I voted for the first time as a New Yorker this month, mainly to vote against the constitutional convention, which might have opened the door to wholesale changes in the forest preserve, and, conversely, for a land bank that will allow small, common sense changes in the forest preserve.
I have to hand it to New York voters. Back in West Virginia, we never would have figured that out. As dearly as I love my home state, it is safe to say that the color gray simply does not exist. You’re either fer-it or agin-it, and the idea that fine tuning is not dependent on wholesale destruction, as a concept, simply does not exist.
I was also fascinated by Question 2 on the ballot, which effectively asked, Is corruption in government a good thing or a bad thing? Here too, voters made the distinction, approving an incremental reform over the convention, whose supporters promised would lead to wholesale change.
It warms my soul to think that there are people out there who believe that influence peddling and money-politics can be erased with a few strokes of a pen, and that with a better state constitution, corruption would cease. Having covered state legislatures for years, the one thing I can say with confidence is that it takes the system-riggers about six seconds to find a way around any new reform law.
Maryland at least tried. They would throw a lobbyist in jail about every other year, a sentence that the offender would sit out with the same stoic sense of duty as a baseball player sits out a 60-day suspension after being popped for taking performance enhancing drugs. Some would even be disbarred, but it didn’t matter; in a couple of years they’d be back in the lineup hitting home runs for their seedy clients.
West Virginia on the other hand — well, never mind. Their greatest, and perhaps only, reform of the past 50 years was removing the kegs of whiskey from the Senate cloakroom.
But as a newbie, what was really of interest in this election was the revelation that New York voters are asked to select a highway superintendent — which to my mind is a little like electing someone to be a paramedic. (They tried that in the Civil War; it didn’t work out.) One of the candidates here in Jay was named “Sleepy” — he would have been rejected in West Virginia for being overly ambitious — and another effectively called for the elimination of the highway department itself. Nice to see people thinking outside the box.
It also made me feel at home, because I am used to highways being a political pawn. Until the courts made them stop, highway superintendents in West Virginia were the product of pure political patronage. I grew up on a road that at the time had no name, other than it’s postal designation of Route 2. The Post Office recognized only one other network of roads, which it thoughtfully named — wait for it — Route 1. The pavement gave out right at our driveway, and only two people lived further back, one of them being a congenial, leathery man named Mack Swaim (pronounced “Swim”).
Mack and his wife Aldine lived in a white clapboard house in the shade of a monstrous mulberry tree. Early each summer the birds would descend to gorge on gallons of mulberries, and the home, streaked with varying shades of cream and purple, would become unspeakably picturesque until it could be cleansed by July thunderstorms.
Mack was the Democratic Party boss in the county, which affected our lives in ways we couldn’t have foreseen when our family moved there from Minnesota in 1962. When a Democrat was elected governor in the state, Mack would immediately be appointed highway superintendent for the county. When a Republican was elected governor he stayed home and raised cantaloupes, or as we called them (can’t understand why this name didn’t catch on) musk-melons.
The upshot was that when Democrats controlled Charleston, our dinky little road was the first to be plowed after a snowstorm. But when the Republicans were in charge, we wouldn’t get plowed out for a week. Thus we became collateral damage in the patronage system, and for my first decade as an adult I voted Republican in appreciation for all the winter days I missed school because the bus couldn’t get through.
Anyway, thanks to candidate profiles in a wonderful little e-publication called the Jay Community News, I was able to become an informed voter in my new locale. For highway superintendent, I voted for the ultimate winner, Kevin Zaumetzer (yes, one guy is Sleepy, and another has two zz’s in his name), because I liked his platform. As roads superintendent, he wants to improve the roads. Sounds reasonable. But as campaign promises go, I wouldn’t try using that kind of logic in West Virginia.
Photo of voting booth courtesy John Warren.