Politics Should Ascend Above Mud

December 7, 1999

By Mark J. Grossman

The John Powell verdict is not only a personal tragedy. It’s a professional one for the entire political community, with the ramifications knowing no political boundaries.

That’s because news stories such as this fuel the growing public perception that all politicians are cut from the same mold — and that it’s a crooked mold.

Just look at this past election, when just 28 percent of eligible voters in Suffolk County came to the polls. That’s down from 38 percent from the last county executive race four years ago. This downward trend in voter participation is seen across the board in national, state and local elections everywhere.

People are just not viewing elections as real opportunities to make a difference, and that’s too bad. They rarely see elections as a choice between status quo and real change. And, sadly, they feel that even the “good ones” will become corrupted by the system once in office.

Sure, there are exceptions, and they occur when insurgents not only capitalize on the failings of those in office but also articulate to the voters how they will govern better than the incumbents. Last month’ s voter backlash against Nassau Republicans is an example of that. Add problems at the county jail and the Nassau insurance scandal to a continuing fiscal crisis and voters began crying for change.

But it took a new county Democratic chair — who energized and unified the party, ran quality candidates who articulated the issues and told voters how they will better represent their interests — to ensure victory. In most other places, including Suffolk, voter apathy nonetheless prevailed. And, unless some new crisis hits Nassau, voter turnout will surely return to previous levels there as well.

In fact, the public’s growing disenchantment with public officials has little to do with politicians’ actual guilt or innocence on charges levied against them. Even if Powell were acquitted, the specter of another possible case of government corruption — replete with sensational news headlines — fans the flames of the great masses who have become disillusioned, or perhaps even disgusted, with political and government officials.

Some say one-party control is the root cause, but I have my reservations. Sure, a watchdog-free environment provides a more fertile breeding ground for abusive behavior. But there are many cases of public figures with their hands in the cookie jar when the opposition party is watchful. And many state and local administrations, long controlled by one party, have worked, and often worked quite well, scandal-free.

I don’t believe term limits are the answer, either, because they would punish many hard-working and honest public officials — making them play musical chairs every few years to continue public service careers for the sins of a few.

Perhaps this is a case where we can turn to the private sector for some answers. Sure, private industry has its share of scandal. Stories abound in the business pages on insider trading, employee embezzlement and abuse of power in the workplace. But private interests seem to handle things quite differently.

You would never see ads from a corporation “Don’t buy our competitors’ staples — their presidents steal from the petty cash.” But it’s not uncommon to see political ads showcasing a disgraced political figure as the sole rationale to vote for an opposition candidate.

I believe the political pollsters when they claim that negative campaigns can work. But I also believe many are failing to mention that there is a point of diminishing returns — and a point of reverse returns if the ads run too long and too often without positive messages.

That’s why voters are cynical. And that’s why they aren’t coming to the polls. When you can’t give someone a reason to vote for a candidate, the accuser and the accused begin to look very much alike.

So, fellow Democrats, stop the snickers. Stop the whispers. And put away the champagne. Because there’s work to do — hard work. There are issues to learn. There are people to organize. And money to raise. And maybe we can win some elections and help raise the image of politicians just a little bit at the same time by focusing on what it really takes to win, rather than what it takes for Republicans to lose.

Mark J. Grossman is president of a Holtsville public relations firm whose clients have included the New York State Democratic Party.

Mark J. Grossman, Politics Should Ascend Above Mud
Newsday, 12-07-1999, pp A41.