We are all anxious to see how this year's legislative body will handle the tasks before them. Their work is cut out for them. Slightly fresh with five new or returning faces and slimmed to 19 seats, this legislature must summon up a worthy resolve to tackle the challenges before them. The potential for philosophical peril is embedded in the lopsided composition of a legislature with 13 Republicans and only six Democrats. Public perception assigns tightfisted harshness to Republicans and a spendthrift recklessness to Democrats; these rigid roles may not be merited and certainly need not be inevitable. At any rate, with a two-to-one ratio, there is enhanced danger of the majority party governing with a heavy hand - the "tyranny of the majority" so feared by James Madison and John Adams and the threat Alexis de Tocqueville reiterated as a perpetual danger to the fledgling Republic, charged as it was with ensuring the rights of all Americans, including those with minority ideas.
One of the most pressing issues remains the fate of the County Home, with past votes largely reflecting the expected partisan schism between privatization and public funding. It remains to be seen whether some gray zone will entice legislators to analyze the merits of courting potential buyers, continuing to run the Home with public money, and setting up conditions either way. Arguably, this issue more than any other underscores the partisan philosophies that create legislative impasse at local as well as national levels of governing. Is there any doubt that our national governance has suffered from rigid adherence to partisan identity? Or that a climate of non-cooperation is the inevitable child of such rigid thinking?
In considering the fate of the County Home, as well as issues of welfare funding, welfare requirements, taxation, business development and water treatment and delivery, the county legislature might first and foremost resolve to create an environment of problem solving similar to the one a number of Congresspeople are fostering. It would behoove our entrusted 19 to emulate the national "No Labels" movement, a community of senators, representatives, political strategists and citizens whose mission to "restore and sustain trust in our democracy" will be fulfilled by the deliberate creation of a political climate that places problem solving front and center.
There are currently 85 Congresspeople in this group, including our own Rep. Tom Reed. They are a self-proclaimed "community of proud liberals, proud conservatives and everything in between." They represent a movement away from the "warring clans" mentality that seeks annihilation of the opposition. Their goal is to loosen the destructive warmongering that grips Congress and replace it with bi-weekly or monthly meetings that bring the parties together to define legislative problems rather than partisan wishes. No Labels operates as a culture of exploration rather than a committee of agendas. Its ultimate goal is to break down points of gridlock so nominations, bills, debate and governing can move forward.
In March 2012, Mark McKinnon, co-founder of No Labels and a self-described "progressive Republican," told Stephen Colbert that "our system is paralyzed by hyperpartisanship." Undoubtedly, there are some Chautauqua County residents who believe issues can flounder before a legislature of "hyperpartisans," and that indeed, they already have.
During the coming year, we will likely see legislative discussion of neighborhood blight, improvement and use of the waterways and tax fairness. Ways to grow business through Governor Cuomo's Start-Up New York plan may come under the legislative microscope as well. We know what the issues are; the question is how they will be handled.
We all have ideologies through which we view issues. Political parties are certainly useful expressions of philosophies and beliefs, as well as helpful vehicles for advancing the plans, ideas and proposals that become policy. No amount of idealistic dreaming can eliminate ideological differences from the political landscape. But to the extent that they muddy the lens through which challenges should be seen as problems, resolution of any issue is impossible.
With the departure of one Green Party representative from the legislature, there are now two parties serving 19 districts. Two parties that represent philosophies and ideologies and yet are called upon to bring multifaceted analysis to problems we all own, problems whose solutions will likely be complex.
What a fruitful year it will be if all points of view, including those of the minority, are put on the table. What a productive political enterprise our legislators will create if they resolve to use an imaginative, open-minded, and problem-solving mindset.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org