Taking a step to put politics in new hands
By DONN ESMONDE
They will meet Thursday in a hotel to begin a revolution. They want to give
government back to the people. They aim to end the sham of rigged elections.
They hope to terminate tenure for career politicians. They want to open the
political door to new people.
The revolutionaries are meeting not in Havana or Haiti, but in Cheektowaga.
The banana republics they're targeting are based in Albany and Buffalo.
About 120 of the frustrated and fed-up have signed up, most of them
business owners, to be nourished by a free lunch and the nectar of change.
It has come to this. The system is so rigged, the roadblocks to political
outsiders so high, that civic guerrilla warfare has begun. Leonard Roberto
is no Che Guevara or Viktor Yushchenko. He's a small-business owner
whose frustration with broken, closed-door government led him to lead.
He started Primary Challenge. The group will find and back candidates to run
against politicians in primary elections (in which only party members vote),
where incumbents are often most vulnerable. Case in point: Joe Golombek
last September nearly took out 12-year Assemblyman Sam Hoyt in a
Battling the petrified political status quo is like taking an ice pick to a glacier.
But Roberto has pick and hammer in hand.
It's not a hopeless assault. Public disgust is snowballing. It is fed by everything from
an extra penny sales tax, to a comatose local economy, to runaway Medicaid costs,
to Albany's three-man rule. Anti-incumbent fever is high. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Roberto hopes to raise $40,000 from Thursday's gathering. He's meeting with other
business types in the coming weeks. With money and a core of volunteers, he can
make a dent in a few races - starting with this year's county legislator battles.
"The system is rigged to make sure incumbents stay in power," said Roberto,
dark-haired and intense. "They need to be challenged, or they will never
respond to the people."
We've got the most dysfunctional state government in the land. People say they're
mad and not going to take it anymore. Yet 98 percent of state lawmakers get re-elected.
There's a reason for it, and it's not public stupidity. Politicians rig the system so well that unless a lawmaker sticks up a 7-Eleven or gets caught playing footsie with a floozie, he's in office for life.
Legislators draw themselves districts stuffed with friendly voters, use handouts from
personal stashes of tax dollars to buy support and discourage challengers with a maze
of rules and regulations. A newcomer without big-party backing has as much chance
of prying voter lists from the patronage hires at the Board of Elections as Osama bin Laden does getting through airport security.
Roberto, 49, is no political Bambi. He was an Independence Party official back in the
Perot-Golisano era. He ran headlong into the system in races for county executive and
assembly. He knows where the black ice and potholes are.
He wants to make elections work the way they're supposed to. He wants to open the
political door to talented outsiders of all stripes. It doesn't matter where challengers stand on casinos and guns or abortion. Roberto's agenda is populist, not philosophical.
"I'm just trying," he said, "to reassert the right to run."
He has the know-how to help challengers navigate and volunteers knock on doors and the start of a pot of money to feed campaigns. If it works here, he will take it statewide.
One way or another, Roberto wants to give us back our government. It's good news for people, bad news for career politicians.