12 September 2011

Public employee unions and party politics in Rensselaer County -- and in the future?

Can we agree that it's unusual when a third-party primary campaign generates paid advertising? It certainly struck me that way when I saw a campaign ad in the Troy paper this morning for tomorrow's Conservative primary in Rensselaer County, where candidates for sheriff and district attorney will be chosen. The ad was paid for by the Sheriff's Employees Association of Rensselaer County, which represents "nearly 200 employees of the Rensselaer County Sheriff's Department." The union has endorsed Gary Gordon for the Conservative line, to oppose the incumbent sheriff, Jack Mahar. Mahar has already been endorsed by the Republican and Independence parties, while Gordon is already assured of the Democratic and Working Families lines in the November election. But before you assume that Gordon, on the strength of those endorsements, would make an odd Conservative candidate, the SEARCO ad identifies him as "the ONLY registered Conservative in this Primary Election."

Many New Yorkers long ago realized that the Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties rarely stand for anything other than their own spots on the state ballot, but looking behind the lines, there's obviously a real conflict here. Clear the parties off the board and you see a public employee union trying to depose its boss, the sheriff, for reasons that are partly suggested here. Public employee unions are, arguably, in a unique position to do this, and independent parties are simply an instrument they can use. At first glance, a "Conservative" party should be anathema to a public employee union, but this would not be the first time that union members colonized a "Conservative" party to gain leverage over their elected bosses. Presumably, it's a more effective tactic when the boss, i.e. the incumbent, is a Republican like Sheriff Mahar. Whether SEARCO members are themselves registered in numbers great enough to decide a Conservative primary remains to be seen. Beyond that, a defeat tomorrow won't end Mahar's tenure; November will decide his fate. Nevertheless, here's another instance of unions acting collectively in politics but skipping the step of forming a labor party. Like the Tea Partiers, union activists seem convinced that primaries are the most effective way to punish unsatisfactory representatives. You'll know they're right when the major parties begin pressing for laws requiring primary voters to have been party members for a minimum period of time, in order to limit the short-term effects of hostile colonization. If parties are not simply passive vehicles for whoever can take them over, but have permanent institutional interests of their own, union or activist colonization cannot last long as an insurgent tactic. If colonizing a party becomes more trouble than it's worth, creating new parties and appealing to all the people, rather than swamping a small pond, may finally be the only options left.

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