Learning Politics and Values From Dad
Dad, my political mentor
Max Schenkler 1905 - 1998
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
He called it “Civics.”
He probably would have defined it as the branch of political science that deals with the rights and duties of citizens.
My father was of another generation – a different time – using perhaps a different frame of reference. But dad’s values and appreciation of “civics,” were passed onto his son — as emphatically as any legacy he gave to me. And I am grateful each time I reflect upon the source of my love of politics, government and the value system by which society functions.
I learned it all from dad.
For the half a century we exchanged ideas, government and society came just behind family, and sometimes baseball, as the things the two of us shared.
When I was a child, he was a constant source of information, questions and polemics to help me discover the true purpose of government and understand how the fabric of society was woven. Dad was a teacher and I was his prize student. He wanted to lead me on a similar path that resulted in his love of history, fascination with politics, understanding of government and commitment to building a better society. As far as I am concerned, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide.
Dad came from the left — liberal and progressive were labels he wore proudly. He was committed to a society that cared for its needy, promoted its working class and taxed the rich to provide for the many.
In dad’s house, we were raised as Democrats. We admired the Liberal Party but valued election results. Even though he served as a Democratic State Committeeman, I know that inside the voting booth, he pulled that Liberal lever when the Democrat shared that line. In support of dad’s decision, back in his day, the Liberal Party was one of principle, not patronage, as it was when it faded from the New York ballot in 2002.
Dad taught me to stand up for my beliefs and gave me the critical thinking skills to believe in the right things. I credit him for my involvement in the civil rights movement in the 60s and for my political orientation today.
If he were around today, we would not agree on everything, but he sure would be proud of the political paths I’ve taken and judgments I’ve made.
And in those travels through the minefields of politics, I’ve learned that everything is not ideology – practicality often corrupts the purist in us. To achieve things requires compromise, deal-making and well, doing things that go against your principles.
Politics is the exercise of power and in order to achieve one’s ends, often goals are diluted and principles compromised. Such is the way of democracy.
Elected officials play such games for keep. Politics is their livelihood. And the realities of the process causes them to bend and flex.
But in the political process, people of principle have lines they will not cross and deals they will not make. There are gray areas that are much too dark for politicians of goodwill to dwell in — or even to visit.
Sure, they get sucked in — one vote in exchange for one program or perk. Everybody is doing it. It’ll help you and your district. They’ll punish you if don’t go along. You’ll be stripped of your committee chairmanship. It’ll cost you money. You’ll lose staff. Your district will suffer.
They’ll take away your member items. You’ll be standing alone. Your one vote won’t make a difference. The big contributors want it. Leadership demands it. You’ll be ostracized.
The list goes on and they all get in line.
They’ll provide you cover. They’ll concoct a rationale.
They’ll blame it on the other party. They’ll yell loud enough and long enough that yours is an act of principle.
That is how the game is played.
And pretty soon, they’ll have you believing it – because you want to. It’s easier that way. It’s easier to go along with the group than stand naked in the crowd. In some legislative bodies, if you don’t go along, they’ll strip you of everything.
And so, my friends for at least two decades the fear factor has corrupted the principles of the New York State Legislature.
The story is pretty clear.
Only the judgments of two people matter: Assembly Speaker Democrat Shelly Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Bills are not debated. Committees have no power. Members have no say and bills are never, ever voted down.
There has not been an on-time budget in 20 years.
As July became August, the New York State Legislature failed to meet a court-ordered deadline to correct the funding formula that has been shortchanging the kids in New York City Schools. Many Democratic members of the legislature spent the week partying in Boston while empty desks in Albany watched a 13-month-old deadline of this critical issue pass without a hearing or vote. Some court-appointed designee will now make the decision.
In the ultimate betrayal, some of our well meaning Queens and New York City members in 1999 followed their Speaker and eliminated the Commuter Tax that brought almost a half a billion dollars annually to our City from those non-city residents who used our infrastructure to earn a living, but now contribute nothing to the City. It was Silver’s failed attempt to win another seat for his party. He lost. We lost – big time. Our representatives – not all of them – sold us out.
Last week, Bruno, in order to strengthen his coalition, allowed his Senate to pass an increase in minimum wage, but in an apparent deal with Governor Pataki, we’ve seen the much-needed legislation vetoed and Bruno says there will be no attempt to override, while he and the Governor quietly wink at each other.
I apologize to my readers for repetition. For those of you who read this space weekly know that for a number of months I’ve been shouting that the New York State Legislature is the worst in the nation. And now, I’m doing it again.
Last week, I shared a current study from NYU’s Brennen Institute which analyzed all fifty states and found that New York’s Legislature was indeed the most dysfunctional.
They gave specific recommendations to correct the problems that, sadly, may not see the light of day in Albany.
The Commuter Tax repeal, the failure to provide the court ordered equitable funding to New York City schools, the political charades played by the leadership, and the 20-year failure to produce an on-time budget are results of the real problem.
The problem is that every member of both bodies has given up their morality to follow the leaders: Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno.
We never hear a legislator come forward decrying the way Albany functions – or dysfunctions. We never hear a legislator come forward and condemn Albany leadership of both parties. We never, ever see a legislator stand up and challenge the system – on the record.
Off the record, they all grumble. But fear has silenced them. In public, and to the press, they are true to Silver and Bruno and the do-nothing Legislature.
No, my friends, this is not the compromise of politics that dad and I discussed. This 20-year streak is as horrendous an act as any, and this legislature is a shocking abomination. And any member who continues to support the leadership and go along to get along is perpetuating a corruption of government, an immoral position and a betrayal of the people. It is time for them to step forward and speak out, or resign.
Dad taught me to stand up for my beliefs and gave me the critical thinking skills to believe in the right things. And while Queens legislators continue to be part of this abomination, I shall not rest.
And sadly, wherever dad is watching from, I know he can’t be resting well.