Political divisiveness will continue focusing on slates


(re: “’Insurgents’ mull their next move,” Feb. 13)

Despite being a longtime observer of local politics, joining the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club had never interested in me. It always struck me as little more than a tool of the local political machine.

My mind was changed, however, when last December, I heard there had been some recent tumult, that a challenge to the club’s powerbrokers was in the offing. A fee of $35 later, I was a member and eligible to vote in the club’s 2020 leadership elections.

But how to vote? Though I knew little of the club’s “old guard,” I had some concerns. Its membership, for one, looks nothing like the larger community. Another concern was its long history of revolving-door leadership that made it appear the club’s raison d’etre was political fealty rather than political debate.

And then there’s the fact that its patriarch is a local political boss who, for the better part of three years, has been deftly grooming his son as the heir apparent to an emergent political dynasty. That’s a fact that greatly concerns me after having lived and worked in the Philippines, where political dynasties both control and corrupt local politics, often standing in the way of new ideas and meaningful political change.

As for the challengers, my misgivings were more theoretical. For every concern I might have had with the club’s leaders, there was still the fact that they had shown with their time, talent and money a dedication that is surely one reason for the club’s formidable organizational might.

Given the apathy and disinterestedness that characterize so much of our contemporary civic life, that hardly seems a trivial point. Could the insurgents, while undoubtedly imbued with passion and energy, effectively marshal the volunteers necessary to carry out its mission?

I found that a difficult question to answer.

Many progressives, when faced with difficult political choices, elicit an instinctual preference for capacious change. Progress is born of change, after all, and what born-and-raised New Yorker hasn’t, from the earliest age, been taught that conservatism is the work of malign and regressive forces?

The problem with such a default instinct, it strikes me, is that quite often, there is much worth conserving. By temperament, I do not share the same automatic preference for the new over the old, for progress over tradition. Though it will not endear me to my many neighbors supporting Bernie Sanders in the current Democratic primaries, one of the lines I’ve found most rhetorically effective has been Pete Buttigieg’s, in which he says that activists sow division when they advance the idea that “you must either be for a revolution, or you must be for the status quo.”

And so when I filled out my ballot for the club’s new leadership, I asked myself: How can I best protect that deserving of protection while also advancing people who would bring about measured and meaningful change? Voting for a “slate” in its entirety was out of the question.

Judging from the final vote totals — as well as from those huddled next to me filling out their ballots on the bar top of the overcrowded American Legion hall — I was in the minority. To my left, a young besuited man diligently eyed his card with the list of challengers, making sure his votes aligned without exception. And to my right, a woman older than myself meticulously matched the checks on her ballot with those on the completed “sample” ballot that she held in her opposite hand.

Neither of them, I noted, stayed long enough to hear the candidates speak.

Rarely have I voted for a whole slate of candidates, what political scientists call “straight-line voting,” and Jan. 29 was no different. Just over half my votes were cast for establishment candidates, the remainder for their challengers. It’s not clear to me why more people don’t do this. It required little effort to read the short biographies, or to listen to the candidates make their pitch to the assembled members.

For me, even little things made a difference in how I ultimately voted. The fact that Morgan Evers and Dan Padernacht greeted me with friendly handshakes at my first club meeting, or the magnanimous way in which Bruce Feld ran that same meeting, his fair-minded graciousness on clear display that evening.

And so it was across my ballot — whether voting for a special education teacher or a Hispanic woman — my reasons were personal and individual.

If we all voted that way, might we live in a less politically polarized nation? Voltaire, in response to the divided politics of his day, wrote: “It seems, then, that fantacism, incensed by the progress of reason, is thrashing about in a spasm of outrage.”

If we were all to pledge to give up straight-line voting, to cease to be either always for this or always for that, maybe we wouldn’t elect the kind of leaders who personify “a spasm of outrage,” or have politicians that hold public office for the better part of three decades without ever facing a serious challenge to their reign.

A healthy body politic, in my opinion, is not one that requires a political machine for life support.

That said, iterative change requires both patience and perseverance. How dismayed was I, then, to recent recently in The Riverdale Press that Ms. Evers — leader of the challenger slate, in the wake of her defeat — is flirting with the idea of abandoning the club. Perhaps my vote for her (which, in part I must admit, was also a result of the rather unpleasantly gruff demeanor of her challenger) was miscast.

It will be a loss for the club and community if Ms. Evers and her fellow challengers choose to depart rather than to stay and work with the new leadership. Either way, though, I plan on sticking around and lending a hand when I can to strengthen the club and our community. And to make sure Mr. Trump is not re-elected come November.

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Jeffrey Otto,