Friday, May 1, 2015
With the aim of being a good citizen, I have consistently expressed love of community by striving to do my individual’s bit to support the general good. I have had very little to do, however, with electoral politics due to America’s two major parties’ fatal entanglement with monied interests. Thus, since my adolescence I have considered myself part of the extra-parliamentary opposition, that is to say, I will join all righteous demonstrations. Apart from union activism, my involvement has been primarily with national and international issues; however, perhaps because of my staying in one place for twenty-five years, I have become active in two local causes. One might think that county government could be freer of corruption than state or federal where, under the cash-dominated American system, no successful candidate can avoid soliciting corporate contributions that amount to nothing more than bribes. My experience in Orange County, New York has convinced me that even on this small-scale stage the contending forces parallel those on higher levels, and our local experience is exemplary of what happens in state capitols and Washington D.C. While those who do not live in my own Hudson Valley community may legitimately take little interest in the details of our political battles, their general traits may be indicative of what is happening in a great many other jurisdictions. So far as I am concerned in each case the public good is pitted against the most selfish and rapacious greed.
The current county-run nursing home was founded in 1831 and has always served the aged and indigent. In recent years a top-rated rehabilitation center has been added and the facility as a whole has maintained the highest standards operating with a stable and professional unionized staff in contrast to many similar institutions (both for profit and private “not-for-profit”) that focus on the bottom line instead of patient care and employ casual and unqualified minimum-wage workers. In the past the place sometimes showed a small profit, sometimes a modest deficit, but no one questioned the social responsibility of caring for the vulnerable residents. Something over ten years ago Republican politicians to whom profits are sacred decided our nursing home was an egregious example of socialism and began to undermine it. After receiving campaign contributions from interested parties, they hired a management firm with the proviso that, should the county home be sold to private interests, this company would have the first option. These villains then operated the facility in such a slipshod way as to cause unprecedented deficits year after year, until the politicians took up their next lines in the script and argued that it was too costly to run and that it must be sold. They did not explain why buyers, including their own sweetheart firm, were eager to buy a concern that regularly lost money. They also did not explain why this excellent nursing home was an unacceptable expense while the county’s two golf courses and airport for private planes, in effect subsidized services for the well-to-do, each of which costs a substantial amount annually, were untouchable.
As it happened, the law requires a two thirds vote to close a county department, but the party of greed had only a majority. (I should mention that one lone Republican with integrity stood against his caucus on both this issue and the other I mean to discuss. Bravo for him for following the principles of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt rather than the vicious and bigoted party leaders of today! It is also true that a Democrat or two was lured somehow to the dark side.) Undaunted, the right-wing majority created an Industrial Development Agency, unelected and unresponsive to the public, to whom to give the nursing home. This agency, they thought, could then proceed with the illegal sale. By pure good fortune our community has a very talented and progressive attorney who took up the case and blocked the IDA.
Meanwhile the workers had accepted givebacks and the administration that was driving the home into the ground was ousted. Immediately the balance sheet recovered. This year it looks like it might turn a small profit. I have no doubt that the backward politicians will resume their efforts as soon as they think they have the votes, so the battle is not over, and their appeal of the initial decision continues to work its way through the courts. For the moment, though, due in the end to the chance of the people’s having a disinterested friend to file suit on behalf of all of us, it looks as though we have won.
There could scarcely be a clearer example of social good than this nursing home. The only possible reason to sell is to enrich a soulless corporation. The only reason for elected officials to push for a sale is to enrich themselves through campaign contributions and perhaps sinecures later on. It’s people against profits.
The second issue is our county Government Center, a striking structure built in the 60s to a design by Paul Rudolph, one of the era’s most celebrated architects. This building, recognized by the state and national Registers of Historic Places, is now on the endangered list of the World Monuments Fund since the county executive wants to destroy it and build a new and utterly boring structure instead.
The hostility of the local philistines to this building dates back a good many years. Hoping to justify its demolition, our political leaders failed to properly maintain it, neglecting the roof, for instance, in the hope that it would eventually be wrecked. Four years ago following Hurricane Irene the county executive saw his chance. He declared that the building was damaged beyond repair and posed for photos wearing a protective mask he claimed to be against mold, though none of his aides, the press or others, had any need for protection. Subsequent investigation by engineers found little damage apart from that caused intentionally (and no mold). Exactly as in the case of the management team called in for the nursing home, a deal was reached with one architecture company which, in return for lucrative contracts, would say whatever they were told.
The details are readily available online, but in essence, the county legislature voted to renovate the existing structure, though the Republican leaders continued to insist on destroying this structure, recognized worldwide as a masterpiece. Then a remarkable development occurred. A prominent New York architect, primarily motivated by a desire to preserve the building, offered to purchase it, repurpose it as a center for the arts and design a new government office complex on the land behind. Though this would have saved at least thirty million dollars, while stimulating the local economy, the reactionaries and their hired designers remained obdurate. Incrementally, through executive decisions alone without another vote, the “renovation” turned into an eight-five percent destruction. Two firms that had been subcontractors on the project resigned due to ethical considerations, yet the fat cats maintained their control. On the eve of destruction, the same attorney entered the lists. His claim that the demolition of the building would be illegal remains to be tested in court.
The exemplary value of these incidents of local politics lies in the fact that in case balanced the public good against the profits of a greedy few. In the one case, supporters of the nursing home urged continuing the tradition almost two hundred years old of caring for the county’s elderly in a first-rate facility from which no one would be barred for financial reasons and, in the second, they advocated saving money and stimulating the local economy while preserving a landmark building recognized around the world. The only opponents of these righteous causes were conservative politicians and those in the corporate world with whom they connive, yet the struggle seemed from the start unequal. Had it not been for our white knight in the legal profession, the people would have been readily defeated. As long as the one per cent governs through campaign contributions and corrupt backroom deals the interests of the nine-nine will regularly be defeated in spite of a façade of political democracy. I have always thought that a political ideology can be useful only if it explains the events in the daily newspaper. Following the money offers the only satisfactory explanation of the treacherous behavior of those who were elected to serve the people. Until the entire social system is reoriented to serve us all, the best we can do is to hold off the thugs in business suits where we can. The cause of the people should not depend, as it has in my own county, on a single enlightened advocate and the integrity of a few judges to restrain those in power from looting the public treasury for themselves and their corporate friends.