son of Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, a former Presidential candidate. The relatively poor showing of Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic primary has been called another example of the unpopularity of officeholders, although other issues were involved in her contest. Nationwide polls have repeatedly shown a low level of confidence in public officials, as well as a desire for change.


For years, we have known that New York State has one of the most dysfunctional legislatures in the United States. The mutiny in the Senate last summer left no winners; the month-long spectacle, ending with victory for the pirates, was an embarrassment to both parties. This year the Assembly appears unusually supine. The inability of both houses and the governor to agree on a budget is but the most recent example of failure to transact business in a timely and reasonable manner.

One would think that with the failures of the legislature and the wave of discontent with the incumbents, there would be many newcomers challenging the status quo. However, there appear at this time to be relatively few, which means that most incumbents, unpopular as some may be, are likely to be re-elected.

The ballot access requirements in New York State are formidable, and designed to exclude competitors who do not have the support of political machines. To run for the Assembly, one must collect 500 valid signatures of voters in the party and in the district, and for the State Senate the requirement is 1000 signatures. In the past, many signatures have been excluded on technical grounds, or on some defect in the witnessing of the signatures. People who sign petitions can be dragged into court by hostile attorneys to explain the circumstances of their signing. The expensive and time-consuming process of defending petitions works a hardship on candidates with limited resources who are less well known than incumbents.

Although the facade is one of democracy and free and open elections, the reality is that it is difficult and costly to challenge an entrenched politician. Nonetheless it can be done. Many people would vote for change if they had an alternative to the incumbent.

It is said that incumbents are difficult to defeat, but in most cases this is conjecture. In fact, we do not know how vulnerable the majority of incumbents truly are, because no one attempts to run against them. If incumbents are impossible to topple, why do party machines across the nation go to great lengths to deter candidates from challenging their officeholders in primaries?

We do not endorse candidates or urge specific individuals to run or not to run for public office. But in America, people do have the opportunity to compete to try to effect change. The work of Mayor Ed Koch and New York Uprising in securing pledges to support reform from candidates for public office is an example of what can be done by individuals who unite to seek change.

The first day to collect signatures this year is June 8; the last day to submit them to the Board of Elections is July 15. Candidates are advised to collect at least twice as many signatures as required, preferably three times, because names may be challenged and signatures invalidated by opposition attorneys and operatives. If you are inclined to run for public office, and you have enough friends to help you, the stars are aligned.

Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their state.

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