My wife, Jane Weihe, and I met with Charlie Brown, the chair of the City Democratic Committee, and Ellen Kiehl, first vice president (there are five). Jane was chair of the city committee from 1986 to around 1998.
Charlie and Ellen were very well spoken and thoughtful. Charlie began by noting that the Democratic Committee has a mission statement. He emphasized that the number one item (it in fact is the first item) is to elect Democrats. His other goal is to maintain harmony in the committee.
To understand his remarks one has to know about the recent history of the committee. Having talked to Valerie Keehn, I think she would agree with me that her number one priority as mayor was to expose and, if possible, remove Tom McTygue from office. Tom is a rough and tumble politician so the war that ensued was bitter and protracted. While her many calls for investigating him never produced anything, their conflict did succeed in both of their defeats in the subsequent election.
The conflict between the two was not limited to the council chambers. The meetings of the city committee were extraordinarily ugly and dysfunctional. To say that the committee was paralyzed would be an understatement. The conflicts continued well past the election in which they were defeated.
So it is quite understandable that Charlie and Ellen had their work cut out for them when they became officers. With patience and diplomacy, they managed to create enough calm to perform the basic tasks of the committee such as to circulate the petitions required to get candidates on the ballot and to distribute campaign literature.
The problem has been that to achieve this they pretty much gave up taking a stand on anything that was remotely controversial. Here is the Saratoga Spring Democratic Commitee platform on development and the greenbelt:
Plan for Smart Development that Preserves our City in the Country.
We actively promote and endorse the timely adoption and regular revisions to the Comprehensive Plan. The Plan should encourage: smart, sustainable growth, healthy transportation options, conservation of energy and natural resources, use of renewable energy, and non-vehicular accessibility. To preserve the value of “a city in the country,” we need to encourage thoughtful growth while preserving valued open spaces. We also need to be intentional about maintaining and promoting a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity.
This is the kind of statement that is so vague that Saratoga PAC could endorse it. Who is not for” smart, sustainable growth”? Who is not for “healthy transportation options”? Who is not for the “timely adoption” of the city comprehensive plan?
To fully appreciate how paralyzed the Democratic Committee has been, one has only to consider that they were unable to take a position on the casino gambling expansion. Fifty-eight percent of the voters of our city voted against the state constitutional amendment and probably eighty percent of the Democrats in the city opposed the amendment. No matter. As I understand it, the committee never even debated the issue let alone adopted a position.
It was no surprise then that at Saturday’s Democratic Committee meeting the issue of Saratoga National Golf Course’s proposed expansion was hardly touched on.
I have considerable sympathy for the challenges that Mr. Brown and Ms. Kiehl face. John Franck is a zealous supporter of changing the zoning to allow a resort. Mayor Yepsen steadfastly refuses to indicate where she stands. Michele Madigan may vote for it in the future. Chris Mathiesen opposes the changes. So for the committee to take a position, risks antagonizing at least one of the elected Democrats on the Council.
Mr. Brown also made the argument that whatever differences someone may have with any of the Democratic incumbents, their opponents would be worse. I think that is true although the margin of difference varies.
The problem is that with this ethos what you get is a culture of what the Russians call apparatchiks. James Billington, the librarian of the United States Congress, describes an apparatchik as “a man not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details.” This is not to say that the people on the committee are not well meaning.
This culture does, however, lead to the fact that there are currently seventeen vacancies on a committee that is supposed to have fifty-four. A number of the members of the committee are either elected officials, the spouses of elected officials, or the deputies of elected officials.
The reality is that very few people want to devote their energy to an organization that has as its core mission electing the lesser of two evils. To attract new and vigorous people it seems reasonable that one would need to actually stand for something. If the Democratic platform is indistinguishable from Saratoga PAC it is hard to believe that the committee can successfully grow.
I told Mr. Brown that I respectfully disagreed with him about how to build a party. To attract people that will work hard one must identify popular issues that have broad community support and that provide a sense real mission. This may involve some significant conflict but it may be worth the struggle. Personally I believe that the Democratic Party won office because people believed that they would work to improve the quality of life in our city as well as strengthen it economically as compared to the Republicans who seemed driven entirely by the economics of unrestrained development (Skip Scirocco being an exception). People have wrongly assumed that the Democratic Party rejected the casino and that they stand as protectors of the greenbelt today as they have in the past. As a party they did not and do not.
Interestingly, Mr. Brown impressed me with his social skills. He has a thoughtful and measured style. He is a good listener. Unfortunately, like many people drawn to politics, he does not seem to have the social vision to accompany those skills. I have no illusions. I expect that the Democratic Committee will continue to take no positions. I expect that on occasion, as they have in the past, someone of principle will decide to run and will get their support. Unfortunately, more commonly, others with less appealing qualities will also run and will enjoy the same support.
A Picture Of the Fabulous Jane Weihe (Ex-Chair of Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee)