Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Small “d” Democracy

Democracy, the ability of the people to throw the bums out, runs purest in Connecticut’s town governments, because US congressional districts in this and other states are gerrymandered in such a way as to frustrate the democratic instinct. British author Malcolm Muggeridge used regularly to vote against incumbents because, he reasoned, the challengers, whatever their political orientation, had not yet presumed to rob him of his assets, cluttered the legislative landscape with pointless laws and deprived him of his God given liberties.

That impulse is as American as apple pie. Here in the good old USA, the presumption generally lies against incumbents, even as the ability to survive the storm of voter discontent lies in favor of incumbents.

For reason other than gerrymandering, the carving up of districts so as to prevent the party out of power from gaining a foothold, some legislators in some districts will forever be secure in their sinecures. It is difficult to imagine what Democrat U.S. Rep. John Larson, now serving in Connecticut’s impregnable 1st District, would have to do – short of burning down East Hartford, fiddling as he did so – to be discharged by the voters, a preponderance of whom are extremely tolerant Democrats.

Lou DeLuca hasn’t quite burned down Woodbury, a town where Republicans have controlled the First Selectman’s office for the past 300 years. But this year, write in candidate Mark Alvarez wrested a respectable 996 votes in a contest for town meeting moderator from Lou DeLuca, the seemingly impregnable Republican state senator who refused but did not report a bribe offered to him in an FBI sting operation. DeLuca, some believe, is on the point of being ejected from Connecticut’s legislature by a bi-partisan committee of his peers.

As a general rule, incumbency carries along with it certain privileges and immunities that are almost impossible to overcome: Gerrymandering, which assures that the pool of district voters will be inclined to cast their ballots for the incumbent; the money in the bank incumbents have been able to salt away for future campaigns; the cozy relationship incumbents often have with the mainstream media – one thinks immediately of such criticism proof icons of public probity as Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

There is a good reason why the endorsements of major newspapers are routinely given to incumbents. In the mainstream press, business decisions trump politics. Some people might think it odd that the Hartford Courant, which exposed the delinquencies of Mayor Eddie Perez, should end up endorsing a politician who was behaving, for all practical purposes, as did ex-Governor John Rowland just prior to his ejection from office. But unfortunately, none of these people write editorials for the Courant. The paper has invested a great deal of emotional energy supporting liberals, Perez among them, who have obligingly jumped through its editorial hoops.

The most interesting towns to watch during elections are those that have in the past exchanged power between the major parties. If lessons are to be learned in how to win or lose campaigns, they are to be learned here and not, for instance, in Woodbury or East Hartford, respectively a Republican and a Democrat fortress.

Over in Vernon where I live – trying as always to keep one step ahead of the taxman – two term Mayor Marmer and her Democrat team was turned away by an enraged citizenry. The changes were as dramatic in Enfield. In both towns, Republicans campaigned on low taxes and controlled spending. But what appears to have turned the trick for Republicans was the tin ear of Democrats, who frustrated townspeople by presenting to them budget increases that were whittled down in successive referendums. Over in Tolland, where Republicans were ousted by Democrats, Republican Board of Education Chairman Daniel Carmody attributed the loss to the frustration engendered by six earlier budget referendums.

The message from the towns to an as yet unheeding state government seems clear: Present rational budgets that demonstrate a willingness to control spending. The larger message to the state may be that citizens, having tightened their own belts to accommodate uncontrollable cost of living increases, can no longer afford to be generous towards profligate governments, town or local, that assume they can afford unreasonable budget increases.

There is a homely philosophy in that reasoning that has not been mastered by politicians who, thus far, have kept themselves in office by the artificial political devises mentioned above – which can be altered by an aroused public.
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