Because Donn Esmonde is such an ass, everything is somehow magically about him. Everything. Including the Erie County Democratic Committee’s decision to ask regionalism and downsizing advocate Kevin Gaughan to run on for County Comptroller on the Democratic line. The ECDC has finally come around to Donn’s way of thinking, so smell the told-ya-so snark waft through the air. Esmonde’s egotistical descent into self-parody is hilarious.
Me, me, me. Me. I did this. I am the seer – you are the unwashed mouth-breathers. That’s Esmonde’s political thought about Gaughan, in a nutshell.
Don’t hurt your back patting it so damned hard, Donn.
Pigs have sprouted wings, lost souls have donned parkas in Hades, and lambs have lain down with lions.
The day many thought would never happen has come: Kevin Gaughan – eternal maverick, inveterate outsider and longtime critic of the political establishment – was endorsed last week as a candidate for Erie County comptroller by the Democratic Party.
To steal a line from sportscaster Al Michaels: Do you believe in miracles?
I am not sure if local Democrats finally came to their senses or if Gaughan – whom I have known for a quarter-century – has lost his. I suspect it is the former.
The fact of the matter is that Gaughan hasn’t been taken seriously before because he hasn’t performed all that well in any campaign in which he’s been involved. Part of it has to do with the fact that he is professorial in his demeanor – something we just don’t get in politicians around here. Part of it has to do with the fact that the size and political activity of his base of support is small – he eschews the quid-pro-quo with political clubs, which, on the one hand, help with petitions, canvassing, and calls; and, on the other hand, provide a well of ready and willing patronage hires. That’s not a criticism of Gaughan, whom I respect, but a reality. He’s a thinker, a philosopher, a tinkerer, but he’s just not your typical politician. This is a blessing and a curse.
The tone of the article is so unbelievably condescending – as if all the rest of you backwards-ass cretins have finally seen the light that Esmonde has been shining for nigh these many years.
Granted, he replaces the party’s original choice, who withdrew for health reasons. Even so, I think this day has been too long in coming. Gaughan’s government-reform efforts in the last two decades even prompted futile endorsement offers from rival Republicans. Only now have fellow Democrats opened their arms.
Credit County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who took over last year at age 34, for bringing Gaughan, 59, in from the cold to run against Republican incumbent Stefan Mychajliw.
“From Day One, I said I wanted to make the party more progressive,” Zellner told me. “Some, in years past, maybe would have shut Kevin out. I think this shows that the thinking of the party is changing.”
Given our grandstanding comptroller, who has absolutely zero financial background and has worn out his shoes running to the nearest microphone to declare today’s reasonable sounding of alarms, it is imperative that the Democrats put up a challenger who has some bona fide experience in trying to find ways to dramatically improve the efficiency of government in both macro (regionalism) and micro (board downsizing) ways. Frankly, putting up Mychajliw’s red coat against Gaughan’s decade and a half of efficiency activism is brilliant, and Gaughan has done all of that for very little reward. Also, Donn Esmonde had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.
The reed-thin, Harvard-educated attorney and civic activist has for years carried the smaller-government flag. He has done more, in my view, to help the community than most elected officials. Instead of seizing the voter appeal of a no-strings reformer, the party – under the likes of Len Lenihan and Steve Pigeon – for years slammed the door.
The rejection said more about the party’s march-in-place myopia than it did about Gaughan. Although, in fairness, he did little to endear himself – thrice taking on party favorites in primaries and generally avoiding party functions and parades he wasn’t leading. His style attracts some people, repels others. With a patrician air that seems at odds with a common-man philosophy, Gaughan often sounds like he is reading from a civics textbook.
Gaughan has rankled the unions, which make up much of the Democrats’ base. Gaughan has upset many protectors of the inefficient, wasteful status quo. He wants to kill the job in a place where job number one is to not kill the job. Esmonde’s condescending “f you” to past party bosses completely ignores the reasons why Gaughan has been a tough sell in Democratic circles. To ignore that is to ignore facts.
Like him or not, there is no arguing with success. His 1997 Chautauqua Regionalism Conference helped to turn “sprawl” and “consolidation” into household words. His subsequent public “Conversations” hammered politicians for a lack of post-Chautauqua reforms. His downsizing crusade led to the shrinking of seven town and village boards and the County Legislature – angering numerous politicians for threatening their power bases.
Eight downsized boards are palpable achievements. The introduction of two words into the WNY vernacular, and that’s over the course of 16 years. The only phrases missing from this Esmonde lesson are, “lighter, quicker, cheaper” and “placemaking”.
His stabs at elective office were a different story. Gaughan’s failed efforts underline how tough it is for an “outsider” of modest means – despite name recognition and a core following – to take on an endorsed candidate with a legion of party workers, money and institutional backing. He lost Democratic primaries for Congress, mayor and the Assembly.
Gaughan seemed resigned, after getting pounded in the Assembly race last year, to a future of practicing law and digging into academia. But a recent courtesy call to Zellner led, to his surprise, to an endorsement offer.
After decades of separation, the historically fractured Democratic Party has discovered its foremost progressive. Check the thermostat in Hades.
I’m not sure whether Gaughan is progressive or conservative. Isn’t “less government” typically seen as a conservative thing? Perhaps that explains why his is a hard sell in true-blue New York and union-friendly WNY. And what do Gaughan’s “modest means” have to do with anything? If anything, it points to a dramatic need for a fundraising blitz, and that’s something you recruit people to do – people who are good at it.
But Esmonde misses a key point that Gaughan will be asked about – one that has nothing to do with the fact that Gaughan was once sued for a debt owed to the Buffalo Hyatt – for someone who is so opposed to the political class, why is he so eager to join them? Congress, Mayor, State Senate, Erie County Clerk – Gaughan went for all of them in just the last 23 years. That drubbing he took when he primaried a perfectly reasonable progressive Democrat for the Assembly Sean Ryan? Ryan is also an attorney and has made his bones working his way up the party ranks, doing the grunt work and getting the eventual party nod. He is uniquely close to the unions in town and there’s simply no way you can, as a Democrat, outflank Ryan on either end of the political spectrum.
So this isn’t about people finally seeing the Esmonde light about Gaughan – this is about Gaughan finding a race where Democrats are left with no other choice.
Also, there was a Sunday column where he was able to tsk-tsk the fact that the city of Buffalo has a lot of bad students populating its schools, and that a kid’s educational output is largely predetermined by his socioeconomic reality and the educational output of the parents. If a parent dropped out of school pregnant and with failing grades in 9th grade, chances are pretty good that the child’s experience will be similar. Rather than addressing the complete breakdown of society that accompanies that sort of spiraling descent into intergenerational poverty and despair,
Esmonde figures we should just bus inner city kids to the boondocks and vice-versa. Because nothing helps education more than an hour-and-a-half bus ride, twice a day, right? This “solution” also gets to avoid one of the most troubling components of this reality – that some people just place no value on education whatsoever. How do you convince someone with that mindset to change anything? Isn’t this the same Esmonde who blamed these negligent parents for chronic student absences? Does he think shipping such a student to Sardinia is going to magically reduce truancy?
Esmonde’s concern-trolling of the extremely complicated and difficult issue of school reform is counterproductive. His tired, prejudicial pablum (underscored by him quoting racist anonymous emails as indicators of widespread suburban opinion), is only made worse by his constant advocating for de-funding suburban schools, incessant charter-fellating, and hypocritical good-enough-for-me-but-not-for-thee union scapegoating. There are probably ways we can help break the pattern of poverty and devalued education in America’s inner cities, but Esmonde looks at putting band-aids on the symptoms, and completely ignores the underlying disease.
Maybe education is devalued because Buffalo was always a manufacturing town. Maybe the loss of manufacturing over the last 40 years has completely devastated families without the means to leave and go where the jobs are. Maybe decades’ worth of demolishing the very socioeconomic foundation of entire communities have led to despair and poverty and despair. Maybe these are the issues we should focus on if we want to lift people up and not lose yet another generation of people who really just need a job and some hope for social mobility.