Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Posted by Nick at Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The local and national media are racing to ascribe hidden meanings to and extract national trends from the just-concluded special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, a place which I inhabited for 4 years as a college student (and which, even though I maintained my legal residence in Nassau County, repeatedly attempted to call me for jury duty).
I don't buy that this was all about healthcare, or a referendum on the President, or anything else that the horse race-obsessed media is trying to spin it into becoming. I believe the answer is much more simple; let's call it the Suozzi Effect.
Introducing the Suozzi Effect
We've heard about the Bradley Effect, a theory stemming from the 1982 California governor's race which states that some white voters are more willing to tell pollsters they support a non-white candidate than they are to actually vote for that candidate. Many election results seem to have since disproven or minmized the Bradly Effect, and it's now time to enter a new term into the lexicon.
The Suozzi Effect stems from Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi's attempt to win a 3rd term in 2009. Since being elected in 2001, Suozzi had turned around the finances of a County that had been $500 million in debt, he won re-election in 2005 with 69% of the vote, and he was being talked about around the state as a candidate for higher office; some had even mentioned him as a potential replacement for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate. Legis. Ed Mangano took the Republican nomination, which many felt would go to Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, and, as I reported before, few gave Mangano a chance. One reporter friend of mine said Mangano should be glad if he only loses by 10 percentage points. A friend of mine who is a registered Republican found out who Ed Mangano was when I told him about my upcoming interview...not really a ringing endorsement.
Then, right before our eyes, something started to happen. Mangano ran a focused campaign that tapped into voter anger about some real problems we face in Nassau County, including the high tax burden. Suozzi, who seemed to be sleepwalking through the campaign, brushed these complaints off because the County Executive doesn't set the vast majority of these tax rates. Only after the election was over did Suozzi take the appropriate counter-step of proposing all school districts (and school taxes) come under control of the County Executive, because, after all, if voters wanted to hold him accountable, he should actually BE accountable.
Suozzi continued to sleepwalk - he didn't even spend all his campaign money because he was saving it for re-election or higher office - and Mangano continued to gain steam. Democrats were arrogant about their chances, and Republicans were energized to "Dump Suozzi," as bumper-stickers with that phrase started to sprout up everywhere. When the dust had settled, Suozzi lost by a few hundred votes, but even that is misleading. Ultra-conservative candidate Steven Hansen received roughly 10,000 votes, proving that the vast majority of motivated voters wanted a new direction.
We saw the same thing yesterday, as Republican Scott Brown was able to tap into populist anger and engage in the necessary grind of retail politics over Martha Coakley, who often appeared aloof and actually sneered at the thought of shaking hands outside Fenway Park in the snow when asked in an interview. Brown showed off his truck and railed against Wall Street in campaign commercials, while Coakley seemed unmoved to help a man who had been knocked over by her campaign staff, and who downplayed her numerous successes against Wall Street firms as the Massachusetts Attorney General. When the dust had settled, Coakley, too, had lost, sending Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat to the Republicans.
In each instance, a heavily-favored candidate lost to a relative unknown due to both a failure to excite the base and the opponent's success in galvanizing voters. This is the central corollary of the Suozzi Effect: an aloof, entitled candidate does not win against a candidate who emotionally connects with voters on a central issue, regardless of rationality.
A Tom Suozzi who showed more sensitivity to the tax issue may still be in office, in the same way that a Martha Coakley (a fellow BU alum) could very well be in the Senate if she chose to treat the election like the street fight it was. We saw it with Creigh Deeds in Virginia, who couldn't seem to explain why he wanted to be governor, and in New Jersey, where Jon Corzine had no answer for an opponent who effectively tied him to the company (Goldman Sachs) Corzine used to run.
I don't think this is an issue of repudiating any party's agenda as much as it is a problem of fielding aloof, entitled candidates. Suozzi ran with a slate of Democrats that were a mix of incumbent legislators and party neophytes, and they did not seem to have a coherent narrative or any selling point other than "don't give Nassau County back to the Republicans." The lesson here, in my view, should be that voters want strong candidates who appear in touch with local issues, rather than relying on incumbency or blind promises to toe the party line.
Related to the Lighthouse
We have heard very little about the Lighthouse Project since Ed Mangano took office, save an interview with News 12 Interactive in which the new County Executive says he hopes the project moves forward. We have not heard a peep from the Lighthouse, which seems to be laying low in light of more scrutiny from the mainstream media, and the Town of Hempstead has grown more brazen. Kate Murray recently (falsely) stated the project has the same density as the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and others within Town government have intimated their stance will harden with a new sheriff in town.
Since the Lighthouse has become silent, the people, too, have fallen largely silent. This has given the Town of Hempstead free reign to dictate debate, and this is just as much of a problem as last spring when the Town would not share any of its thinking on the Lighthouse. The debate is better when we hear from both sides.
Since it does not appear that the Lighthouse will be ending its media blackout any time soon, the burden falls to us. We must not be complacent, nor can we assume all is lost. Our support and our passion brought the Lighthouse to the forefront once, and we can do it again.
If we cannot stand up for our beliefs, and if we cannot fight for the world as we believe it should be, then we too will fall victims to the Suozzi Effect and find ourselves relegated to the dustbin of history. We must not allow this to happen.