Departing from the usual format of this column, I want to share some personal experiences about how I “got involved” a few years back. This means a narrative in the first person, something up till now I have tried to avoid. But it’s the best way to offer some guidance and some persuasion about jumping into the political arena. It’s an appropriate subject because the very thought of taking the plunge has sadly become revolting to most people. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where almost everybody, especially young people, stays away from politics, leaving it in too many cases to those less able or badly motivated, who perform poorly for all to see, thus repelling the more capable from showing any interest.
Politics, in the ideal sense, once was, and can still be, a fantastic means of getting good things done, of making the world a better place. It challenges an individual’s best faculties, such as the ability to persuade, to lead, to raise public awareness, to inspire and open minds, to think on one’s feet, to rally a whole community together, to be a real problem-solver, and to fill deep voids in people’s lives with hope and promise. Public service combines all of these in a unique and immeasurably fulfilling way. Nowadays, no one believes or even wants to hear about this.
So these were the ideals for me when some crude deals were made back in the late ’70s. It was all about back-room trading of minor party cross-endorsements. Sounds technical, but if you ever seek elective office anywhere in New York, we’re one of the few states that has these cross-endorsements for a candidate’s ballot lines. They distort the process. Party cross-endorsements can become amoral, and Suffolk is often the arena of the worst of what cross-endorsements create. Each party should run its own candidate. It would take reform of state law. That will never happen.
The deal back then that angered a few of us on the East End was the Suffolk County Republican Party leaders and their Conservative Party counterparts selling the East End’s only seat on the County Legislature. The deal went like this: the Republican County Executive faced a tough re-election. His Suffolk GOP leaders needed to get him the C line on the ballot. So these GOP leaders bargained for the Conservative line. In return for the C line for their CE, the GOP leaders allowed the Conservative Party to pick their guy for the East End’s only seat (back then) on the Suffolk County Legislature. They chose a retired corrections officer from NYC who was a registered Conservative, who had moved to Montauk, then part of Legislative District One, for the East End’s county legislative candidate, to whom the GOP would give the Republican line as well.
All this didn’t sit well with the East End towns’ Republican committees and clubs. No one liked the idea that western Suffolk big shots in the GOP and Conservative parties dictated who our legislator was going to be. But no one was willing to step forward and oppose it — except for muttering. So I did. Though my grandmother grew up on a Riverhead farm, I was a newbie here politically, in my late 20s, full of energy and the ideals we talked about. I had just the year before managed the Riverhead chapter of the Perry Duryea campaign for governor – he lost in ’78, but what a fine governor he would have been for Long Island. He was a superb individual, personifying these ideals.
While working for this Montauk lobsterman for governor, I formed close friendships, and even met my future wife, from among those who helped with the Duryea effort. I mention this because a close group of volunteers is your only hope for a plunge into politics. So Steve, Barbara, Leroy, Whale, Jeff, Bruce, Joyce, a couple of others, all made my plunge into politics possible. We pulled together as a team for my primary challenge to wrest the GOP nomination from this hand-picked unknown, but we had little time to get valid petition signatures, and hand them in to an unfriendly Board of Elections.
We had a limited timeframe to get over a thousand signatures, on strict petition forms that we ordered from a printer, who was taking too long. Then, 10 days left before the deadline for handing in the petitions, a worker at the print shop finally confided that they had orders not to print my petitions, and not to let me know till it was too late.
A mad rush followed where we typed out the petition forms ourselves, and in the middle of a hot July, our team gathered signatures all over the East End. Thanks to them, we survived a gauntlet with the Board of Elections. With little campaign money, having started as a protest candidate, we went on to our surprise to win the general election by over 10,000 votes.
As a member of an active county legislature of which I was grateful to be a part, I helped make a difference, with reviving farmland preservation, fighting the lemon known as the Shoreham nuclear plant, preserving land in critical places such as along the Peconic River, battling the special interests who wanted to centralize in Central Islip the courts in Riverhead, opening up Brookhaven Lab to environmental inspections, expanding the County Health Center here, and more. I don’t take credit for all this, but it was through politics that I had a role, with meaningful results for everyone.
Once in this elected position, there were some other valuable lessons to combine with these ideals: expect to let others take credit for what you do in order to get things done; recognize that a person without enemies is usually a person without character; strive not to take yourself too seriously; recognize that defeat and failure are as much a part of success as winning and achieving; be patient with getting to your goal, as politics is not meant for a result-oriented person; struggle at all times to listen respectfully, even to those who make a career of being annoying and abrasive (in politics, they abound); let the people who work for you know that they are appreciated (you can tell much about politicians by how they treat their staff); and above all, follow the advice handed down to every politician by Abe Lincoln, that if, at the end, you have one last friend left, it has to be the one inside of you.
Come to think of it, these ideals and lessons work well in both the public and private worlds. There are so many of you out there who share these values. Please consider taking the plunge, no matter what level of government. We need you now more than ever!