Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Here Comes Everybody
Next story: Rust Belt Renaissance

Unintended Consequences

Representative Charles Rangel of Harlem is the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He is a profoundly powerful elected official, for it is through his Congressional committee that the president’s massive, comprehensive healthcare legislation must pass.

Congressman Charles Rangel supports Governor David Paterson.

That is not as strange as it may sound. Chairman Rangel’s committee deals with tax policy. He has been and will remain profoundly influential on questions concerning which taxes to raise, which to cut, and which tax laws to re-shape. His work doesn’t directly address issues of science, pharmaceuticals, technological innovation, or hospital management. Cost containment, Medicare reimbursement rates, and other matters of who gets paid how much for which services will be decided elsewhere.

But the tax code is at the center of America’s healthcare structure. The incredibly complex system of tax preferences, exclusions, incentives, and deductions that have been enacted since Medicare was created in 1965 will all be addressed in Rangel’s tax-writing committee.

And that’s why Chairman Rangel may have enormous power over another issue: the identity of the Democratic candidate for governor of New York State. If he does, by the sad but potent logic of New York’s pre-Obama racial politics, Rangel’s support for Paterson could doom the Democrats.

Tax politics

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” said Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. But here in New York State, tax politics is getting decidedly uncivilized.

Western New York’s rebellion against town boards and county legislators is not about town boards and county legislators. It’s about taxes.

In the media market that is shaped by the Buffalo News and by the local NBC affiliate, the business plan of each of those enterprises is to stoke up the resentment (and, by the way, the interest) of their most devoted audiences—namely, the elderly, not-so-well-educated Caucasians who are the prime targets of their advertisers. Business and politics intersect here: About 20 percent of the market’s households subscribe or attend to those media outlets. Those same households constitute about 10 percent of eligible voters, but because so few eligible voters vote nowadays, that 10 percent has an outsize influence on local elections. That’s the 10 percent that reliably votes for candidates who pledge to cut taxes and to downsize government. It’s a Republican message that tens of thousands of registered Democrats endorse locally and, when George Bush ran in 2000 and again in 2004, also statewide.

Fact is, a Western New York media market that covers the eight counties west of the Genesee River is blue in Buffalo and red everywhere else.

And now that the New York State Senate has at least two brand-new “Republican” members, there are those who are speculating that 2010 could be a big Republican year.

Here’s how the Republican dream scenario would unfold in New York State over the next year or two:

First, the incumbent mayor of Buffalo would win a resounding victory in the Democratic primary, thus leaving most City of Buffalo residents, especially the solid Democratic bloc of African-American voters, little reason to trouble themselves to come out and vote in November.

That would leave the 2009 general election up to the heavily Republican suburbs, where anti-tax and downsizing fervor are being whipped up by a man whose father helped organize the Democratic National Convention for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Republicans just love the anti-tax and downsizing movements. (They’re not too keen on Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s pro-consolidation, pro-regionalism legislation, which local Republican State Senator Dale Volker voted against.)

Erie County’s politically ambitious Republican county executive is seizing the moment. He is helping the Republican candidate for Erie County comptroller notwithstanding the alleged “independent watchdog” status of that latter office. As a potential candidate for state-wide office, Erie County Executive Chris Collins will become a more credible statewide prospect should he help Erie County Republicans win the offices of comptroller, sheriff, and a few of the Erie County Legislature races being waged out in the anti-tax, pro-downsizing but anti-restructuring suburbs.

The GOP dream scenario, cont’d

If this dream unfolds in November 2009, Republicans will be able to claim some momentum. They will be able to point to the second-largest media market in New York State having just gone Republican for its countywide offices. They will have, in effect, a Republican majority in the State Senate, and with lots and lots of staff (i.e., political operatives) hired or re-hired, Republicans can be expected to get back to the serious business of politics—raising money and testing messages.

And this is the message they will test: Republicans will ask white suburbanites if they approve of African Americans raising their taxes.

This is where the President Obama’s initiative on national healthcare reform will intersect with local politics, especially Upstate New York’s tax politics.

Republican operatives can be expected to point to African-American Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat who controls the House Ways and Means Committee. They will point out that Rangel is backing African-American President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan, a plan which will inevitably require a slight increase in federal income and (for some) payroll taxes in order to achieve a functional national system of coverage. Republican operatives will also, if Chairman Rangel gets his way, point out that Rangel and Obama are committed to African-American governor David Paterson, who just raised New York State income taxes so much that billionaire philanthropist and Sabres owner Tom Golisano—engineer of the Republican takeover of the New York State Senate—has booked a passage for Florida.

Obama’s Upstate support may fall victim to this dynamic, notwithstanding the fact that Obama is the most politically competent politician since Lyndon Johnson. What matters in New York is that Paterson’s political weakness, plus the insistence of Rangel that Paterson lead the 2010 statewide ticket, plus the relentless anti-tax messaging from the red parts of New York State, sets up a dynamic that will cause Obama much trouble in 2010.

Part of Obama’s trouble could come in the form of a Republican triumph in the race for the junior US Senator. A ticket consisting of, say, Hillary Clinton’s erstwhile opponent Rick Lazio as the GOP candidate for governor, plus Erie County’s own Chris Collins for lieutenant governor or state comptroller, plus former Governor George Pataki for US Senate, could be formidable if it is put up against David Paterson, his yet-unnamed running mate, and brand-new Senator Kristen Gillibrand.

That’s the Republican dream that Rangel’s progressive political instincts might inadvertently help achieve.

Sadly, the fault is not with the first African-American chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s support for New York’s first African-American governor. New York’s problem is that Republicans and their allies still win elections in New York State when they use the time-tested political tactic, chronicled by Kevin Phillips and put into practice by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes, of explaining to white voters that African Americans are responsible for higher taxes, and that higher taxes are in all cases bad, bad, bad.

Race and taxes, folks. You’ve heard it all before, here in the land of the Reagan Democrat. You’ll be hearing it again.

The alternative scenario

On the other hand, Chairman Charles Rangel is not all-powerful. He has political superiors, and they may have a different plan for New York.

The chairman of a major committee is powerful, but the Speaker of the House of Representatives is much, much more powerful—and recent history shows that if Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants somebody to do something, it gets done, or the person saying “no” gets gone.

Take the case of Representative John Dingell of Michigan. He was in line to chair the House Science and Technology Committee, which oversees the automobile industry. Dingell crossed Speaker Pelosi. Representative Dingell is no longer Chairman Dingell. Depriving John Dingell of the chairmanship of the committee on which he had served for decades was a brutal demonstration of her power, a demonstration Speaker Pelosi did not hesitate to perform.

Pelosi has already announced that the president’s healthcare reform package will have her support. It is not too difficult to foresee that Chairman Rangel will do nothing unhelpful to what the president and the speaker want.

And then there are the other powerful folks who also have a say in political decisions: the donors.

If the donors want Governor Paterson to run for election in the office he now holds, then they will stop giving such copious amounts of money to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s political fund. So far, there is no evidence that donors are favoring Paterson over Cuomo.

Meanwhile, the Republicans and their allies are getting what they want in New York State’s second-largest media market. Without lifting a partisan finger, Republicans will reap the political benefits of a lopsided Democratic primary. They are already reaping the political benefits of a downsizing movement led by an ancestral Democrat that downsized town boards in two Democrat-led towns. The Democratic chair of the Erie County Legislature embraced her own committee’s report on downsizing the Erie County Legislature. What is there for a Republican not to love in the anti-tax movement and the downsizing movement?

Moreover, Republicans benefit from the new “soft” phase of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, a.k.a. the control board, because the incumbent Republican county executive can rightly claim to have succeeded in putting forth a fiscally-sound plan that the control board endorsed. He said he would, and he did.

But talk about unintended consequences! Apparently, nobody has either the political voice nor the political fund large enough to point out that it was Obama’s $74.5 million in “stimulus” money that balanced the county’s checkbook for the next four years. The beneficiary of an African-American elected official’s shift of tax dollars to Upstate New York’s largest red county is a political movement that will campaign strongly against taxes!

But perhaps the ironies will iron out. Maybe Paterson can improve on his 20 percent positive rating. Maybe New York politics will not be skewed by suburban Republicans equating the price of services with the melanin content of the president, the governor, and the chairman of Ways and Means. Maybe we’ll get national healthcare reform without a reprise of every ancient canard about race, taxes, waste, fraud, and abuse that Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes used to get elected and re-elected.

Anything’s possible, I suppose.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

blog comments powered by Disqus