Common Sense in Remission

An article in today’s Village Voice contained this startling passage:

“Blindness is something in which Paterson has an intensely personal stake. The 51-year-old State Senator is legally blind…but his interest in the issue stands out for other reasons. Paterson represents Upper Manhattan, including Harlem, an area that includes some of the city's poorest areas…There are many with visual handicaps in Paterson’s district, but these diseases don't strike residents in the area any more often than those in the rest of the city, health studies show. The biggest local health problem, according to a 2006 survey by the city's department of health, is asthma: Hospitalization rates for asthma attacks suffered by both children and adults in the area are double that of the rest of Manhattan, as well as the city as a whole. Infant mortality rates are also higher than the city average, the study found.”

Well, actually, the quote is a fake. Today’s Times contained the article about Paterson, not the Voice, and The Times' mention of Paterson’s disability, and his special concern for the disabled, is entirely laudatory. In fact, in his earliest years in the legislature, Paterson drew criticism for not paying much attention to such issues. Even though blindness and other disabilities were not a special concern for most of his constituents, Paterson was thought obligated to be an at-large representative in the legislature for the differently-abled. And why not? Who else was going to be the spokesperson for such concerns?

Some ailments and disabilities are bound to have interested representation in the legislature. Population clustering by different groups ensures that sufferers from HIV, sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs will have a voice looking out for their interests. Likewise, the constituency of concern about breast or prostate cancer is extremely large as those potentially impacted by each are likely to make up about 50% of any legislative district. Not so for blindness or leukemia. Not only do those suffering these ailments not cluster to any particular area, but the very characteristics of the ailments themselves diminishes the likelihood that anyone specially concerned with those issues will be involved in legislative service.

So today’s Voice article about leukemia survivor Assemblyman Vito Lopez (from which the phony quote about Paterson was adapted), which criticizes Lopez’s use of a member item grant for the leukemia research at Sloan-Kettering, seems pretty churlish, if not downright appalling. Surely sufferers from, and survivors of, leukemia constitute a large enough population to be entitled to one Assemblyman, and they might even be entitled to more if the research financed by Lopez proves successful. Why cannot Vito Lopez be their at-large representative?

Many left activists and good government types have long agitated for replacement of constituent-based representation with systems like proportional representation to ensure better representation of constituency groups that don’t cluster geographically. They have also long criticized legislators for being too parochial and local and not looking at the bigger picture. Why then scream when a legislator actually reaches into his larger life experience and does something for the greater good, rather than acting solely based upon concerns evolving from local politics? Does anyone believe that if Pete Grannis did something like this, he’d get roasted by Tom Robbins?

Is it unfair that leukemia is getting this money while some equally horrible ailment not suffered by any sitting legislator gets ignored? Perhaps. But if it’s a sin (and I think it isn’t) it’s surely does not rank with Joe Bruno’s grants to private enterprises controlled by personal friends. Are members items grants an inherently unfair way of handing out funding? Probably. But, if I were putting together a poster child for the elimination of member items, Sloan-Kettering would not be on my list. More likely it ranks as an argument for their preservation.