THE BLOG

Two-Party Frustration and the Race in Syracuse

10/30/2013 01:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2013

With the government shutdown behind us, the pundits are sure to start assigning blame far and wide. The Red and Blue teams have already started trying to dig themselves out from this fiasco. One thing that should be clear is that both parties, at some time during this crisis, exercised the will of party leadership rather than that of the voters. This blind devotion to the "party line" at times seemed so extreme as to defy common sense.

Has our "two-party" system reached a point where collaboration is no longer an option? The only perceived victory for a party is putting a candidate in the White House. Failing that, blocking progress has become a political strategy. The parties know that the public cannot distinguish between a truly ineffective president and one that has had every attempt at progress crippled by partisan politics. This cycle has been gaining amplitude until it has become arguably the most debilitating factor in current government.

Have we reached a stage where we should start considering smaller political parties?

Smaller parties don't necessarily require strict adherence to a "party line." Representatives have more latitude to reflect the desires of voters rather than party leadership.

A recent Gallup poll put 60 percent of respondents in favor of a third party. Dissatisfaction with existing parties was split evenly between Democratic and Republican responses.

But small parties have obstacles at the federal level. The major parties have inexhaustible funds and internal support. A third-party candidate can't compete against those forces. If smaller, more agile, parties are to compete at the national level, they will first need to succeed locally.

One such race is the Syracuse, N.Y., mayoral election. The Green Party has backed a candidate, Dr. Kevin Bott, to unseat the Democratic incumbent.

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I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Bott earlier this week:

Why should I care about the Green Party?

The Green Party is the progressive alternative to the machine. Entangled as they are with big-money interests, the two major parties are unable to act on the behalf of the majority of American citizens.

The core value of the Green Party is grassroots democracy and the belief that democracy is strengthened when every voice is invited to the table, and when people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

How will you address poverty and unemployment two of the major problems facing Syracuse?

You have to stabilize people's lives. Thirty-seven percent of our people are living in poverty. We've had 21 homicides this year. We were just ranked 53rd out of 53 area schools. Fifty-seven percent of kids under 18 are poor. With those stats, you're going to have homicides. You're going to have a violent city. You're going to have an education system in shambles. So first, people need jobs and stability.

Our response to the question of jobs and poverty is, to a large extent, a response to the national and global need to rethink what a 21st century economy looks like. We advocate for a re-localized economy, one that incentivizes and supports local, worker-owned, for-profit businesses.

Cities like Syracuse have a lot of abandoned storefronts and factories, which could easily be re-purposed. Temporary labor is the fastest growing labor sector in the world and we have forty-one temp agencies in our county. These are exploitative agencies that keep the working poor trapped in poverty. A company comes in and offers 20 dollars per hour per worker. The temp agency takes thirteen bucks or more, plus worker's comp, and gives what's left to the worker. Well, the city could easily take an abandoned storefront and help to capitalize a worker-owned version of the same. The only difference is that all of the money goes to the workers, who own the company. They can make decisions democratically about what to pay themselves, how to reinvest in the business, etc. For the employer, it's a nice PR story because they maintain costs while engaging in ethical business practice. In return for start-up capitalization, the city gets a small percentage of surplus profits until the loan is paid off, part of which we'd use to seed a network of co-operative ventures.

What about Syracuse's current financial deficit? You're two years from Detroit-style bankruptcy.

In addition to jobs creation, which will put money in pockets and get people spending within the city, we plan to organize a broad campaign to demand that the state fulfill a legislated revenue sharing agreement. From 1971 to 1980, Syracuse and the other "Big 6" cities shared 8 percent of the state's revenues. When Reaganomics ascended and the country abandoned its decades-long policy of progressive taxation, that 8 percent was slashed. Today, we get one-sixth of one-percent. If New York increased it's revenue sharing from 1 percent to 2 percent, we would be getting an additional $72 million a year -- more than enough to cover our budget shortfall.

How do you run Green in such a blue city and state?

People are waking up to the reality of the two-party system. I woke up in 2012, the first time I didn't vote Democrat. I got in the voting booth and I thought of Obama's drone strikes in Pakistan and I thought, why am I voting for this guy? Why do I still believe this party shares my values? So I voted Green. I want to talk about values and results. What is the value of having a Democrat mayor if we have record homicides, this level of unemployment, this level of poverty, a school system in shambles? I don't even want to talk about "positions." It's not about position; it's about democratic process. Not what would you think, but how you think. How would you include people in conversation? Are you willing to actually listen to the people you represent? These are qualities that I think people find glaringly absent in modern politics.

What has the experience of campaigning been like?

There's an Einstein quote I found when I started running that resonates with me: "The mindset that created the problem can't solve the problem." It's about the whole systemic mindset.
The incumbent got a law degree and started working in Albany when she was in her early twenties. She's been shaped by Albany, by a career aimed toward elected office. Just like almost everyone we elect. And the result is the world we live in.

I've had a different life. I pursued theater. I backpacked. I waited tables. I worked on the back of a garbage truck. I got married. I went back to school and discovered political theater. We had kids. I worked in prisons and earned a Ph.D. writing about my work with formerly incarcerated men. I moved to Syracuse and created an innovative political theater model here. So, you know, I've had a full, rich 40 years and bring a wholly different mindset to the challenges we're facing.

People say they want someone "different" in politics. Well, that's me. Not XY chromosome or pigmentation different. My whole orientation is different. But when I show up, the first take is like "We didn't mean that different!" So to answer your question, it's been a great test for me in terms of keeping my integrity.

Give me an example of how you would do things differently.

My primary concern will never be my political ambitions because I have none. I want to be the policy-making partner for the people here who have been working for years to realize Syracuse's potential. I feel no obligations except to the residents of Syracuse. And I'm most comfortable in the street, at the grassroots. My greatest joy is bringing people together, inspiring people to bring their best selves to a collective pursuit. My approach will start there.

So this is your first foray into politics at this level. What would you say to those who question your credentials or experience?

If concerned, intelligent, thoughtful citizens aren't qualified to represent their neighbors and their community, if people with track records of leadership and success and creative problem-solving aren't qualified, if people aren't qualified who seek office out of genuine concern for the "common wealth" and the future of the planet as opposed to their own political careers, well I just don't know. If that person isn't qualified to lead then I guess you end up with a situation as dire as the one we find ourselves in now. The "qualified" ones made this mess. At some point, something's got to give. I hope the time is now.

You can find out more about Dr. Kevin Bott and his campaign at www.kevinbott.org. Don't forget to get out and vote November 5th.