Politics is Hard Work

Politics, especially local politics, is hard work. Easier to share headlines flashed at me through the national press. There always another juicy or outrageous anecdote to absorb, dismiss, or share. So the political conversation keeps advancing. Maybe.

Following local political trends at the county level (in this case, in upstate New York’s Catskills) is another matter; I suspect this applies downstate too. Perusing local political issues (in Sullivan, population 78,000 and Delaware, population 48,000– counties) in advance of Tuesday’s nationwide election, I feel stymied and isolated.

In order to carry out my democratic duty and to try to build a local political wall to halt the threats to sane government coming at us from Washington, I find myself facing one obstacle after another. If I weren’t so dogged, I’d just forget about democracy altogether; this business of voting responsibly needs sustained attention and real commitment. Take the question of who’s running for office in our towns (in this off-election year) when we are invited to select our local supervisors, judges, police chiefs and town councils. It’s not only a humdrum affair; it’s often unclear. Most of us don’t know who presently holds these offices. And takes some effort to learn who new candidates are, and from what party ticket they are on.

In the intervening period since the last local election (Was that two years ago?), I admit, I haven’t been as active as I might have. I ask others: “What happens at town council meetings between elections? Few can tell me. (It’s a drag getting to a town meeting after work and catching up with the family at the end of the day.) I know town councils assign our tax money. But do citizens approve their budget? I don’t know. And when would we do that: November 7? What about our dwindling fire department—is that a town council issue? Can we take concerns about the district school to the council? And which level of local government would handle the opioid crisis?

I’ve been a fulltime resident here for 20 years. As a registered Democrat, I simply check any democratic candidate box on the ballot and give little thought to regular council business thereafter. I rarely knew the results of local elections anyway. (You may think I’m a shirker but I doubt if I am alone in this.)

I also admit I may have been inattentive initially, but six years ago, I decided to better prepare myself before going to vote. I would do my homework; still I could learn little about local candidates; there was almost no campaigning. Some lawn signs appeared, but there were no calls and no house to house canvassing. Worse still, on election day, perusing a ballot, either I found I had few or no choices –incumbents were running unopposed– or the names meant nothing to me.

One year, a week before a local election, seeing an invitation to meet candidates for town offices at the local fire hall, I stopped by. There were more candidates than potential voters present, even with free tea and cake. Then I found this was a Republican Party event and all four of the candidates present were Republicans. I was welcome, however; the pastries were tasty and I could ask questions about the offices being sought—town judgeship for example.

Later I phoned the local Democratic Party office. Maybe it would sponsor a candidates’ gathering. I called several times. No one replied, not even to steer me to a webpage. Speaking with a few neighbors, I learned many are on the same page as me politically. Asked about candidates and the local party committee, they shrug. “No use voting.” As for local governance: no one I ask is clear when town meetings take place, who are the supervisor (mayor), highway chief, council members. “Phone the town clerk,” I’m advised. “Try the board of elections.”

Recently I met a local party committee member who helped explain party affairs. We are “represented by so-and-so, a good fellow but can’t attend meetings. Do you want to be a committee member? You wouldn’t have to come to meetings either.” They just needed a name.

Any resident can sit in on a local party committee meeting; same for the town council. But few citizens attend. Very boring, I am told by two locals who occasionally show up.

Sometimes people get stirred up—if a child dies from substance abuse, or crime is on the rise. Disputes about sharing resources get attention: water management, who should pay police, properties that don’t meet zoning laws. Those issues bring out dozens of citizens and often involve legal action. Otherwise it’s all humdrum bureaucratic stuff, and difficult to follow.

The election of Trump in January saw a flurry of activity from the opposing side—generated mainly by their shock (and embarrassment). Attendance at party meetings spiked. People networked, shared their fears and outrage. Many vowed to become active politically—some for the first time in their (middle-aged) lives.

Here in New York State an important referendum is on Tuesday’s ballot—do we want a new state constitution? It’s complicated so forums and debates have taken place over the past two months. Newspapers and legal organizations, the League of Women Voters and some unions have endorsed or opposed. At one presentation I attended in a sizable town, about 15 people sat scattered through a large hall to hear the issues and ask questions. When the discussion ended, half of the audience left and the remaining five, it tuned out, were candidates running for seats in the local town administration. They spoke to an empty hall.

All three regional papers here have noted how few seats are being contested. “Sullivan County has 55 uncontested races” shouts The River Reporter. Another, the Walton Reporter notes that most candidates are incumbents running unopposed. A third, the Sullivan County Democrat’s October 3rd front page headline reads “General election marked by lack of candidates.” In The Times Herald the major regional paper the past 5 days have carried a flurry of 30 “letters to the editor’—each one writing on behalf of a candidate. Maybe that’s the most a reader will learn about the names they’ll find on their ballot.

Oh well, there’s always another election.

This will be the first election since the flurry after January’s inauguration. According to announcements from my county board of elections, most candidates are incumbents running unopposed [BN Aziz is a resident of Cooksfalls/Roscoe.]

Besides being without controversy, it’s pretty dull. And it’s certainly less rakish.

B. Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Her latest book is Justice Stories, a children’s book about Nepali women rebels. Find her work at www.barbaranimri.com.