Relatively Few People Know Who Their Elected Officials Are
I used to advise my political science and journalism students to stand outside the Legislative Office Building in Albany and ask the first fifty passers-by the name of New York State’s lieutenant governor. I also suggested that they ask who the New York governor and the Vice President of the United States were. The exercise proved that relatively few people know who their elected officials are. Remember that our most well attended election is the presidential contest and that only half the eligible voters show up for that one. We proclaim ourselves to be a democratic nation and even send our children to fight based on our democratic ideology. Think about that.
Not much has changed since my days of college teaching except I suspect that three term governor Andrew Cuomo was pretty well known. There were a lot of reasons why, not the least of which was his famous father. His shrewd anti-Trump positioning helped the younger Cuomo as well. Unfortunately, the notion that a majority of the people could name the current governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, is preposterous. But even if a small group knows who she is, if you were to ask one of them to name one thing that she has done, it’s unlikely they could do so. That raises a lot of questions about how effective our democracy is. How do we get people to pay attention to politics? How come they don’t? The answer is easy — they don’t think that they have a good reason to. They are wrong, of course, because the more people don’t pay attention, the more politicians will think they have license to do bad things.
Kathy Hochul is actually doing a pretty good job but that leads to the age old, troubling question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it really happen?” Now we have all kinds of contests for what were formerly regarded as insignificant offices like lieutenant governor. With increasing regularity, lieutenant governors have had opportunities to move up to the top job but even when they do, they may get there anonymously. Remember that the present governor, Kathy Hochul succeeded to her top job because she was Cuomo’s lieutenant. Let’s also remember that the lieutenant governor’s duties are pretty much all ceremonial. They have almost nothing to do other than presiding over the Senate on the rare occasions that they are called upon to do so. But as we learned when Cuomo went down in disgrace, things can change very quickly.
Of course, if you are lieutenant governor, you will always be conscious of the fact that you are a heartbeat away from the state’s top job. On the other hand, politicians such as the former lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, can cut their careers short by doing stupid and/or illegal things.
Maybe times have changed. I remember when Jacob Javits was Attorney General of New York and he could be seen eating at Joe’s delicatessen on Madison Avenue in Albany. Things have just not been the same since Joe’s was a public meeting place for politicians. The political class has suffered a bout of disease called anonymity. We now have a lieutenant governor named Antonio Delgado. I sure wouldn’t wager on the fact that the first fifty people I ran into outside the Capitol (presumably the most likely to be able to name public officials) could name him.
Now we have moved to the concept of balanced tickets. If you are smart, any ticket will balance the various voting blocs. Voters want to be represented and there is a Hispanic vote and a Jewish vote and a Black vote. So, when all is said and done, there is a lot to be considered when you choose who will run.
Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected].