Monday, July 16, 2012 Rochester, NY - The appointment of County Legislator Vincent Esposito to a state agency position shows conflicting principles at work in the local Democratic Party. On the one hand, it suggests that loyal party men can get promoted to nice, secure, state jobs. Esposito, a top aide to County Chairman and Assemblymember Joseph Morelle, is essentially reaping the reward of his loyalty to the party. This is what political parties do: they reward their loyal members, and they take care of their own.
Stephanie P. Aldersley: Is she really the best minor league prospect to take Esposito's spot on the Legislature's bench?
But this appointment has also created a vacancy. This vacancy gives the party an excellent opportunity to demonstrate another principle of effective party governance: the cultivation and promotion of new, up-and-coming talent. Appointment to the County legislature is the ideal opportunity for promoting a newer party member to a position of some prominence. Instead, the party has expressed interest in returning Stephanie Polowe Aldersley to the position. Aldersley is not a bad choice; she served for ten years and rose to the position of Minority Leader. But an Aldersley appointment begs the question my Smugtown Beacon colleague and more than one resident of Irondequoit have already raised: isn't there anyone else?
This question is not merely one of exasperation that the same faces continue to recirculate through local politics. It is a question that asks local Democrats if they understand why developing a strong political "bench" is an important asset for future party success.
What exactly is a "bench" in politics?
A political bench is an intentional effort by parties to recruit activists, engage them in party activities and calculate their leadership/political skills. It is a mechanism to identify future leaders and to provide them with a path to achieve their desired goals. The ambitious future pol benefits by having opportunities to demonstrate their worth and to have reasonably clear expectations that if they are successful, the party will promote them. The party benefits by maintaining a reservoir of future talent from which it can draw.
Note that the party only benefits to the extent it sees the utility in drawing from this talent. If the party is content with its current talent -- or if it actually attempts to stifle emerging leaders -- it essentially shuts off this spigot. That may protect current party leaders and their short term plans, but it stifles long-term party growth since few potential party leaders would commit themselves to aiding a party system that focuses only on short-term goals, or the narrow goals of the present leadership. Those potential leaders simply explore other options -- or they see the writing on the wall and attach themselves to a specific political sponsor or patron who is better able to secure future opportunities for them.
How does an effective bench work?
Parties can be thought of as corporate entities in a sense. But rather than build value for shareholders through profits, they attempt to control political resources to advance their policy goals and to advance the interests of their members. Since political parties can only achieve policy success by actually controlling or influencing government institutions, they must get their members elected or appointed to key positions of power. In short, they must win elections regularly and they must ensure that those election victories provide them with resources that they can steer to their members.
More concretely, parties can influence access to public office by helping to elect their members to office, by filling patronage jobs with their allies and by providing a resource network (fundraising, political contacts, volunteers, etc.) to members. Because parties can, in some cases, direct these resources in a selective way to members, the resources become more valuable: it should be the case that a person running for office as a Democrat benefits by having the party's support compared to a candidate who does not have its support.
This ability to selectively deploy resources to people is critical to a party's ability to cultivate a "bench." It allows them to reward those who have demonstrated their commitment and ability to contribute positively to party goals and, conversely, it allows them to withhold those resources from those undeserving of such resources. This becomes an attractive quality to a would-be pol: it assures them that if they can produce, they can be assured of benefiting from the party. In the political world, it is the closest thing to a meritocracy that one can find.
This meritocracy requires some key elements. Without them, the meritocracy breaks down and becomes just another system where "it's not what you know but who you know." Politics will always have a healthy dose of that personal influence, but these elements can constrain leaders and encourage party growth:
- The party must have a level of internal organization that can allow it to control and direct resources with some predictability.
- Party leadership must consistently honor principles of loyalty to the party (as opposed to loyalty to particular leaders).
- The party must have a clear set of principles that are shared by a broad consensus of party members, specifically by the leaders of the party. It must be these principles that guide the distribution of party resources to members.
With these elements in place, it is then up to parties to identify entry points for up-and-coming party leaders and a path for them to pursue their political goals. Parties also benefit by assigning (formally or informally) mentors to these prospective leaders to communicate the norms of the party and to shepherd them through the party organization. As opportunities for advancement become available, it should be clear to party members "whose turn it is" to advance: the person who has paid their dues and who has demonstrated their readiness is the one who advances. Others must wait their turn.
Why does MCDC have so much trouble with this?
Cultivating and promoting a political bench is fundamental to effective parties -- this is not complicated theory or some lofty goal. Why, then, do Monroe County Democrats seem to have so much trouble developing their bench?
Lack of unifying goals
Most parties have a common focus: the election of their members to office -- specifically with the goal of controlling legislatures, bureaucracies, etc. In Monroe County, the political ambitions of Democrats are divided among three very distinct political institutions: the city school district, city government (Council and the Mayor) and the Monroe County government (Legislature and Executive). Two of those institutions are Democratic-controlled virtually by default; the County Leg and County Executive offices are relatively competitive. Democrats rarely coordinate their efforts across these institutions. In some cases, there is hostility between them (particularly the city and the RCSD).
Contrast this with the Monroe County Republican Party. Having written off the city, they have one focus in terms of cultivating their local membership: the County government. If town government serves as an initial entry point, the County Legislature and county government generally becomes the larger resource that Republicans control and mete out to their members. With this common goal (control the leg and the County Executive), Republicans can more easily agree on how resources should be allocated. Democrats will struggle until they can better coordinate how control of the city and RCSD can coordinate with their goals in the county.
Democrats are in deep denial if they believe their leaders act in a unified way. There is a deep schism in the party between Assemblymembers David Gantt and Joe Morelle. Because of this divide, the party is unable to be consistent in rewarding supporters or punishing defectors. Each leader instead protects his supporters, sometimes at the cost of broader party goals.
Saul Maneiro is a good example of a former member of the Democratic bench. As a longtime activist in the party, Maneiro held a series of informal and formal positions. He was ultimately rewarded when he took the opportunity to run for and be elected to the County Legislature (though not without facing a primary). Yet Maneiro's primary opponent renewed his challenge and, without the party being able to effectively deter this challenge, Maneiro ultimately lost. This is not to say that Maeniro should or should not have been re-elected or that his primary opponent was worthy or unworthy. But such a primary would virtually never happen in the Republican Party because they go to great lengths to preserve the opportunities they provide to their members. Maneiro's benefit for years of loyal party service? "You're on your own kid -- knock on a lot of doors." The message to the Saul Maneiro's of the future: "Don't count on the party supporting you when you need it."
Lack of sufficient incentives
If parties require control of resources to benefit their supporters and to withhold from their less-productive members, then Monroe County Democrats should be well-positioned. Democrats have controlled both the city and the RCSD for several years, providing countless opportunities to place friends and allies in positions of influence. The problem for Democrats, though, is that they have seldom used these opportunities effectively (from a purely partisan perspective, that is). For example, when Mayor Robert Duffy was elected in 2005, he had just won a major victory over the party's designated candidate, Wade Norwood (in addition to a third long-time Democrat, Tim Mains). Duffy used his appointments to send a message: he would reward some supporters (such as campaign manager Molly Clifford and some others), but would also reserve several appointments to "the best and the brightest" -- people like Carl Carballada and Thomas Richards, recruited from the private sector to serve the public. This was Duffy's prerogative. It likely benefited his political goals and the image of leadership he sought to cultivate, but it did not advance the party's interests in any significant way.
To the contrary, some longtime Democratic supporters, such as City Recreation Commissioner Loretta Scott, were rather unceremoniously asked not to reapply. Had Duffy simply sought to promote some turnover, replacing the likes of Scott with other party loyalists, that might have helped deepen the party's bench. But Scott and others were not replaced by such types. The message was not "longtime up-and-comers, your day has come!" It was instead, "The Duffy train has left the station -- better luck next time."
Democrats are further hampered by two additional factors: the school district is not well-suited to advance party interests through patronage and the largest source of patronage (Monroe County) is controlled by Republicans. In the former case, Democrats use school offices at their own risk: when things go wrong in the schools (as certainly they will), the existence of party hacks will only exacerbate the problem. In the latter case, Democrats are simply frozen out of County patronage -- a much more diverse and richer set of jobs to benefit their members. In short, Democrats simply lack a number of prize plums to award their supporters.
The situation is not hopeless. Democrats could promote talent in the local party if they could be more conscious and intentional in how they promote opportunities for members. Even if it involves Morelle and Gantt choosing straws each time, members would at least know that they have a 50-50 chance at advancement. The current opportunity structure is opaque and byzantine, dependent on shifting coalitions and a number of broken promises. Whether it is desirable that parties act as cravenly as this -- promoting their loyalists, punishing defectors, pre-emptying competition -- is another subject of debate. But if a party cannot exercise this power, within its own ranks, it speaks volumes about its ability to deliver on the bigger goals of the party's platform. For Monroe County Democrats, achieving the dream of a more integrated city-county relationship, more equitable policies for residents, a more democratic (small-d) approach to economic development -- all of these will be impossible until they can first figure out how to advance their skilled members and deter internecine battles.
RELATED ARTICLE: Private Email Communique: Aldersley Running for County Legislature, Again
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