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The Last Moderate Republican May 3, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Arlen Specter, Jack Kemp, National Politics, Republicans.
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jack-kempI was saddened today to learn of the death of Jack Kemp, 73, former Republican Congressman and Secretary of HUD.  Mr. Kemp, who represented Western New York in Congress for 18 years, died of cancer last night in his Maryland home. 

Kemp captured the heart of Western New York as the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills in the late 1960’s.  Though he was a son of California, he made Buffalo his home during and after his football career.  He is remembered as a measured Republican politician – he once called himself a “bleeding-heart” conservative – and the people appreciated his warmth to and care for his constituency.  Jack Kemp never forgot that he represented minorities, women, businessmen, and union workers.  He was a true moderate Republican voice in Washington.

I worked for Jack Kemp as a student aide in the winter and spring of 1984.  I had first registered to vote as a Liberal in 1980.  I thought it was the thing to do.  I was a pro-choice, women’s rights, no-nukes and save the whales tree-hugger in those days.  Besides, it really pissed my father off – a HUGE benefit.  As I went through college, however, I began to get caught up in the whole idea of supply-side economics.  I was a fan (then) of Ronald Reagan and I believed in all the flag-waving strong defense, anti-commie rhetoric.  I changed my registration to Republican in 1983.  I still believed in all those liberal causes – but I also thought that “trickle-down” could work; less taxes and government spending could (and to a certain extent did) spur investment and growth.  I continued to be a Republican until 2003 – when I again re-registered – this time as a Democrat.  I did it because I came to believe two things; one, supply-side economics did not work and two, the Republican party was hijacked by ideologues that wanted nothing to do with Republicans like me. 

Jack Kemp’s death coming on the heels of Arlen Specter’s defection is a metaphor for the larger death of the Republican party.  Kemp, though a true conservative supply-sider, believed that the Republican party was the “party of Lincoln” and it should “look like America”.  He believed in extending a hand to minorities and bringing them into the fold.  He believed that his economic policies would be the rising tide that lifted all boats and worked tirelessly to prove to minorities and women that it could be so.  His ideas of inclusion were so respected that Bob Dole tapped him to be his VP in the 1996 race for President. 

In today’s Republican party, Jack Kemp would be scorned and marginalized – just as Arlen Specter found himself to be.

In Kemp’s heyday, the Northeast and New England states were represented by lots of Republicans.  These were people – like me – who wanted a smaller and less expansive role for government but were pretty liberal when it came to social issues.  New Yorkers sent plenty of Republicans to the Congress in those years.  We sent Nelson Rockefeller – a liberal by many measures but also a Republican – to be Vice President.  What a difference a decade or three makes.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the debate inside the Republican party is whether to resuscitate the patient via inclusion of more moderate voices or to continue the purge of those voices that are not in complete lockstep with the party line.  So far, the hard-liners are winning – and to the party’s detriment.

“Though wise men at their end know dark is right; Because their words had forked no lightning they; Do not go gentle into that good night.”  – Dylan Thomas

Misery Loves Company February 13, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Buffalo, Economic Stimulus, Economy, New York Politics, Politics.
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Buffalo at Dusk

Buffalo at Dusk

When you live in Buffalo, NY,  you become accustomed to taking it on the chin.  The other day, Forbes Magazine ranked Buffalo as the eighth most miserable city in the United States.  Ouch. 

This once proud “Queen City of the Lakes” had the second-largest population in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century.  It was a major rail head and the center of Great Lakes shipping.  The population was large and varied – several ethnic neighborhoods housed great numbers of Irish, German, and Polish immigrants.  It was the final stop for hundreds of runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad before freedom in Canada.  The Niagara Movement, precursor to the NAACP, was founded here.  Later, heavy industry was king; steel, autos, and aircraft were manufactured here; my grandfather worked at Bell Aircraft on the plane that first shattered the sound barrier, the X-1.  Then, two events shattered this city – and it has never recovered since.

The first was the Blizzard of ’77.  The city was immobilized for almost a week because of high winds and snow coupled with subzero temperatures.  Over 8,000 cars were abandoned on city streets and many citizens were stranded away from home for days.  The images from the event were broadcast all over the world, creating and cementing the impression that Buffalo was a snowy Siberia 365 days a year.  Thirty years later, any time we have a weather event here, the Weather Channel is parked on our waterfront broadcasting the horror of snowfall.  It gets old that whenever I travel – even to Europe – and people ask me where I’m from –  the invariable comment upon my answering “Buffalo” is “still have snow there?”  Even in July.

The second was the death of Bethlehem Steel’s operations in Lackawanna, NY.  At one time Bethlehem employed over 20,000 people at this facility.  Beginning in 1977, Bethlehem started scaling back steel production and eventually closed the plant for good in 1982.   Remaining industries fell like dominoes – continuing to just this past year with the closure of American Axle and Manufacturing, an auto parts manufacturer that employed hundreds of middle-class workers.  Ford and GM have a small and contracting presence here, but one can’t help but feel that their days are numbered. 

What makes all this worse is the peculiar workings of New York State politics.  While Buffalo and Western New York have representation in the State Senate and Assembly, our reps. are mere figureheads.  New York is controlled by the “three men in a room”; the Governor and the heads of the Assembly and Senate.  No legislation makes it into debate without their say-so, there is no popular referendum provision, and there is no membership conferences between the bodies.  The state government is dominated by downstate and NYC politicians and their needs and desires are practically the antithesis of what is needed upstate and west.  New York tax policy, written to support downstate, is strangling everything west of Albany.  What’s more, our one considerable asset – hydro-power generation at Niagara Falls – is redirected by a shadowy and unaccountable state authority to the eastern end of the state.  This leaves residents here with the highest electricity rates in the nation.  The tolls we pay New York on our roads and bridges go to support toll-free roads around New York City and its suburbs.  In the mean time, our population is being drained of its youth, vigor, and innovation as our brightest and best young people leave for greener pastures.  Finally, there is word that the economic stimulus money for New York will not make its way to this end of the state despite a surfeit of worthwhile infrastructure projects in process.

Weighing all this, I suppose we could be pretty miserable here if we allowed ourselves to be, but we really are not.  This really is a nice place to live if you like winter or don’t mind hibernating for 4 months.  The summers and autumns are awsome.  We have theater, arts, an orchestra, a vibrant local music scene, tons of year-round festivals, really cheap housing, and an average 20-minute commute to anywhere you need to be.  We have some very famous sons and daughters; Tim Russert, The Goo-Goo Dolls, Charles Burchfield, Jim Kelly, Ani DiFranco, Taylor Caldwell, Wolf Blitzer…I could go on and on.  We are home to numerous colleges and universities and have one of the most educated work forces in the country.  It’s really not all bad.

I’m not a true-blue Buffalo booster – I have been known to bash my hometown – but I can think of a lot of places more miserable than here.  So come and visit us some time.  After all, misery loves company!