ITHACA, N.Y. — Primary Day is Tuesday. I’m writing to share some history of how your vote in this – and even more – in every election, has rippling impact beyond any individual race, that can be impossible to predict.
That’s the genius of a democratic republic: it works best when we don’t try to game the system. Vote for the candidate who stands for what you believe. But most of all, vote.
I was one of the candidates the last time there was a Democratic primary to unseat Congressman Tom Reed. I lost that 2012 primary to Nate Shinagawa, and then volunteered, knocked doors, and fundraised for him in the general election. Shinagawa came up short against Reed by 4 points. The next time the seat was up, in 2014, there was no primary, and the Democratic candidate, Martha Robertson, lost to Reed by 22 points. There also was no primary in 2016, when Democrat John Plumb lost by 15 points.
The last time a Democrat won the seat that Reed now holds was 2008, when Democrat Eric Massa ousted then-incumbent Republican Congressman Randy Kuhl. Massa retired midway through his first term, and Reed won the open seat in 2010.
The district was slightly different in 2008 than when Democrats lost in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Back in 2008, when the Democrat won, the district had fewer Democrats.
Let’s look at the district. Back in 2008, when it was called the 29th district, it contained seven counties. Except for a bit of rural Monroe, all or part of those same counties are in today’s 23 rd district, which now also includes an additional influx of registered Democrats from Tompkins (Ithaca) and Chautauqua (Jamestown).
In the 2010 census, New York lost population relative to other states. This meant it had to give up two Congressional seats to other states, and then redistribute the geographic turf from those eliminated seats into remaining New York districts. New York law gives that process of “redistricting” to the State Legislature.
But 2011 came and went, and the dysfunctional New York State Legislature simply could not agree on a new map in time for the 2012 election. In January 2012, Tompkins County’s Congressman Maurice Hinchey announced that he would retire. His district was a long, skinny gerrymander capturing relatively Democratic communities from Ithaca at the western end, along the highway east to Poughkeepsie. State legislators quickly targeted this as one of the two discards.
The state-level bickering continued into 2012, Primary Day loomed in June, and the voters of New York still didn’t know which districts they’d be living in come voting time. That wasn’t bad for incumbents, who had name recognition advantage to hit the ground running as soon as districts were drawn. But those of us thinking of challenges couldn’t know which incumbent’s district we would be drawn into.
A federal judge got involved, decided that with just three months till the primary, voters were disenfranchised by not knowing who their incumbent Congresspeople were, and took the redistricting job away from the Legislature.
I like to imagine this judge sitting up late at night with her clerks, poring over maps and relishing the chance to remedy gerrymandered wrongs. The lines she drew in 2012 generally made sense. Today’s 23rd district is not gerrymandered. It largely follows county lines, it’s a cohesive collection of similarly- sized small cities with scattered farmland, and adding Democratic Tompkins County from Hinchey’s eliminated district means that, while the 23rd leans Republican, it’s not unreasonably skewed.
People eager to luck into the “right” candidate to oust a Congressperson may leap at the idea that a challenger who won against the odds was a specially appealing candidate. That may be true. But more often than not, the full story isn’t about a sweeping candidate, but includes something more enduring and systemic – the voters. And that makes sense, because voters are the most important people in democracy.
On top of being about much more than the “right” candidate, winning isn’t entirely about registration breakdown either. Back in 2008 when a Democrat last won, while subsequent Democrats have lost in a more Democratic district, there was something else different. In 2008, the mayors of Elmira, Corning, Hornell, Olean, Salamanca and many other cities and villages were Democrats. But a lot of those local mayors got their political starts in the 1990s, and over the past decade, they’ve started to age out.
Often, new Democrats haven’t stepped in to replace them – but new Republicans have.
Republicans ousted the incumbent Democratic mayor of Olean in 2013 and the Democratic mayor of Salamanca in 2015. In Elmira, where a Democrat had been mayor since 1998, a Republican unseated the incumbent Democrat in 2015. Last fall, in 2017, the Democratic mayor of Hornell – New York’s longest- serving mayor, who served for 32 years – retired, and a Republican was elected. Reed himself unseated the Democratic mayor of Corning in 2008, and was elected to Congress two years later.
Having run for office across huge geographic turf, I can share that it’s sure easier to get to know some of
the people in a place if you’re introduced around by the local mayor.
That’s as it should be. Voters are closest to local politics. It’s where trust starts. Your local city councilor has say over your property taxes, where your kids go to school, whether your town will be zoned for business, with a home you can afford. If you bump into your legislators at the grocery store, it becomes easier to hold them to task.
It’s no secret that over the past few decades, Republicans have been better than Democrats at winning
local races across the United States. Republicans today control a vast majority of the country’s state legislative chambers, and will get to decide redistricting again in 2020, absent any changes. But, to me, getting back to basics is not about winning top-of-the ticket Democratic races, even though I’m a proud
Democrat. It misses the point to consider local races merely as stepping stones to winning higher up.
Overlooking local races doesn’t just let a political party down, it lets democracy down. Insidious apathy dissolves our republic in one community after another, leaving a skeleton with none of the humanity of our social fabric. This past fall 2017, fully half of the thousands of local races across New York were uncontested. Only a single candidate ran in one village and town after another. Of course those unopposed candidates won; voters had no choice. Voters were shut out in city Democratic strongholds, and also in Republican-dominated rural and suburban New York. The story in New York’s 23rd has played out for Republicans in places where the Democrats have the electorate locked up. As districts have become more monolithic, citizen participation has faltered, and voter turnout has gone down.
After the 2016 election, my fellow Trailblazers PAC board members and I founded our nonpartisan organization to move politics out of the back room, onto the front porch, by investing in local office candidates. We are Republicans, Democrats, and independents, rural and urban, and work with county and municipal candidates who take a common stand for clean government. Representative democracy thrives on honest debate, but powerfully corrupt interests gain by fostering its treacherous cousin, partisan vitriol. We need to act now, and act fast, to retain our democratic republic.
As a Democrat, as a contender last time there was a Congressional primary here, I’m not going to push you to vote for any particular candidate. But I beseech you to vote. Vote this Tuesday, and then make sure to vote again and again in every single village, county, town, city and school board race, every chance you get. The future depends on you stepping up.
File photo by Ed Dittenhoefer of Ed Dittenhoefer Photography