Nov 16, 2007

An Exorcism in Saratoga -- election analysis

Dealing with Rabid Dogs

Plus: A political and sociological history

I am a lifelong member of the Democratic party, an example of what was used to be called an Apple Democrat: a believer in the party’s traditional mantra of level playing fields and equality while at the same time comfortably embedded in the global free market.

My family name appears in the earliest party rolls in the city of Saratoga Springs and I have consistently pulled the donkey lever in local, state and national elections. I have been serving on the re-election committee of one of the local party incumbents and have given informal advice to two others in recent months. I gleefully celebrated the historic 2005 sweep of all seven city offices, which gave controlling power to the Democrats for the first time in the annals of my native hometown.

So there I was on Election Night two years later, mingling amongst two hundred party faithful cheering on the mayoral hopeful as the results came into the room, district by district. Joining in, for sure, but at the same time feeling a sense of unease, disappointment, sadness and just plain weirdness. What’s wrong with this picture?

I was at the Republican's party on that evening, that’s what!

Six years into the Bush insanity, standing in John Sweeney’s former turf, surrounded by the sprawl & t-shirts crowd that I so despise, listening to them talking up their newly revitalized empire building plans, there I was. So, how could such an “it’ll never happen” moment actually happen; who or what is to blame for this craziness? That answer is very simple:

Valerie Keehn.

The incumbent mayor, allegedly a member of my very own party, succeeded in my doing the personally unthinkable. However, that is my burden to bear and one that I do not take lightly. I will get over it, I am sure.

But, Mrs. Keehn, who campaigned as The People’s Mayor, did much more than just drive this conflicted individual into the Holiday Inn to slug down some Heinekens with a bunch of guys he used to make fun of in high school. Indeed, she did much, much more damage than that. This political newbie single handedly (well, with her handlers) hit the Big Enchilada of city political mischief:

Control of the city council was handed back to the Republicans, reversing the 2005 sweep and the decades of momentum that was built up by the party’s progressives.

Quite the accomplishment, is it not? When this woman decides to get something done, she certainly knows how to leave her mark, which could be felt for many years to come. Unfortunately for the citizens of Saratoga Springs, this was her only real accomplishment during a two-year term in office that can only be described as an outright disaster.

To best understand the why & how to all of this, it is necessary to step back and take a brief look at the history --- both political and sociological – of the Spa City:

Saratoga's Changing Tides

• Saratoga Springs long operated as a small, stand-alone outpost in northeastern New York. Its local economy supported local families who in turn supported the local businesses and built deeply rooted neighborhoods.

• Its Health History & Horses motto best exemplified another core economic base -- tourism -- with the race course being a key driver.

• Political power in the city has long been held by the Republican party, which tends to be the case in towns that rely heavily on tourism and its related sectors of Main Street retail, lodging and real estate. Public policy has long been centered on supporting that focus.

• The waning status of the race course (and horse racing in general), which began in the late 1960’s, resulted in an overall economic downturn in the city’s fortunes. Buildings that played a role in earlier decades fell into disuse and disrepair and retailers abandoned downtown. The city’s population actually declined at tone point.

• A major federal highway infrastructure project – called the Adirondack Northway – played the primary role in reversing that damage. Completed in 1967, the four-lane road replaced Route 9 as the main artery in and out of the city. From that point on, it played an increasingly important role in Saratoga’s fate, specifically in two areas:

- By providing 30+ minute access to Albany, it became a ‘commuter’ option for workers to now reside in Saratoga.
- It shortened the drive from NY, NJ, CT and Montreal, thereby making the race course and the other tourist attractions more desirable to a wider audience

• The ‘commuter’ aspect is important, because it signaled the end of the city being a predominately localized economy. In a trend that continues to this day, more and more of the city’s professional class work outside the city boundaries.

• Despite Republican dominance, an occasional Democrat would win election to the five member city council. One of them was Thomas McTygue, who followed his father into heading the Public Works Department in the early comeback years of the early 70’s. While light on big-picture policy making motivations, McTygue did succeed in effectively managing his operation. While his beautification projects get the popular play, equally significant initiatives were undertaken and accomplished. For example: prior to McTygue, most of the city’s major road construction projects were farmed out to outside contracting companies. Beginning with the Grand Ave project in 1974, these efforts were brought in-house.

• In the early 80’s, another government investment –this one by New York state – would have a significant and impact on the city. This was the I Love New York tourism campaign, which included a huge Capital – Saratoga branding initiative featuring photos of the race course front and center, distributed around the world. The positive influence of this program is unquestioned, as the track reclaimed its former glory as the showcase of the Sport of Kings and attendance and visitor counts soared.

• As happens to many tourist destinations, the more people that visit, the more decide that “this little town might be a nice place to actually live in.” The stage was certainly set for that.

• This demand, combined with the financial enabler of hyper-rising property values in the metro New York region and elsewhere, created a new immigration into Saratoga. A predominately 50+ demographic sold their (or their parents’ estate) properties in the city and used the funds to buy the relatively cheap homes in Saratoga and its surrounding areas. The city and county population soared.

• Politically, this influx of new blood narrowed the head count between the two parties, as these new residents tended to be independent, liberal leaning or Democrat.

• This newly empowered independent/left/liberal/Democrat coalition shared one outstanding concern: that runaway real estate development (i.e., sprawl) at both the city and county level was threatening the city’s highly prized quality of life. For that, it increasingly blamed the local Republican machine, its influence and its membership.

• The flash point / rallying cry for this showdown occurred in 2004-2005, as the county Republican apparatus pushed through its massive water project, a huge public investment that would run a north-south pipe down the center of the county. All hell broke loose.

• The point person that put this issue front and center was Mr. McTygue. In council meeting after meeting, the long-time commissioner would recite the arguments against the city joining into the county project. In speeches lengthy enough to make Castro jealous and which became legendary among senior citizens that would gather around the audio casts, McTygue called this plan for exactly what it was: a taxpayer subsidy to the local real estate industry, giving them the green light (financially and otherwise) to put the county’s sprawl growth into hyper-drive. Granted, McTygue’s motivations may have been motivated from a city vs county ‘water control’ perspective (of which he admitted), but the overriding power play aspect -- highlighting the worst aspects of what Republicans are typically blamed for -– was not lost on the citizenry. It stuck.

• By the time the November 2005 elections came around, McTygue was so popular that the Republicans didn’t even dare run against him. A slate of newcomers rounded out the Democratic ticket, and lo and behold, they all won easily. With one exception, that is; the previously unknown candidate for Mayor, named Valerie Keehn, who barely squeaked into office along with her party running mates.

Such was the stage as set for the Democratic party to finally be handed the keys to the city of Saratoga Springs on New Years Day 2006. A fine day it was, complete with parties, toasts and celebration. After that, it was time to get down to business.

Folks, we have a problem

Right out of the gate, problems surfaced. The most visible was the fact that Mrs. Keehn knew nothing about properly chairing a meeting, which is her primary responsibility in the city’s so-called weak mayor format. The city council meetings became uncomfortable to even watch, and she struggled with procedural details. Being new to such a stage certainly gives some leeway, but she never seemed to get better at it. Amplifying the problem was the fact that Mrs. Keehn is not a confident public speaker, with a slight droning voice that sounds like she is about to weep at any minute.

Next was her appointment to the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Racing, certainly an important issue to a city with the premiere racing facility in the world within its confines. This should be a good thing, local representation by the city’s mayor. But then she opened her mouth and admitted something to the effect that “she really doesn’t have a real understanding of the thoroughbred racing industry.”

So, the city’s introduction to Mrs. Keehn in the first weeks of her administration are: a) she is incapable of fulfilling her number one on-the-job responsibility; and b) she knows nothing about the city’s most valuable asset. Maybe she really didn’t expect to win the election, some asked? But wait, it gets worse.

Those two governance mistakes were quickly followed by two political mistakes. The first was to remove Bill McTygue (brother of Tom and DPW deputy) from the planning board. Although certainly within her right and powers to do so (proposing of board appointments are the only powers held by the mayor that other council members don’t have under this form of government), politically it made no sense to exhibit such naked ambition against the fellow party member on whose coattails she was dragged into office in the first place. But as we were to see, it was a signal of her true ambitions.

The next blunder was to make a call for Charter Change, which if successful, would have converted the city to a more typical strong mayor system with a supporting legislative body put into place. Besides not being able to voice a rationale for such a change (the spin was “It’s what every other city does”), the fiercest criticism centered around the fact that Mrs. Keehn never mentioned the desire for such a referendum at any point in her campaign. Regardless of the merits of such an issue, the public take on the matter was Naked Ambition, Part 2, and it was easily defeated at the polls.

Next came the wild card of good old personality conflicts. Many observers viewed these misguided political actions as an affront to fellow council member Mr McTygue, including Mr. McTygue himself. McTygue, having a colorful and vocal personality reflective of his mixed Irish and Italian heritage, wasn’t going to let this nonsense sit. Given that the mayor had no policy initiatives to shoot at, his only target was to berate her publicly at the council meetings, at times in a rather demeaning manner for such transgressions as the inability to keep order and (again) the inability to actually conduct meetings in a proper fashion. This act had played before, as McTygue used the same script with previous mayors, so Keehn shouldn’t have been surprised. Then again, staging a public spat between yourself and a fellow Democrat is not good politics on McTygue’s part, either.

Simply put, Mrs., Keehn didn’t appreciate the street fighting man reaction from Mr. McTygue. Unable to match his verbal volleys and without seeing the need to concentrate on effective policymaking initiatives, Mrs. Keehn decided it was time for a Plan B; and it wouldn’t be pretty.

So was laid the groundwork for twenty months of conflict that would unravel the party. The blame game is in now full swing, with the popular consensus being “they’re both to blame.”

The Two-Year Trance

There is, in fact, plenty of blame to go around. But that’s too easy an explanation. One must call it like it is and point the finger right at the root cause of this fiasco. That finger goes to Keehn and her people, without feeling any need to be polite about it on this end.

Valerie Keehn was put in office for one simple reason: because her name was not Michael Lenz, the former Republican mayor and vocal supporter of the county water plan. The guy playing the bongos in front of Lillian’s could have accomplished the same thing if given the chance. No one heard of her before, and in fact no one needed to. She got a free pass, which most of us were glad to hand out.

But her opportunity was lost; lost in an ugly haze of power grabs and vindictive hate. The message of smart development and transparent and open government was exposed as the scam it was, all hat and no cattle. No brave new programs were ever proposed by Mrs. Keehn during her term. No definition of smart development or smart growth was ever given, so how could a vision of the city’s future even be put into action? Affordable housing never advanced. Open space land money sits in the bank. Downtown’s health is questionable, and nothing is being done about it. Ditto for the related parking issue. Ditto for anything else of consequence.

The only thing on her ledger is those precious board appointments. Get rid of Bill McTygue, and let’s clean it all up here, was the mantra. What we got was the appointment of an unqualified individual to a board, based solely on the fact that his father was the major campaign donor. She accidentally admitted to clearing it through the Senior during a debate!

Not to mention the little detail of her Ethics Chairman being of questionable – ethics - getting kicked off a few posts for ethical violations. She adopts the Village Idiot -- a Republican, retired military officer known for confrontational raids at council meetings, pro-choice rallies and anti-war protests – as a supporter, all while chanting the “We are the Progressive Democrats” message. Citizen particpation is held up as a banner; unless you question the mayor. At that point, your banner defines you as being part of a good old boys conspiracy. So goes the Keehn Paradox.

The Plan B -- Thanks, Karl

With this record of accomplishment – or lack thereof -- to run on, it’s time to go to the Karl Rove playbook. Ah, the Plan B arises. The mission: if you have weaknesses in your own portfolio, simply destroy your opponent‘s character as a way to compensate.

Does it work? Just ask John Kerry if it works: he’s no doubt still wondering how his Medal of Honor service in Viet Nam gets him branded as a traitor when compared to some rich kid draft dodger in Texas that actually went AWOL from his Air Guard troop during the same timeframe. Yes, it works.

So, after the perceived enemy (McTygue) Keehn and her attack dogs went. A 30+ year popular incumbent was now deemed a political machine. An oil spill in a garage is now likened to Love Canal or Bhopal as far as environmental consequences. Supporters are dispatched to hiding behind bushes, snapping photos of city workers coming and going . Not to mention the under-the-radar tactics of feeding rumor and innuendo of the most personal nature into the community’s newspapers, online forums and gossip mill. So they went, following the Rove playbook to the letter; except for one little mistake.

A Detail Overlooked

Unlike Mrs. Keehn, any good Saratogian DOES understand horse racing. If so, we know the meaning of the phrase “pace makes the race.” This notes that if two horses come out of the starting gate and proceed to fiercely go eyeball to eyeball, neck to neck and nose to nose with one another, they will both slow down dramatically towards the end.

In a match race, with just two horses, this strategy works -- one horse will put away the other and stagger cross the finish line to win the prize while the other usually gets pulled up.

Here lies the Keehn mistake. She went into match race mode, but she was in the wrong match race. Her Rove playbook served her well in putting down McTygue – it usually does. But she was ineligible for that race, and was then told to go run in her own match race against Scott Johnson, her actual Republican opponent for her actual seat. Johnson had no need to go into crash & burn mode on Mrs. Keehn; she had already spent herself in the previous race. He won, handily (to use another racing reference). So did two other Republican council candidates and one supervisor, all victims of the Hurricane Keehn. City power shifted, the worm turned.

The insanity of this strategy is mind boggling. But then again, so is the perspective on politics, government, business, economics or any other important subject of Mrs. Keehn’s most ardent supporters. I know that for a fact; for I have actually sat down with several of them and had that conversation. They haven’t a clue. No sense of the city's history, it's current dynamics, cause & effect of public policy -- none of it registers.

Where To?

What’s next for the Saratoga Democratic party? More bloodletting, no doubt, as Mrs. Keehn’s people refuse to go into the night while others will think it is necessary to somehow find a place for all factions within an organizational group-hug lovefest.

But, the task ahead should instead be viewed as what happens when you find a pack of 50 dogs that were not properly cared for and they are brought to the nearest animal shelter. After helping the animals lick their wounds, it’s time to make some tough decisions. Most of the pack can be put back into service, but only after the administration of some productive discipline. Others, however, are determined to be rabid and have no such prospects. They are pruned from the herd.

Such is the case for the party. Many individuals, from all the various camps, are in need of some of that productive discipline in order for the party as a whole getting back on track and moving forward.

But at the same time, a handful people -- that poisoned inner circle of the Keehn campaign; the ones responsible for this scorched earth campaign -– must be sent packing. Just like the rabid dogs.

It’s our only hope. Please, spare me any more nights out with a bunch of noisy elephants.




Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Who bought the H-bombs at the GOP party? Follow the money, for sure.

But. I have to give you credit. You tell it like you see it, don't you?

Horatio Alger said...

RM - Great post, man. Eloquently put and true to the last period. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is wow. You absolutely nailed down the whole story. I have followed the Keehn train wreck for the last year and a half-objectively mind you, and I couldn't agree more.

Kudos for a job well done.

A small "r" republican for fairness

Anonymous said...

"What’s next for the Saratoga Democratic party?"

Gordon Boyd.

Toga Gal said...

you're freaking nuts. or brilliant. one of the two, but not both. or maybe right in the middle of the two; what is that called? dangerous, maybe?

the broadway bongo player, huh? that alone made the long read worthwhile.

speaking of which, you might consider shortening the next one down to about 30 words or less. so goes the attention span of the average reader of these things.

BlueDog said...

I really enjoyed your post. I've lived here in Saratoga for the past 25 years and I think your analysis is right on. I am also a lifelong democrat who for the first time ever voted for a republican candidate. I wanted only to depose Val who I think is evil and who I blame for totally screwing up the historic democratic majority on the city council.

I also think that the city owes Tom McTygue a huge debt for his tireless resistance to the good old boy republican machine run by the Roohans and Nolan for years.

It's almost like there was a collective memory loss in the city.
Skippy the dog catcher instead of a man who tirelessly worked to keep this city so beautiful and intact? Take a look at Congress Park. Take a walk down any city street. We discard Tom because of a spill at the garage? Or because of vague rumors of minor misdeeds?

The poor sob had to put up with the villiage idiot Bronner stalking him relentlessly and had no protection from our poor excuse of a police force. Shame on them!

What can you say about Val except WTF? Thank god she's gone.

Anonymous said...

I think you had it right the first time, T-Gal: he's nuts.

Anonymous said...

I liked the recap and the commentary.
What lesson do we learn from the Keehn Konundrum.

We have to improve our skills in finding qualified candidates.
There is a big fault in the system when an error of this magnitude happens.

Thank god it took only two years to correct as compared to the eight year mistake of the Bush regime.