NY-11 Congressional Race: The Wonk and the Preacher
In general I greatly admire wonks and steer clear of preachers. Yet in the race to determine who will succeed my Congressman, Major Owens, I am finding myself avidly supporting the preacher (poltically speaking, not literally), Chris Owens, over the wonk, David Yassky. Last night at the Park Slope Democracy for NYC meeting, David Yassky was our guest and I got to reaffirm what I liked about him and yet also reaffirmed why I am supporting his rival, Chris Owens.
One of my first diaries mentioning this race was an overly optimistic piece on what I then saw as a surfeit of good candidates in NYC to support, a view that while true, ignored the fact that many of those excellent candidates would not make it through the machine and money dominated labyrinth of local politics.
Since writing that article I have been rather disappointed in NYCâ€™s political process where I see some of the worst candidates thrive and the best flounder. And it was with sadness that I watched my own City Councilman, David Yassky, seemingly selling out or losing his progressive idealism. Many have called Yassky a sellout. I have sometimes defended him against such an accusation, calling it too harsh, and sometimes I felt a sinking feeling that he really was selling out. For about a year now my wife and I watched what we thought was his gradual betrayal of the progressive grassroots that brought him to office. Last night Yassky partly countered this feeling, but perhaps not enough.
I spend a great deal of time both in my own newsletter and on blogs defending my fellow Democrats. I have defended Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton and, yes, even Joe Lieberman. I have argued against the "Vichy Democrats" movement to mount primary challenges against all Democratic Senators who voted to confirm Alito. I have argued that in Bush America ANY Democrat short of Zell Miller is better than ANY Republican. I have argued against voting third party in any race where a Republican might win because in Bush America each Republican elected is another blow against the Constitution and for welfare to Halliburton. But I wish I didn't NEED to defend my fellow Democrats so much. Let's face it, but many Democrats today are little more than adequate. They vote right most of the time but you can't count on them to take tough stands. They won't stand up and say that an election might have been stolen and should not be certified without question. They won't stand up and say Bush lied to us to get into a war and should be held accountable. I want Democrats who inspire me. I want Democrats who are fiery, progressive and passionate.
One reader of my national newsletter is an 80+ year old, very progressive woman who lives in the reddest part of Tennessee. She tells me that she subscribed to my newsletter because she wants to see a new Patrick Henry or Tomas Paine whose oratory and rhetoric will reignite the passion of the people and restore heart and soul to the Democratic Party. I think her implication was that she had hoped I would be such a person but that I have not lived up to her hopes. Well, she is still and avid reader and I never imagined myself being the next Tomas Paine or Patrick Henry. But her point is that the Democratic Party lacks inspiring leaders. When I vote I am looking for the candidate who combines the best qualities of intelligence, integrity, competence and passion. In the NY-11 Congressional race of the five candidates running, only David Yassky and Chris Owens come even close to meeting the standards of what I am looking for, let alone what my reader in Tennessee is looking for. And Yassky had seemed to be selling out, leaving only Chris Owens.
David Yasskyâ€™s visit to the Park Slope DFNYC meeting greatly relieved my worst fears about Yassky, though in some other ways brought up the same concerns in a different light. I do not think Yassky is selling out in any corrupt sense, but his genuine desire to combine practical compromise with progressive ideals may lead to the same results given current political conditions.
What I saw at the meeting was the Yassky I once liked. I saw more idealism and progressive rhetoric than I had heard from him in awhile. Maybe he just knew that was how to cater to the audience. After all, at Yassky has been making some rather cynical calculations in this race and is not above telling an audience what it wants to hear. But I donâ€™t think that is what happened. I think he is genuinely a well-meaning idealist who thinks of himself as progressive. He was at his best when he was bragging about his accomplishments on Chuck Schumer's staff where he got to write into legislation some of the progressive values he holds (he highlighted the Brady Bill and the Violence against Women Acts). It was clear that he sees this experience working behind the scenes in Congress during the Clinton administration, including the necessity of dealing with Gingrich's maddness, as uniquely preparing him for taking on Bush in Congress today. My wife and I think he is fooling himself there, but more on that later.
He was also initially convincing in his portrayal of himself as the grassroots outsider when he ran for City Council. I remember that race and I am happy that I was PART of that grassroots effort to get him elected. It is clear that he is proud of his ability to come from behind with grassroots support to beat the Brooklyn machine and win solidly his City Council seat. That pride and the memory of that time was endearing particularly because I too was thrilled by his win at the time.
Where he was less convincing was his presentation of his record on the City Council. He wasn't able to muster too many instances of representing progressives in his City Council record, and, where he did, many felt he overstated his accomplishment. His main claim was the Williamsburg/Greenpoint development compromise. He presented this compromise, and the affordable housing stipulations it contained, as the pride and joy of his progressive record in the City Council. I think that is where he started going wrong with the audience. Although I will say that his compromise was adequate, it certainly wasn't a sufficient stand against developers in the eyes of Brooklyn progressives. And his portrayal of that compromise as being wildly popular among the residents of Williamsburg/Greenpoint flies in the face of a great deal of grumbling that I have heard from everyone I know in that neighborhood.
I would add that the NY City Council in general is a disappointment. It DOES stand up to Bloomberg, and Gifford Miller has proudly led the City Council to override Bloomberg's veto many times. But there is no doubt that Bloomberg still runs this city and the City Council is lacks vision and leadership. I asked Yassky where was the City Council when Bloomberg was violating the Civil Rights of protesters during the Republican Convention? Where is the City Council now when Critical Mass is being persecuted month after month? He pointed to some genuine stands he and the City Council took and his own individual help of some Critical Mass constituents of his, but totally failed to address the lack of LEADERSHIP that the entire City Council is guilty of. When New Yorker's rights are being stomped on by the mayor in the name of George Bush I want to see my politicians out there WITH US standing up to the Republicans, not staying away and patching things up after the fact. Herein is my problem with Yassky: his skills are great and wonderful and possibly progressive, but I don't see the spark of real inspiring leadership. He is not leading from the front but from behind. He would not impress the woman from Tennessee.
Yassky was also unconvincing when he applied his previous outsider, grassroots status from his first City Council run to the present race. In one breath he portrayed himself as the candidate that the big boys were trying to keep out and as the underdog, then in another breath he was bragging about the massive amount of money he raised. When you have raised record amounts of money, and it isn't overwhelmingly from small contributions, you can't really say all the big boys are against you. Yassky is no longer the outsider and his portrayal of himself as such to this day was unconvincing. You're an insider now, Yassky. Tell us how you are going to change things from within, don't try to convince us you are still the underdog.
One audience member challenged him on the money issue, accusing him of being largely supported by development interests. He successfully countered some of her more specific accusations, but failed to address the underlying question of just who his supporters are. This is a critical question when you are portraying yourself as the reforming, progressive underdog. When you raise huge amounts of cash in these days of Abramoff and Halliburton corruption nationally, and Ratner corruption locally, people want to know where you are getting the money. I don't know if Yassky was ducking the underlying question or if he was merely distracted by the more specific accusations, which he did address.
Yassky's main point is that the Democrats need a progressive but preactical vision to counter the Bush agenda. He portrays his ability to write legislation and to find compromise as the solution. He gave us a very telling illustration of the evolution of his approach. He described his initial failure at standing up to development interests with the 4th Ave. development where he feels he was too ambitious and not willing to compromise enough. He feels he learned a valuable lesson and successfully applied that lesson to the Williamsburg/Greenpoint development where his more practical, wonkish approach brought a compromise. I am struck by the parallel with Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton began aiming for ambitious health care reform and acceptance of gays in the military. Clinton got burned. From there he took an approach of compromise and in many ways this was successful, but in a way it was a dismal failure because ultimately it ceded control of the dialogue to the right wing. My wife in particular sees Yassky as making this same mistake where his eagerness to find compromise to further SOME progressive ideals actually cedes the dominant role in the dialogue to the right. She thinks Yassky is being naive and would be eaten alive by Karl Rove style politics. She pointed out that we have lost control of the very language of government and compromising in that climate is going to fail. Her example was affordable housing in NYC. What Yassky is bragging about in terms of affordable housing is only acceptable in an era where the right wing dominates and in no way compares with the Peter Cooper Village style affordable housing of the past. I could tell Yassky grasped her point and saw it as a good one, but he stuck with his compromise focused approach to dealing with the situation.
I tried getting at the point that we are no longer living in a nation where democracy is assured. We are living in a nation where corruption is threatening our very elections and all levels of government and that compromising with corruption is not dealing with the fundamental threat that the corruption represents. I did a poor job of phrasing my question making it too overarching, because I wanted to include the Diebold threat to our elections and point out Yassky's own compromise with corruption when he endorsed Sampson for Brooklyn DA. Yassky again answered as a wonk, giving particulars without answering the main question. His response to my challenge on the Sampson endorsement was the same one that didn't satisfy me before. I respect that Yassky stands his ground when challenged, but he has NEVER been able to explain how endorsing the candidate who is openly trying to let Clarence Norman off the hook is better than endorsing the candidate who, though corrupt himself, is taking Clarence Norman down. By endorsing Sampson, Yassky, whether he likes it or not, connected himself with the very machine he is proud of beating when he first ran for city council. Why did he have to endorse anyone? Why couldn't he have endorsed one of the underdog but genuinely GOOD candidates like Paul Wooten or Mark Peters? Given his pride at winning as an underdog, why couldn't he have taken the risk and backed Paul Wooten from the start? My wife and I were left with the impression that the Sampson endorsement was a sort of Detente reached with the machine in case Carl Andrews pulls out. That would allow the machine to give Yassky a reluctant nod.
This race comes down to three choices: Corrupt Machine, the Wonk, or the Preacher. I still support Chris Owens because I sincerely believe we already have some excellent wonks in Congress but being a good wonk is not enough. I think we need more angry preachers to get up and, in a voice that inspires the woman in Tennessee, say that Bush has taken America in a severely wrong direction. Yassky has the experience as a very good wonk. I like wonks. I have always been a fan of uber-wonk Al Gore. But I am looking for more. I am looking for a candidate who sets an audience on fire and Yassky does not do that. I think we need Chris Owens. Sadly, I wish BOTH Yassky and Chris Owens could be in Congress. We could use them both and I think they could make a good team. But we have to choose between them and I think we need louder, more inspiring voices than Yassky can muster.
For the record, my 17-month old son, Jacob, liked Yassky and even said â€œbye