Are You An American, in Any Meaningful Sense?

Four years ago at this time, I decided to do something I never imagined I would do – run for state legislature, with no chance to win, despite the fact that doing so would mean losing my job (per my employer’s policy), putting a burden on my family until another one could be obtained, and exiting the public sector. Nothing else had had an impact, including writing reports like this one, writing letters to the editor, feeding information to reporters for articles like this one, and trying to point out the winners and losers in the state’s priorities in city publications that I was asked to write sections of, but which no one ever read. Voting did not and does not matter, because aside from a few districts competitive between Republicans and Democrats, there is generally only one name on the ballot (or only one who actually campaigns) for state legislature (and, for that matter, Congress) in November, and few primary challenges as well. After years of complaint about public policies that sold out our common future to benefit insiders today (if you’ve read posts here you know what those are; if not you can still read my platform here), simply complaining and not doing anything became morally unsupportable.

So after a few years of trying to convince people “someone should do something about this,” I decided that if no one else would, I would try. I didn’t make much of an impact, as I explained here, but I at least have the satisfaction of having stood up and tried, as uncomfortable and unnatural as it was for me. Well there is another election in November, and unless John McCain is unexpectedly competitive in New York State, given that there are no other statewide races, there once again may be little reason for most of us to show up and vote. Meaning those in power and those who back them can do anything to us, and we have no say. Might anyone else consider trying to run against some of these legislators, if only to let them know there might be some limit to what they can do to us? If so, you might want to read what I learned when I ran myself.

If you might want to run, a decision that needs to be made very soon. Because it is de facto illegal to run against an incumbent in New York State, and a great deal of planning is required to run as an outlaw. I found this out once after being challenged by co-workers at a former job to run against the incumbent pols if I were dissatisfied, rather than just griping. I decided to show up at the Board of Elections to see what would be required, naively expecting a brochure with a set of instructions as to the requirements for getting on the ballot. I was bluntly told that not only was there no such information, but that only certain people are allowed to run, and if thought I was going to, I’d better have $60,000 or more to spend on an election lawyer. Otherwise I would be kept off the ballot. “Don’t you read the newspapers?” the person behind the counter asked.

So when I decided do my civic duty, my greatest fear was that I would lose my job and yet not even have the satisfaction of getting on the ballot and speaking my piece. Fortunately, I had signed on with the Independence Party in 1994, after I happened to flip on a debate in the race for Governor and found that Tom Golisano, its candidate, seemed to understand some things that, based on the data, I knew. The IP subsequently dissolved into factional fighting and has ceased to be much more than an insignificant tempest in a teapot. But as a member, it was possible to get on the ballot with many fewer signatures than would be possible otherwise. Putting aside their battle, one faction agreed to help me get on the ballot, while another agreed to put up a website for me.

Now I know that Mr. Skurnick, who is in the business of producing information for prospective and actual candidates, asserts that the state election laws are easy to comply with, that most of those tossed off the ballot are removed only because they didn’t bother to collect the required number of signatures. What I was told as a candidate, and what my experience as an outsider showed me, is that it isn’t so simple. The time required to get those signatures is limited, and a large share of those on the official list – and on Mr. Skurnick’s printouts — have moved or changed registration. The problem is particularly acute in neighborhoods characterized by two- to four-family homes and small apartment buildings, since the Board of Elections uses postcards “returned to sender” as the indicator to remove someone from the voting list. If all the main goes through one mail slot and the landlord sorts it for their tenants, that postcard is thrown away and not returned when someone moves. For a small party, one is lucky to be able to collect one signature per hour.

Running as an independent candidate, which I would have preferred, would have required three times the number of signatures that an incumbent is required to collect (1,500 vs. 500 for state assembly), in less time. And those incumbents have government-financed staff members, working on their “own time,” to collect the signatures that preserve their jobs. Challengers generally do not, unless have the money to hire those who collect signatures for pay, or sell out to some interest group that is experienced in collecting signatures, also for pay. Most such interest groups have done very well in New York, and back incumbents.

I was advised, moreover, not to collect my own signatures, because if I made even a simple error (like putting the wrong date on one of the forms) I could be accused in court of having committed “fraud” and had all my signatures disqualified. So I drove a car, and someone else actually collected signatures for me. I snuck around like a thief avoiding people I knew, trying to make sure word didn’t get out, and lawyers didn’t come after me, until after I was on the ballot. And the person helping me was absolutely paranoid about all the formats and requirements, knowing legal action to kick me off the ballot was a strong possibility.

So who is right, Mr. Skurnick or my paranoid helpers? I point to the lack of contested elections, and the domination of experienced political insiders (former staffers and relatives) among new politicians, as evidence the paranoid are right. I also point to the fact that in the rare contested election for an open seat, the candidates with backers typically try to get two or three times the required number of signatures, to avoid being thrown off the ballot for no good reason.

And signatures aren’t the end of it. The year I ran in 2004, another person in a nearby district actually managed to have followers collect all the signatures needed to get on the ballot as an independent candidate. But, having personally handed in the signatures, she failed to also hand in a “certificate of acceptance” indicating that, in fact, she intended to run. So she was thrown off the ballot by the snickering insiders. I actually read the whole state election law, including the section on the “certificate of acceptance,” and could not figure out if independent candidates are required to file one or not. Just read section 6-146, 1. of the New York State Election Law if you don't believe me. The law also said that anyone collecting signatures had to live in the area where the signatures were collected, something I later found out wasn’t actually true. Basically, the law is written to not be understood. It’s all part of the game.

Bottom line, there is no way I could have gotten on the ballot myself, no matter what Mr. Skurnick says, although perhaps with experience I could do it today.

Lesson number one: I learned that although votes don’t matter, because there is no one but the incumbent to vote for, signatures do matter. If you want to pressure an elected legislator, threaten to have a meeting with a few thousand people and potential candidates invited, with all attendees agreeing to sign for, and help get on the ballot, whoever the majority prefers. For those ruling by divine right, the prospect of an election, even an election they are guaranteed to win, may be enough to put a little fear into someone. If you show up to vote you don’t count. If you collect enough signatures in the proper format, you might.

In any event, I got the ballot, became a candidate, and was thus obliged to resign from my job. The effect on one’s career is, perhaps, another reason why so few people run. Even if there is no formal policy prohibiting a run for public office, such a campaign, even with no chance to win, is the equivalent of telling one’s employer that you are looking for another job. That is not good for the career. And having run for public office is not exactly considered the mark of a civic minded individual either – a crank or someone dangerous is more like it, particularly for organizations that do business with the government. You might recall reading about people in public service running for public office, and keeping or returning to their jobs. But those are not regular people, they are politicos, and those aren’t real jobs, they are placeholders. For regular people doing real work the rules, and I have no problem with them, really are the rules, as I understood going in.

After running, despite the fact that I have a master’s degree in city planning and professional certification, I later found private planning consulting firms, which often rely on government contracts, were uncomfortable hiring someone coming off a political campaign. Not good for sales, perhaps. Eventually got the type of job I was looking for, with a research firm having virtually nothing to do with the government, and thus became personally better off. One reason I felt I had to run was if I couldn’t do it, given that I am not the highest earning breadwinner in the family and live a low-cost, no-debt lifestyle, who could? Who could afford to lose all that income? The only long-term downside in my case is that in retaliation the rest of the family insisted on getting dog, and I had to give in. Perhaps the reader is in as advantageous a position as I was, and could decide to run. If not, I understand.

Back in the campaign and now on the ballot, I was still an outlaw.

By happenstance, I found out that I was required to file extensive financial disclosure forms with the state. Severe penalties might have been forthcoming had I not done so, yet there is no way for the average citizen to know that such a form is required for those have not yet been elected. There is, as mentioned, no brochure informing people what is required for candidates and potential candidates. I sent the information to Albany certified mail, so no one could claim I didn’t. There was extensive information, including a presentation, on how to comply with the campaign finance laws. Compliance, however, required a personal computer, the use of a particular software package provided by the state, and a great deal of computer literacy. I was able to do it, with a little help from the surprisingly helpful state elections staff in Albany (not nearly as bad as those in NYC for some reason), but not everyone could.

Running a self-funded, low-budget protest campaign, I only expected to spend $2,000, mostly for one-page flyers (attached, if you are interested) to hand out with a simple statement of what I was doing and why, and directions to the website. I found out that when the campaign finance laws were passed in the 1970s, campaigns spending up to $1,000 were exempted from all the complicated requirements. While all the other financial limits have been increased for inflation every year since, that one never was. Otherwise, all I would have had to do is send in a form saying I wasn’t going to spend more than $2,000. This is yet another way the rules protect insiders while potentially creating criminal charges or crippling fines against naive outsiders.

I received a threatening letter from the Department of Sanitation, promising potentially bankrupting fines if I dared to put posters up on public property around the city – the same type of posters the usual political types put up all the time. I called the official in charge, and asked if anyone had ever been fined for putting up those posters. He admitted they hadn’t, but a candidate like me might be, so I’d better not dare to do it.

Three times, while handing out flyers in the subway, the police were called to stop me, once after someone came up and asked who the hell I was and what the hell did I think I was doing? Fortunately, the sensible rules for handing out political flyers in the subway are readily accessible on the MTA website, and I had a copy with me. The bottom line is, three times someone wasted two police officer’s time.

Handing out flyers at the corner near one of the then-underfunded city schools, I had staff members come out and threaten me with arrest. In that case I didn’t know what the rules were, and couldn’t find them, so I avoided handing out flyers near schools thereafter. I had people come up and threaten to call the police because I was handing out flyers in public park. The incumbents do this all the time, and show up in schools handing out the small amounts of money they got to dispense in exchange for voting for an unfair state school aid formula all those years.

I didn’t expect to be thrown in jail. I was concerned that I would have to tell my family that the cost of my Don Quixote quest would not be $2,000 plus a few months of lost salary, as predicted, but that plus the cost of a lawyer. Lesson number two: there are all kinds of rules and non-rules that can be used to get someone in trouble if they dare to run for public office against a legislative incumbent. If I was harassed this way, running with no money and no chance against an incumbent generally considered less sleazy than average, imagine what might happen to someone considered a threat?

My third lesson was imposed by the press. My main goal in running was to call attention to the inequities I have subsequently written about here on Room 8. Given the sacrifice I made to do so, I thought the press would be willing to talk to me, and the inequities would receive a wider hearing. Instead, I found that the press was less interested in what I had to say when I was a candidate than it had been previously when I had no standing at all, and less interested than it has been subsequently in the information I post here on Room 8. Perhaps I should not have been surprised – the press almost never reports on any challengers for state legislature or Congressional office, save for the occasional human interest story that portrays such candidates as oddballs. The only person who was willing to write about what I was saying in my campaign was Erik Engquist, then of the Courier-Life publications, in his columns just before the election. Although someone from the Times did take the trouble to call and tell me they weren’t interested.

Perhaps they didn’t like what I had to say? In 2006, I wrote to a number of media outlets challenging them to find some challenger they considered worth covering, and writing about their campaigns. I even suggested producing something like the Voter Guide the NYC Campaign Finance Board puts out for NYC elections for their readers. None did so. What reporters have told me is that since challengers have no chance to win, the media doesn’t want to waste time by covering them. Serious challengers are identified by endorsements from the same special interests that back incumbents, or the amount of campaign money raised. Whereas ordinary people donate to campaigns for President, however, few do so for campaigns for state legislature or even Congress. That money comes from those same special interests. Therefore, the only way a “challenger” can create an “election” is if the incumbent crosses the powers that be. Which never happens.

I wrote a more detailed post about the complicity of the press in the lack of competitive elections here. Given that challengers have little chance to win, the ability to speak one’s piece is the only motivation to run against an incumbent. The press, by not assigning their increasingly limited staff to evaluate if something is being said that might we worthwhile, takes that motivation away.

Under the circumstances, it’s hard for me to make the case that someone should run against an incumbent.

But what if no one does? And what if state legislators and members of Congress leave office mid-term as a matter of course, to ensure their replacements can be de facto appointed in special elections only insiders vote in, as is the practice in New York, so there always is an incumbent? Then we do not have a democracy, and there is no reason for any of us to feel that the state government is in any way our government, and that its decisions and obligations are in any way our decisions and obligations.

What I can say is that limited impact or not, I am proud that I did my civic duty as an American. At least I can say to my kids 20 year from now that I stood up and tried to do what I could. If in 2008 you are willing to do the same in my district against someone who hasn’t just gotten there, I can only promise you the same pride. That and two votes – yours and mine.