23 July 2010

Who's a Conservative in New York's 21st District?

In New York State, the Conservative Party often makes it its business to determine whether Republican candidates are conservative enough to receive the party's endorsement. The Conservatives are often willing to run a candidate of their own if the GOP nominee doesn't satisfy them. In the 21st Congressional District, where Paul Tonko, a Democrat, is the incumbent, the Conservatives themselves aren't certain of who among them is the real conservative. The Conservative nomination will most likely be contested between businessman Ted Danz, the Republican candidate, and Joseph Sullivan, whom the Albany Times Union describes as "a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat turned Conservative." Danz has the support of the statewide Conservative leadership, while Sullivan is backed by the local (Albany County) party leadership.

Albany County Conservatives often play the cross-endorsement game, but give themselves more room to maneuver than, say the Working Families Party. Local chairman Ricky Stack is reluctant to make his organization a rubber stamp for the GOP, and claims that upstate Democrats are more conservative than the national stereotype. Stack himself was once a Democrat and a supporter of longtime Albany mayor Erastus Corning. When Corning was mayor, Stack says, he was more conservative than his Republican rivals. Since we're talking about a period from the 1940s through the early 1980s, the claim is plausible. Sullivan is a Conservative of more recent vintage, having switched affiliation last year after losing a Democratic primary for another office. But local Conservatives, as noted, aren't averse to endorsing actual Democratic candidates. They endorsed incumbent Albany mayor Jerry Jennings against a Republican challenger last year, for instance.

It bears repeating that conservatism in America is not a monolithic phenomenon. There are regional as well as ideological differences that make it difficult to pigeonhole anyone identified as a conservative or Conservative candidate. Albany County Conservatives may feel more affinity with "blue dog" Democrats or the establishment politics of the enduring Democratic machine -- Jennings is only the second mayor of Albany since Corning died. Theirs may be a more establishmentarian than ideological conservatism, and it may well be that, once their differences are fully aired, Danz is a more conservative candidate than Sullivan in the conventional ideological sense of the word. Would that make the Conservatives false advertisers if Sullivan wins? Not if you grant the people of any given area the right to define for themselves what conservatism is, and since the conservative label always begs the question, "conserve what, specifically?" you probably have to give locals that right. The state Conservatives who favor Danz may disagree, but since conservatives are supposed to give locals the benefit of the doubt against centralized institutions, the Albany County contest may be none of their business.

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