Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bambi Meets Godzilla

The race that really surprised us this year was the contest for County Legislature in the 18th Legislative District, in Perinton. It wasn't surprising in the result, which the politically sophisticated anticipated, but in the unexpected trajectory of the campaign that, as it proceeded toward election day, made the ultimate result apparent.

Republican politicos have kept a nervous eye on Nora Bredes ever since she moved here from Long Island ten years ago.  
It could not have been happy news to incumbent Republican Ciaran Hanna to learn that Bredes would be his opponent.

A former Suffolk County Legislator and one time Democratic candidate for Congress, Ms. Bredes became a public figure in the New York City area years ago, as leader of the citizens' group that fought for nearly a decade to stop operation of the Shoreham nuclear plant.   She stopped it.   A graduate of Cornell, Ms. Bredes directs the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the University of Rochester.   She has won numerous state and national awards for accomplishments in environmentalism and public health.   Smugtown Beacon described her as "ridiculously overqualified" for the county legislature.

Legislator Hanna, a businessman in Fairport, has a low profile outside of his district.   Political insiders in both parties consider him one of the smartest and best members of the County Legislature.   Hanna's gentlemanly, modest demeanor accompanies a towering sense of responsibility to his constituents and a steely resolve to protect their interests.   Hanna's bolting of his own party on a point of principle got him stripped of a committee chairmanship a few years back.   This won him even higher respect in his district.   He continues the tradition of his admired family, the Hannas, whose members have distinguished the family name through high-minded public service spanning decades.

Ordinarily, a candidate of Hanna's quality would have little to worry about, especially in a Republican-leaning district. It does not in the least disparage his record or abilities to acknowledge the noteworthy accomplishments of his opponent, or her strong experience.   It's as if the winning yacht in the America's Cup found itself facing the Battleship Missouri, with all guns blazing.

One nervous Republican wag chose a different metaphor.   In a nod to Hanna's soft-spoken manner, he worried that this race had the potential to be "Bambi meets Godzilla."

As we now know, he was right.   Except that the roles were reversed.

All along we thought Hanna had the ability to defeat the challenge from Bredes, but we felt that Bredes's strengths as a candidate were daunting.   It's rare to see someone with a resume of her quality running for local office, rarer still someone of such accomplishment.

On Tuesday Hanna didn't just beat Bredes, he humiliated her:   62% Hanna to 38% for Bredes.   The Democrats' brightest hope  --   not just for getting elected but for her obvious capacity for forceful, articulate leadership once elected  --   held to under 40%.   She won little more than the base Democratic vote.

How did this happen?   Especially in a district which, though it leans Republican, voted routinely for Louise Slaughter and for David Koon?

From start to finish, Ms. Bredes ran the wrong campaign. Local elections in towns and districts with populations of the size found in Monroe County are won by door-to-door campaigning by the candidate.

Legislator Hanna understood this well, starting a vigorous door-to-door schedule as soon as Bredes announced her candidacy and never stopping until election day.   He canvassed every neighborhood in the district.

Bredes thought she could win with mailings, literature drops and coffee gatherings in people's homes.   She did little or no canvassing.   Nor did she participate in the parades and similar public events comprising part of the routine schedule for a local candidate.

Walking door-to-door, a candidate can visit 50 or more homes in the two hours it takes to meet a dozen people at a reception in someone's home.   Inevitably such gatherings tend to involve people who already are disposed to vote for you, since they're friends of the candidate's friend who arranges the gathering.   The only finite resource in a campaign is the candidate's time.   Home-based meet-and-greets are sucker bait for the inexperienced.

Yet Ms. Bredes is no inexperienced candidate.   Years ago the New York Times told her story as an example of how a candidate succeeds in getting elected for the first time.

We have to believe that a campaign for public office on Long Island, with an appreciably larger population for each county legislative district, is a very different proposition from a similar campaign in Perinton.   Probably it involves broadcast media as well as mailings.   Home-gatherings may well complement the mix in a useful way, where population size makes meaningful door-to-door campaigning impractical.   Such a campaign probably looks a lot more like our county-wide campaigns here.

However, in races for legislative districts in Monroe County, if one good candidate goes door-to-door and another good, even astonishingly accomplished, candidate does not, the candidate who goes to the door wins, absent overriding issues.

Commenting in Rochester Turning on Tuesday's result, Ms. Bredes blamed a "lack of civic culture" in the Rochester area, among other factors, for her loss and for the loss by fellow Democrats, suggesting most citizens aren't engaged in thinking about political matters.   Now, as people interested in politics ourselves, we'd say there's much truth to her observation, though not as a reason for her big loss.

But that's the equivalent of an unsuccessful Monroe County Republican candidate complaining, for example, that he lost because the local press is hostile.   Of course it's hostile if you're a Republican.   That's just part of the deal when you run for office under the GOP banner in Rochester.   You didn't know that before you ran?   Didn't factor that into your planning?   What were you thinking?

In addition, the Bredes campaign suffered from the defect of all the Democratic legislative campaigns, in that it criticized Republican management of the County but offered no solutions whatsoever.

It is at least possible that Ms. Bredes's instincts, or the character of her social and professional circles, led her to run what could be viewed as an elitist campaign.   We give her the benefit of the doubt, going no further than observing that she misread the constituency insofar as assessing what was necessary to win.   Maybe the general expectation on the Democratic side that they could indict their way into office had something to do with it also.   We confine our conclusions to the fact that she didn't campaign door-to-door as her opponent did, a failure representing a fundamental misreading of the voters.

Perhaps the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership can offer a course on getting to know your constituency before you run for office.




8 comments:

Anonymous said...

The result would have been even worse for her if the public knew that closing Shoreham cost taxpayers Billions of dollars and gave Long Island the highest electric rates in the country.

She is a classic self-righteous radical who couldn't care less about how many people can't pay their bills or are forced out of their homes because they can't pay their property taxes on their fixed incomes.

Unfortunately for the GOP, you are seeing more and more transplanted New York City and Long Island liberals coming to Upstate, which is why many "safe" GOP positions are being won by Democrats.

Anonymous said...

Nora's explanations fall a bit short. First, we all know that the newspaper, while admitedly not respected, is a mouthpiece of the Democratic party. Nobody pays it much mind for that reason, but it doesn't handicap Democratic candidates.

Second, the conditions she described were all in place when Ray DiRaddo was ousted in Greece, when Dave Malta was crushed in Webster, when Democrats won or reclaimed seats in Irondequoit and the City, and when the Democrats maintained control of the Legislature despite fighting an enrollment disadvantage not existing today.

Hanna kicked her around. Period.

B.A. Baracus said...

I pity Nora Bredes

Maybe she should invite her neighbors and friends over to her house to discuss why Hanna and his GOP thugs trounced her

Impressed said...

Bredes is impressive. See http://www.nytimes.com/1987/02/13/nyregion/column-one-answering-phones-and-gaining-power.html

Read it - you'll appreciate even more the magnitude of Hanna's thumping win.

Nora said...

Wow. How is it that I didn't see this incisive analysis until today?

Here's from the horse's mouth:

On Shoreham: the LI Lighting Company spent more than $5 billion on that ill-fated plant. Operating and decommissioning would have cost billions more. Don't blame ratepayer advocates for misguided decisions by regulators and the utility.

On the 2009 campaign: I walked to and talked to more than 1,000 voters.

The critical difference between Monroe and Suffolk Counties isn't ideology. (OMG! There are conservative Republicans in Suffolk County!) It's the civic culture. Here there were no debates, no meet the candidate nights, little press coverage of the county legislature, the budget, the recurring $30+ million dollar operating deficit, the worst bond rating in the state, a county in crisis. Voters had little information about county government and didn't know if the Hanna who represented them was Thomas, Mike or Sean. Few knew Ciaran.

In an information vacuum, habit and voting traditions govern. 26% of eligible voters turned out. "Winning" with that so few voters participating is no honor.

Please join me at Citizens to Save Monroe County. (www.savemonroecounty.com) The county's still in desparate shape - saved only by Obama stimulus dollars in 2009 and 2010. There's more work to do.

Philbrick said...

Nora,

You're the first candidate to respond to our rantings by sharing the experiences of your campaign and your own insights. Many thanks.

My impression has been that press coverage of county government of the counties surrounding New York City is substantially more extensive than press coverage of county government here.

What other factors do you think account for the difference in civic culture revealed in debates, candidates forums and the like in Suffolk County, but none of those things here?

Nora said...

Philbrick --

It's complex. Doing my own informal study of "comparative local government and politics" for the last 11 years, here are some my thoughts:
-- You're right about communities having unique, specific political cultures/behaviors. (But, BTW, the belief in the need to walk door-to-door in campaigns seems universal.)

Suffolk County's legislature is very different than Monroe's. First, it has 18 members who represent 1.5 million people; Monroe has 29 legislators who represent 733,000. Suffolk County legislators have district offices, cars and district staff -- regardless of party. That means district offices become centers for constituent service and civic engagement.

The county legislature is independent of the county executive -- even when both are controlled by the same party. The Suffolk legislature has an independent not-partisan budget review office. That staff of policy and budget experts dissects the county executive's budget for the legislature. As a result, the budget proposed by the county executive is ALWAYS revised, often to decrease proposed tax increases and change budget priorities. In Suffolk, the budget process takes 2-3 months.

So, this independence of the legislature means that legislators have more dynamic interactions -- bipartisan coalitions form and shift, depending on the issue.

Maybe because the Suffolk legislature is not a one party rubber stamp for the executive, there's more media and public interest in what goes on.

The legislature is routinely covered by Newsday, weekly papers, blogs and local radio and television. Citizen groups see the legislature as a place to go to voice issue-based concerns -- public hearings can last hours. Over the years,issues have included preservation of farmlands, the bottle bill, public power, second hand tobacco smoke, domestic violence, taxes, parks, child care, immigration, sewers, protecting LI Sound and the county's bays and waterways --- lots.

All this doesn't make Suffolk anywhere near to perfect. (I think I once counted five of my former colleagues who'd been convicted of felonies.)

But this local government is an example of a more dynamic, more responsive, more bi-partisan county government which, by the way, has a healthy reserve fund, no operating deficit and a AA bond rating with a stable outlook (Standard and Poors).

So, aren't you glad you asked?

-- Nora

Philbrick said...

I am indeed. Thank you!