Spencer Rumsey, the Long Island Press’ senior editor, has worked on dailies, weeklies and monthlies, including New York Newsday and the New York Post, the East Village Eye and the supermarket tabloid Star Magazine. Starting at the Press in 2010, he’s written award-winning stories on planning, politics and policy, to name a few topics, and he’s taken on a wide range of targets in his Press blog, Rumsey Punch.
The revelation came to him when he was driving home about a decade ago and realized that even though he was one of the leading salesmen of shopping centers on the Island, he was still buying everything he needed online.
“I’m saying to myself: ‘I need another business because I’m finished. Retail shopping centers are not going to make it,’” he recalls. “I think I was a little bit ahead of the curve.”
Koenigsberg may have been right about that, but now the trend in retailing is much clearer, as the once-mighty giants in the retail mall world close up shop one by one.
“People who sell goods in the brick and mortar stores are not making it,” says Koenigsberg. But that doesn’t mean it’s Armageddon for retailing, or, more importantly for someone like him, the end of commercial real estate as he and his real estate peers have known it.
Instead, Keonigsberg bided his time and did his homework. He took a hard look at the Long Island landscape and saw something different—if only he could reconfigure it. He waited for his chance, and now that the economy is finally coming out of the Great Recession, he has the capital to make his move.
“We’re able to buy shopping centers at or below replacement costs,” says Koenigsberg. “We see it as a great opportunity at this very moment to be purchasing Long Island retail centers.”
He explains his modus operandi:
“We’re purchasing properties that are suffering and using our strategy to re-engineer these [poorly performing] strip centers into high-demand, service-orientated tenants that provide services, not goods,” he says.
Koenigsberg finds the shopping centers that are losing their tenants, where the vacancy rates are high, that are mismanaged, and in serious need of an upgrade. Then he’ll dig deeper. Perhaps the partners no longer get along and want to sell the property, or the center is in an estate sale or a divorce proceeding. He checks out the locations and sees if he and his partners can maximize the value.
Their acquisition criteria tend to be very specific at this point. They’re looking for shopping centers with about five to 10 stores of around 10,000-square feet each, relatively small compared to a regional mall. But they want the traffic to be 20,000 vehicles a day for the property to make the cut, and the center should have a ratio of 3.5 parking spaces to every 10,000-square feet of retail.
“We’re going to walk before we run,” he says. “Eventually we’d like Long Island Investment Group to be a major player, but I think that’s a 10-year process.”
One clear advantage Koenigsberg has with this strategy is that he doesn’t have to worry about rezoning these “tired” B- and C-grade properties. His group plans to take the shopping centers as they are, so he doesn’t have to worry about appearing before a local planning board, because he won’t need any variances. Once the site is 100-percent acquired, Koenigsberg and his partners in this venture will come in and fix up the site with their value-added upgrades, bring in new high-demand, service-oriented tenants that perform better than the current ones, and grow the net-operating income of the center over time.
“If we are able to isolate that property in Great Neck, or Roslyn, or Merrick, or East Northport, where the demographics warrant it, we’d love to raise the rent $12 to $15 per square foot,” Koenigsberg says, “but realistically we understand that we’re buying properties all over Long Island and it may result in only a $4 to $6 bump.”
For Koenigsberg, the ideal tenants bring in a lot of foot traffic. He cites urgent care centers where people seek treatment for minor medical needs, and cell phone providers where customers want their new products activated immediately. And, of course, he’s including decent food and drink establishments.
“You can’t change the experience of going out to a restaurant,” he says. “You can’t get that online!”
This new venture has barely begun, but Koenigsberg is confident it can succeed.
“What we are is a dynamic, successful, decades-old brokerage firm that sees an opportunity in this marketplace and we’re going about doing it,” he says. “Now that the economy is finally coming out of recession, we can follow our passion.”
There’s good news on the employment front, at least on Long Island, especially compared to past years.
Long Island’s unemployment rate, not seasonally adjusted, was 3.9 percent in December 2015, down 0.5 percentage points from a year ago, according to Shital Patel, labor market analyst for the Long Island region at the New York State Department of Labor. Nassau County’s rate decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 3.7 percent, while Suffolk County’s rate decreased by 0.5 percentage points to 4.2 percent. By comparison, New York State’s rate was 4.7 percent and the national rate was 4.8 percent.
Nassau County had the third-lowest unemployment rate in New York State, only Tompkins County (3.4 percent) and Columbia County (3.5 percent) were better. Since December 2014, private sector jobs in New York State grew third-most rapidly in the Nassau-Suffolk region (+1.9 percent), topped by New York City (+2.3 percent) and Orange-Rockland-Westchester (+2.1 percent).
Statewide, the sectors recording the largest job gains were educational and health services, with 73,400 more since a year ago, followed by 27,000 in professional and business services and 26,700 jobs in construction. By contrast, the government sector lost 3,800 jobs, and manufacturing shrank by 2,400 jobs.
On Long Island, the metrics show some bounce since the recession, according to several key indicators.
In the first Long Island Business Leaders Survey, sponsored by The Long Island Association and conducted by Siena College Research Institute, 31 percent of the 248 CEOs in Nassau and Suffolk who responded to the poll said they plan to hire workers this coming year, while 9 percent foresee layoffs.
“The spring is in the step of many of Long Island’s CEOs,” said Siena College Research Institute Director Don Levy. “Nearly four in ten are bullish about the future, while only one in five remain negative on the economy. Just under half, 48 percent anticipate revenue growth and 41 percent expect their profits to increase in 2016.”
“The good news here is that the CEOs are more optimistic than pessimistic,” said Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association. “They’re certainly more optimistic than they are in upstate New York.”
Law cited the 3.9-percent unemployment rate as a figure that “most regions of the country would die for,” he said. He noted that sales tax revenues were growing in both counties, whereas half the counties in New York are seeing declines.
“What I was glad to see, as a CEO myself, we recognize how valuable our workers are,” added Law. “They’re well educated and well trained. One reason the CEOs put up with some of the high costs of doing business on Long Island is because of our great workforce. They also like our environment because a bad environment is not attractive to the business community.”
The Siena Survey only polled companies with sales between $2.5 million and $200 million.
“I know it excluded a lot of small businesses,” Law acknowledged, but originally the cut-off was going to be $5 million and the LIA broadened the parameters.
On the negative side of the balance sheet, the survey found few CEOs expressing much faith in government, whether state or local, for improving the business climate on Long Island. Ninety-two percent said that local municipalities do a poor or fair job of aiding business development here.
“I’m not defending it,” said Law. “It just takes forever to get a permit approved.”
He said there’s been progress at the county level but the local zoning boards have a lot of catching up to do.
Despite all the red tape and other hassles, a majority of Long Island businesses are committed to remaining in the region as their confidence in the economy continues to increase, according to the AVZ 2015-2016 Economic Survey & Opinion Poll. Conducted by Albrecht, Viggiano, Zureck & Company, P.C. (AVZ) in partnership with Long Island Business News, the results were formally presented at the HIA-LI 22nd Annual Economic Summit at the Hyatt Regency Long Island in Hauppauge on Feb. 11.
The survey found 63 percent of the respondents saw an increase in revenue in 2015; 61 percent forecast some increase in revenue this year; 90 percent raised their prices for products or services last year; 86 percent granted raises of up to 4 percent to their employees (6 percent gave raises of 5 to 9 percent); and 46 percent of the companies plan to hire this year. More than half of the respondents have been in business for more than 30 years; 84 percent of the businesses have been operating for more than a decade.
“The success and longevity of Long Island businesses are so vitally important,” said Terri Alessi-Miceli, president of HIA-LI, the Hauppauge Industrial Association of Long Island, whose headquarters are in the Hauppauge Industrial Park, one of the largest industrial parks in the United States. “2015 proved that Long Island businesses are committed to remaining in the region, with a substantial increase for economic confidence, which this year received its highest rating since the recession began in 2008.”
The researchers asked the respondents to rate their confidence in the Island’s economy on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most confident. The survey found that the businesses’ confidence level was 6.1 last year, compared to 4.9 in 2008. Since 1995, the highest rating was 7.2, reached in 1999 and 2000.
Looking ahead, for the second year in a row the survey found that healthcare is regarded as having the greatest potential for growth on the Island, with 43 percent of the respondents being bullish on this sector’s prospects as compared to the next sector, technology, which garnered 34 percent.
Those job findings don’t surprise Keith Banks, president of Lloyd Staffing, an employment agency based in Melville, who said that healthcare and technology are continuing to grow.
“We do have a well-trained and skilled workforce,” he said. “What we haven’t seen is a particular organization that has come here or sprouted here that has had a ‘hockey-stick’ trajectory in terms of growth in its number of employees, going from 500 employees to 1,000 employees over the course of 12 to 18 months. We just haven’t seen that type of growth around a company or around an industry since the recession.”
Banks is seeing “some momentum” in bio-tech, as companies nurtured in the Island’s incubators look to expand. “But it’s not out of the box growth,” he cautioned.
Northwell Health, formerly North Shore-LIJ, is by far the largest employer on Long Island and the largest private employer in New York State, with more than 61,000 employees. There are 31,150 employees at their hospitals and facilities in Nassau and Suffolk—and that number is rising.
“Our workforce will continue to expand on Long Island and throughout the metropolitan area in the years ahead,” said Michael Dowling, president & CEO of Northwell Health. “Every week, between 100 and 150 new employees join Northwell Health. Our growth area continues to be in the area of outpatient services, as more and more care is delivered outside the walls of our hospitals. Moving forward, there will be a much greater focus on managing the care of the people and communities we serve, rather than only treating them when they are sick or injured.”
Nancy Engelhardt, founding director of the Energeia Partnership, the Academy for Regional Stewardship at Molloy College, says the Island’s economy is “resilient” but it’s lost a lot of high-paying jobs and filling that need “remains a challenge.” But she’s not undaunted.
“I’m very optimistic,” Engelhardt said. “I see a lot more partnerships and collaborations happening, and people coming out of their silos and talking about how to deal with a lot of the issues on Long Island together.”
Mind the gap—that’s the message from the Long Island Index’s latest report on the enormous difference between the multifamily housing that currently exists and what our region will need to accommodate all the people who want to live here in the future.
A project of the nonprofit Rauch Foundation, the report estimated that LI could gain up to 158,000 households over the next 15 years but only develop 64,000 new housing units, leaving a gap of 94,000 units. If left unaddressed, this shortage could adversely affect the Island’s economy and its quality of life, the authors of the report said.
“I just want to emphasize that affordable housing is one of the critical pieces that Long Island needs to move into the 21st century,” said Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the Rauch Foundation. “I don’t think we’ve done it yet, but other places have done it. Long Island should be a choice for young people [who want to live here]… Now is the time for action on this issue.”
The research was conducted by the Regional Plan Association and HR&A Advisors, Inc., both groups based in Manhattan. Under their definition, multifamily housing means any building with three or more attached residential units and includes both rentals and owner-occupied residences such as co-ops and condos. The researchers did not deal with the issue of illegal apartments since it would be so hard to quantify.
The report, titled “Long Island’s Needs for Multifamily Housing: Measuring How Much We Are Planning to Build vs. How Much we Need for Long Island’s Future,” was released on Tuesday at a presentation in Melville hosted by the Long Island Association (LIA), a regional business group.
According to the researchers, one reason LI’s housing costs are so high is that residential construction has been relatively stagnant, lagging behind northern New Jersey, which “has built significantly more housing over the past 35 years than nearby regions.” As a result, its housing stock is more affordable for young workers and they’ve been drawn away from the Island and the Hudson Valley. From 1990 to 2014, Long Island’s population between the ages of 18 and 34 dropped 16 percent. Researchers said that 72 percent of young Long Islanders say they are “likely to leave the area by 2020.”
One possible explanation for that pending exodus is that multifamily housing production is not keeping up with the residents’ changing preferences, the report asserted, noting that “in only five years, nearly one-third of Long Island residents expect to live in multifamily housing, a significant shift from the proportion of residents currently living in such units.” According to the 2015 Long Island Index Survey, 82 percent of LI’s households live in single family dwellings and 17 percent live in multifamily housing. Five years from now, 67 percent said they expect to live in single family homes and 30 percent expect to live in multifamily units.
The report asserted that “most Americans would like to live in walkable mixed-use communities, where amenities, services and their jobs are a short commute away. Younger households have traditionally driven this demand, but baby boomers’ preferences are beginning to change.”
Three case studies included in the report—focusing on Valley Stream, Hicksville and Babylon—show that what the Long Island Index calls “modest changes in zoning regulations” could encourage enough multifamily housing construction to fill the gap. But therein lies the rub.
72 percent of young Long Islanders say they are likely to leave the area by 2020.
“The challenge for the region is that our economic competitiveness is at stake, and yet individual communities will decide which of these various zoning changes to embrace,” said Douzinas. “That necessitates a region-wide discussion to build a broad consensus around what is best for Long Island, and this report is an important step in building that discussion.”
“We really can have a bright future for this region but we need to stay focused on these things,” said Kevin Long, president and CEO of the LIA and co-vice chairman of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council. He noted that increasing multifamily housing dovetails with other efforts to improve the Island’s transportation infrastructure and create more high-paying jobs in the bio-tech industries starting to grow here.
In Valley Stream, the report noted that rents are unaffordable for many residents despite the surge in high-end, transit-oriented, mixed-use developments. The report recommended establishing a minimum unit size of 850-square feet, increasing maximum lot coverage to 60 percent and increasing the maximum building height from three stories to four stories. These changes would facilitate almost 800 new units of “more affordable, multifamily housing” in the village’s downtown.
For Hicksville, the HR&A and RPA suggested rezoning several commercial zones as multifamily residential zones, imposing 50-percent lot coverage and establishing new minimum unit sizes. In turn, this hamlet could then have about 1,900 new units.
Regarding Babylon, the researchers looked at seven potential sites. They recommended doubling allowable density to 20-to-24 units per acre, establishing a building height limit of three stories, and increasing lot coverage to 50 percent. These zoning changes, described as minor, could provide room for more than 200 new units.
Among the presenters at the LIA’s event was David Sabatino, owner of Sip This!, a coffee shop in Valley Stream, who works on Long Island projects for the Regional Plan Association.
“This spoke to me in several different ways,” he said. “As a small business owner I need foot traffic. I need people living downtown, living near the train station, and I need people investing in my community. As a single family homeowner I need new development and expansion of the tax base to help preserve the things I love about my community.”
He admitted that the zoning changes might be a hard sell.
“It’s a different thinking for Long Island, but it’s something we really need to consider,” he said.
“It was encouraging because it produces more data that makes the case that smart, forward-thinking people have been making on Long Island,” he said. “It shows that there’s incredible potential for economic growth and empowering individuals. But it’s discouraging because when you step back and say, ‘Well, okay, what is it going to take to get this done?’
“It doesn’t really matter that both county executives, the heads of both county legislatures, the heads of more than half the towns are all on the same page,” he continued. “This is a war of attrition like World War I. It has to be done one village zoning board at a time, which means you’ve got to do the work with the civics and the small business people and the political class and bring them together in ways that we’ve only seen in a relative handful of places.”
But those behind the report remain optimistic.
“What we’ve heard this morning,” Douzinas told the audience, “is, ‘Hey, things are changing and things could even be quite different, and it wouldn’t even cost that much.’ It means doing things differently, which we know is not so easy on Long Island…But look at what the results would be!”
By all accounts, New York City is experiencing a building boom that seems to have left Long Island behind, prompting developers to envy the city’s dynamic energy and rue the Island’s usual culprits of bureaucratic red tape, zoning board rigidity and nonstop neighborhood opposition.
“The irony is that 50 years ago you couldn’t get anything done in New York City, but you could get things done on Long Island—and it is completely reversed today,” says Des Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a business lobbying group. He cited the delays hampering progress at the big-ticket projects such as Pilgrim State Hospital and Kings Park Psychiatric Center.
“Those are two glaring examples of bureaucracies that can’t get out of their own way,” Ryan complains, noting the equal lack of progress holding Calverton in Suffolk and the Cerro Wire property in Nassau, where the only thing that’s changed is the billboard by its old entrance.
By contrast, Manhattan has so much ongoing construction there seems to be a crane on every corner. In part that’s because the density is so much higher that the only way to build is up, but the developers also benefit from having a central zoning authority to expedite the approval process, and the market is augmented by the city’s having a comprehensive mass transportation system to move people around.
“You have a lot happening in Manhattan,” agrees John Cameron, founder and managing partner of Cameron Engineering & Associates, LLP, and chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council. “It’s not just the approval process; it’s the vision and the leadership. We need to change the zoning codes and go vertical.”
According to Michael J. Posillico, president of the Posillico Development Company based in Farmingdale, the ratio of development in New York City and Long Island is around 65-to-35 today, but “Ten years ago it was probably 90-to-10 Long Island to New York City.”
“I wouldn’t say the market on Long Island is dead,” he adds, but infrastructure funding for highway and bridge repair and construction “has been very weak.”
Compounding the problem with the lack of investment, Posillico explains, is that Long Island’ zoning is “so inconsistent and variable,” as well as inflexible, that there’s little inducement to dig in and build. It’s the opposite situation in the city.
“When a real estate opportunity presents itself,” he continues, “developers can relatively quickly develop a plan, get it approved and build it.”
Many of the major projects in Manhattan, Cameron notes, involve office buildings being converted into hotels, residential condos and apartments. He knows that’s not realistic on Long Island, but it’s time for a change.
“In the city they have lived with vertical for years so they continue to go vertical. Long Island is height-adverse,” Cameron says. “Any time anybody talks about anything over three stories, four stories, five stories, you’re talking Queensification!”
He explains that Long Island will need to spark development in order to grow the tax base to support the increasing cost of government without breaking the bank of the average homeowner. The challenges are the decaying transportation infrastructure, the shortage of sewers in Suffolk, and the lack of undeveloped areas in Nassau in particular, so development opportunities are limited.
“We need to plan this growth so we can accommodate it smartly and won’t adversely affect our resources,” he advises.
But development is not only needed—it’s vital for the island’s future vitality.
“We don’t have enough development taking place on the Island to grow our economy and satisfy the needs that we already have today,” adds Cameron.
Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, Inc., a Hauppauge-based lobbying organization of highway and infrastructure professionals, says that business has picked up for larger firms that can diversify and take advantage of the city’s better economic climate. But it’s been hard for the small or midsize companies based on Long Island, because they’re dependent on municipal funding for projects and that has “been a concern.”
“It’s better than it’s been,” says Herbst. “But the jobs are short-term. They’re mostly maintenance efforts, not major construction, and that’s not long-term stability.”
Herbst says he and his LICA colleagues have high hopes for the mega-projects Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently touted in his State of the State address, but “they’re dreams that are down the road—they’re not for the immediate upcoming construction season or two.”
On the Island, residential needs are going unmet, particularly in the area of affordable rental stock, Cameron observed, and that means employers have problems attracting young workers to live here when they’re just starting out in their careers and can’t afford single-family homes. He’d like to see more growth near the LIRR transit hubs “so we don’t have to put a car on the road for every new person who’s added to the Island.”
It’s not all doom and gloom, says Mitch Pally, chief executive officer of the Long Island Builders Institute, a building industry trade association of Nassau-Suffolk builders, developers and remodelers, based in Islandia.
“The rental market has substantially increased and the numbers are significantly up,” he explains. “Lots of things are happening, but they happen in small ways on Long Island because that’s the way things are going to happen on Long Island these days. We’re not going out to build an affordable housing complex of 5,000 units in one place. But are there 50 units in lots of places going up at the same time? The answer is, ‘Yes.’…But if you’re waiting for the home run, it’s not going to happen.”
Posillico does not share that rosy scenario, however.
“I would prefer to work in New Jersey than on Long Island—that’s how bad Long Island is!” he declares.
Deploring the exhausting local planning process and the narrow building codes, Posillico warns that Long Island’s past of building bedroom communities and single-family homes is not a formula for a successful future “because you can’t support all these services with the tax base that we have. We need more density in certain locations.”
One problem, he says, is that “‘heightened density’ are still bad words in many towns, and that’s not true in other parts of the country.”
Another problem, even more invidious, is that Long Island’s fractured zoning and endemic opposition has turned off investors, and without financing, no development is going to happen, explains Posillico.
“It’s really a very difficult environment,” he says. “The money’s going to go where it can get a return. It’s not going to go to places where they flip-flop, they fight you, and they delay you.”
Maybe they used to say that about New York City, too, but not anymore.
Damn that Bernie Sanders! On the eve of the Iowa caucuses he rolls out a campaign ad using Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” song for the soundtrack and practically moves my bleeding heart to tears. How could he do that? Making me fall for that uplifting sentimental claptrap just as I hardwired my political cynicism into a hybrid I call: “Pragmatic idealism.”
I love his ideas, I love the enthusiasm of his supporters—young and old—who know how good it feels to be in a crowd of like-minded people rooting for the same cause. And he uses a song about as old as me to rub it in!
What’s Hillary got? Demi Lovato? Katy Perry? These two celebrity songbirds do nothing for me personally. Back in 1992 she and Bill had Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” but that’s so yesterday! Can’t Hillary’s team come up with something to really seize the moment and remind us that she’s not only the practical choice, she’s the right choice? She has to be our next President and Bernie has to remain in the Senate with, hopefully, a Democratic majority so he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren can actually get something done for a change. It won’t work with Bernie at the top of the ticket. I just don’t see it.
So, I’m trying to come up with some uplifting Hillary campaign songs, and I admit they may be a little morbid considering that I’m thinking about two great music artists who just died, David Bowie and Paul Kantner.
I admit I’m conflicted. I want to suggest David Bowie’s “Heroes” but his line “just for one day” might mean that I think her supporters will caucus and split.
She’d need longevity if she’s going to last through the race, especially if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire. Only two Democrats have not won those two contests and gone on to win the nomination—one was Bill Clinton, who skipped it, and the other was George McGovern, who, well, only carried Massachusetts in 1972.
I remember it well. That was the first presidential election I could vote in and I was psyched. Father Robert Drinan, the anti-Vietnam War, pro-choice Jesuit priest, was running for his second term in Congress, and I was hanging out at his victory party outside Boston to fulfill a journalism class assignment to pick a candidate and watch what happens on election night. Then the returns came in. Drinan won decisively. But it was a bloodbath for McGovern. The whole nation, except the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, had voted for that crook, President Richard Nixon. Did I feel alienated? You bet. But I was 19 and naïve—much more naïve than today’s Bernie supporters, I trust.
So in keeping with today’s theme, maybe Hillary’s campaign might adopt Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” On second thought, that song proved too much even for Bowie. As for his “Suffragette City,” I think it might be a little too sexist (and sexy for a grandma) although it does evoke Hillary’s bid to be the first woman elected president.
Personally, I’d cast a vote for Paul Kantner’s “Crown of Creation,” which was also the title of Jefferson Airplane’s third album. He reportedly got inspired to write it after a Democratic operative contacted him in San Francisco in 1968 but it must have proved too radical for Hubert Humphrey’s people. It was probably just a pipe dream anyway. I mean, listen to these lyrics: “In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our minds. In loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction!” Maybe someone might suggest Kantner’s “Volunteers” since it has that “look what’s happening out on the streets/got a revolution” line, but that wouldn’t work for Hillary. Maybe it’s a song for Bernie, sorry. Perhaps “Somebody to Love”? I just like to hear Grace Slick sing. Oh well, it’s just a thought.
Two years before the Clintons first took the White House, Bernie Sanders first came to Congress in December in 1990 after being the mayor of Burlington, not a huge metropolis. Now that he’s running for president, the question is whether his avowed socialism is a help or a hindrance. His hero, Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, won almost a million votes in the 1920 election. I’m not sure how many votes Debs would get in a national election this year.
Sanders said during a speech last fall at Georgetown University that “almost everything” President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed was “called socialist.” Sanders is definitely right that FDR’s New Deal programs, which saved the country from desperation and ruin, “have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.” And the bane of the conservative Republicans running for president today.
The Koch brothers, whose influence over American democracy is the subject of Jane Mayer’s new book, “Dark Money,” have reportedly pledged to raise and spend $889 million on the 2016 elections. That’s just two oligarchs. Meanwhile the Republican Party has consolidated its hold on 32 state governments, which controls gerrymandering and voter registration. Is it a hostile takeover? Depends on your politics. I think Hillary, battle-tested as she is, could handle them but she’ll need a hell of a lot of help and right now she doesn’t have a hold on millennial women under the age of 35, if you can believe the polls.
I’m not sure about Bernie’s longevity as a viable candidate when the GOP’s push comes to shove—and they start piling the crap onto his candidacy with all the lies their money can buy. Do Bernie’s supporters have enough moxie to go the distance? I know Hillary does. I’m not sure about him. He’ll need a nationwide movement to make his profound changes stick.
I’ve been around long enough to see movements come and go in America, some left their mark for the greater good, but their supporters had to take the long view. It took American women more than a century to get the right to vote. Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition didn’t get him elected but maybe it helped lay the groundwork for Barack Obama. The anti-war movement didn’t stop the Vietnam War but it did kill the draft. President Richard Nixon finally found a way out of that war but he left a disaster behind, and our Vietnam veterans today are still carrying their scars. Now, they join our Iraqi vets, who drafted themselves to answer the call after 9/11. But President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney mislead them into a Mideast quagmire that had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden. So many lives lost, so much money wasted, and the war goes on in a different way today. And the only winner is fear.
Once upon a time the great liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, was running for president against President Dwight Eisenhower when a supporter told him he’d given such an inspiring speech that he would surely “get the votes of all the thinking people.” “Thank you , madam,” he replied, “but I need a majority.” With only a minority behind him, Stevenson failed miserably in 1956. Fortunately, the Republican Party at the time was much more moderate than it is today. That’s why what happens in 2016 is so crucial. And what happens this week in Iowa and next week in New Hampshire is so critical.
Fast-forward five decades and, for the left and liberal Democrats, “this tension between committed activists and political realty has worsened significantly,” writes retired Rep. Barney Frank—the first openly gay Congressman—in his recent memoir. The activists believe that the great mass of voters are ready to make a sharp left turn, they just need the right nudge, so to speak. But that’s magical thinking. And I fear it’s what’s driving Bernie’s backers.
Barney Frank has seen this liberal/left divide before.
“I would not only try to dissuade my ideological allies from nominating unelectable candidates but would also argue against undermining our candidates by insisting that they ignore inconvenient political realities, or by denouncing them as betrayers when they took those realities into account,” Frank recalls. “This aspect of my work was much less fun.”
As he says, “liberals are more inclined to hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs… Applauding speakers who denounce the unfairness of a particular situation and rail against the political system is more emotionally satisfying—but very much less effective.”
Here’s Frank’s rule: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.”
For those who challenge my pragmatic idealism, I have two words: Ralph Nader. Look how bad it got when Al Gore lost to W, because Nader siphoned off too many votes in Florida. I don’t want Bernie to do that to Hillary.
“The white males who used to vote for Democrats have not become philosophical opponents of an active public sector,” says Frank, the quintessential Massachusetts liberal. “They dislike much of what they perceive that the government is doing, but they are even angrier at what it is refusing to do—adopt policies that will reverse the harm they have suffered from the economic shifts of the past decades.
“Reversing these voters’ anti-government sentiments is the challenge for liberals,” warns Frank. “It requires measures that will reduce inequality.” He says we do it without raising taxes on the middle class by reducing the military budget and ending criminal penalties for drug users. I know that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton want to fight inequality, one more directly than the other, one perhaps more effectively than the other.
But if the Democrats lose the election in 2016, neither will get the chance and it will only get worse. And then we’ll all be left singing a very sad song indeed.
Little by little, New York is finally joining 22 other states plus Washington, D.C., in offering medical marijuana to qualified patients at tightly regulated dispensaries that are slowly opening across the Empire State. All told, there will be 20 when the program is fully operational. Two facilities are set to open Friday on Long Island, one in Riverhead and the other at Lake Success.
Like Minnesota, New York’s stipulations are very restrictive, permitting the dispensaries to sell the drug only in oils and tinctures—not in smokable or edible form—compared to other states that have legalized medical marijuana.
“Our goal is to ensure that New Yorkers have access to the treatment they need through a controlled, regulated process,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a press release when the law passed in 2014 as part of the Compassionate Care Act.
Only patients with 10 medical conditions, such as HIV, AIDS, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and cancer, qualify for the medical marijuana certificates given by physicians registered with the New York State Department of Health. The doctors have to undergo a four-hour training course and pay a $249 fee. As of this week 409 patients have signed up in New York and 302 doctors have registered.
Despite the restrictions and the slow implementation of the program, state Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), who has been sponsoring medical marijuana legislation for almost two decades, remains optimistic.
“I would say the glass is three-quarters full, which is pretty good in life,” he said. “Ultimately the law, even as currently written, is going to provide important relief for thousands and thousands of seriously ill patients. I think it could work a whole lot better and serve a lot more patients in need if some of the restrictions the governor insisted on can be changed.”
In the current legislative session, the Assemblyman has introduced some amendments to address these concerns.
“We’re still going to be working to fill the glass,” he told the Press. “I’ve always believed that on this issue the general public is way ahead of a lot of elected officials.”
Advocates for the law hope the health commissioner will exercise his leeway to include at least five more qualifying serious medical conditions and allow doctors to more easily participate in the program. The dispensaries are also on a tight watch to prevent abuse. That intense scrutiny applies to the dispensaries’ suppliers too, noted Gottfried. These producers have to use their own trucks and drivers—not Federal Express, for example—and each truck has to be outfitted like an armored bank truck with its own safe to keep the product locked up. When one driver stops for coffee, another has to remain in the truck at all times.
“You would think they’re delivering plutonium,” observed Gottfried.
Gottfried disagrees with the health department’s insistence that the list of approved doctors be kept secret.
“I don’t think there is any legal justification for doing that,” he said. “The department ought to put it on its website.”
Although there’s no publicly available list of certified physicians, Columbia Care maintains its own list it can supply prospective patients. Potential patients, who are battling debilitating illnesses, are also struggling with the restrictions.
Before they can receive treatment, patients have to locate a physician who has been approved by the state to issue a prescription. In many cases, their primary care doctor may not even know who they can turn to.
“We’ve gotten literally dozens and dozens of calls from patients every day really frustrated and angry that they’re not able to enroll in the program because they can’t find a physician,” said Julie Netherland, a director at the Drug Policy Alliance, which runs the Compassionate Care coalition of patients and caregivers and was involved in lobbying for the bill.
“It is a fairly narrow and restrictive program,” she told the Press. “You can see that there are huge areas of the state that are not well served and Long Island is one of them. It’s a big area and only two are slated to open. The very people who qualify for the program are some of the sickest and most disabled folks in New York for whom travel can be really difficult and burdensome.”
She said it’s very hard to know how many patients would want to participate in the program, especially considering the limited number of qualifying conditions. One of the five dispensary companies licensed to supply the product in New York told Netherland that they estimated 400,000 to 500,000 patients but “I don’t know how accurate that is.”
Patients who qualify have to pay for it out of pocket because medical marijuana is not covered under any health insurance plans. The dispensaries have the option to price the product on a sliding scale in order to subsidize those patients who couldn’t otherwise afford the prescription. The drugs cost between $100-$300.
The drug is taken orally, for now. They expect to roll out vapor and pills in the near future.
“Somebody who wants to use marijuana for recreational purposes in New York does not need to go through this whole health department process to get access to it,” said Gottried. “You can go to almost any street corner. You don’t have to register your name and address with the state if you’re interested in smoking a joint.”
“We think this is a wonderful opportunity for patients and physicians to really examine and take advantage of a new form of health care,” Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita told the Press inside the facility Friday morning.
Vita said about 15 patients have scheduled appointments as of Thursday evening. Over next several weeks it will transition to regular business as opposed to strictly appointment based.
“The goal for us is to make sure no one ever comes and leaves empty handed,” Vita said. “If they want medicine, they should be able to get medicine, and that’s something we have the ability to do.”
The facility does not have any signs or markings outside indicating it’s a medical marijuana dispensary. Inside, it’s decorated with succulents and retro furniture.
Columbia Care has four facilities statewide, which is the max under the law. They’re in Riverhead, Manhattan, Plattsburgh and Rochester.
But New Yorkers won’t have the same options patients in other states have.
“There are lots of restrictions on the kinds of medical marijuana that are available in New York that don’t apply to other states,” said Netherland, noting that other states permit smokables, edibles, patches and lotions, as well as dozens of different strains. “That’s important because physicians and patients want the flexibility to be able to match a therapeutic strain to a particular set of symptoms. In New York there are only five strains or brands being allowed for each company. So if you go into a dispensary, you’re going to have a fairly limited selection.
“We all want to see a well-regulated system,” said Netherland. “The problem is that you have to balance that regulation with patient access.” She thinks the state has tipped the balance too far.
“My hope is that as the program rolls out,” Netherland said, “the state will realize that it doesn’t need all the restrictions that it’s put into place and will really change the program in a way that allows the patients to get the medicine they need more easily.”
With the unemployment rate on Long Island hitting its lowest level in eight years—4.1 percent in November—the labor market is tightening, which could translate to good paying jobs for highly skilled, better-educated workers although wage growth promises to be uneven, experts say.
In his January 2016 report, John Rizzo, Long Island Association’s chief economist, found that consumer confidence and spending have been up overall, compared to previous years, and now housing starts and new home sales on the Island are starting to show encouraging signs because inflation remains “well in check.”
He did express concern about global economic growth shrinking as oil prices continue to fall. How those factors, China’s recent turmoil in particular, will play out on LI remains to be seen, considering that international markets don’t have a major impact on the Island’s economy. As recent days on Wall Street have shown, investors have become quite skittish and that could take a toll in the months ahead.
Although the New York State Department of Labor’s Long Island Region won’t be releasing work force data for December 2015 until Jan. 26, it did report that the number of private sector jobs here increased by 21,600 or 1.9 percent, to 1,130,800. New York’s over-the-year private sector growth rate was 2.1 percent, while the nation’s was 2.2 percent.
Unfortunately, the Island’s private sector job count dipped by 2,200 workers between November and December (not seasonally adjusted), compared to an average gain of 5,200, the Labor Department reported, because “seasonal hiring remained weaker than normal for the retail industry, adding a record-low 1,000 employees when the industry typically hires 4,600 workers in December,” according to Shital Patel, labor market analyst for the Long Island Region at the state Department of Labor.
Part of the decline stemmed from the closure of A&P-owned stores on the Island, which declared bankruptcy in July. Patel also reported that restaurants “also shed a record 1,100 employees in December, compared to an average of 100.”
But workers were making gains in six of nine private industry sectors in December compared to a year ago, according to Patel’s analysis: education and health services added 12,500 more jobs; natural resources, mining and construction had 5,900; professional and business services had 4,700; leisure and hospitality added 1,200; other services added 700, and information showed 100 more.
According to preliminary figures released by the state Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in New York remained unchanged at 4.8 percent in December, its lowest level since November 2007, and a few clicks below the national unemployment rate of 5.0 percent.
It was a good month for the state, the department found, because private sector job count rose by 13,200, or 0.2 percent, to 7,880,000, a record high.
“New York’s labor market continued on its upward trend in December 2015,” said Bohdan M. Wynnyk, deputy director of the Division of Research and Statistics at the state Labor Department. “Not only did New York State’s private sector job count reach a new record high, but our statewide unemployment rate remained below the nation’s rate in December 2015.”
In a crowded union hall on a cold blustery night in Nassau County, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas were given the “Champions in Fighting Corruption Award” from the Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC).
They each received their own light saber suitable for “Star Wars.”
“I’ve gotten a lot of awards over the years but I never got one of these!” Schneiderman told the appreciative audience with a laugh as he waved his toy saber through the air and pledged to take it back with him to Albany. Singas didn’t say if she intended to use her saber in Mineola.
Schneiderman and Singas were honored for their work exposing unethical practices by Nassau County and New York State elected officials and furthering ethics reform in state and local government. In their remarks, they pledged to carry on the fight.
The occasion was a cocktail party to benefit LIPC, a grassroots community-based organization founded in 1979, which is affiliated with the Citizen Action of New York.
“During an era when residents have lost their confidence in public officials, we are grateful that we have allies both statewide and locally protecting taxpayers and putting the people first,” said Lisa Tyson, LIPC’s executive director, at the Westbury headquarters of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, the largest grocery union in the state.
On hand was a who’s who of progressive activists, local labor leaders and Democratic politicians, including former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who earlier in the day formally announced that he’s among the dozen candidates considering running for the open Congressional seatbeing vacated by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills), and current Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who so far is the only one running against Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford).
An already congested Congressional contest just got more crowded as former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi became the latest candidate to join the growing ranks of those interested in succeeding Rep. Steve Israel, who rocked the Long Island political world earlier this month when he declared that he will not run for reelection this November.
The 53-year-old Nassau Democrat, who served two terms as county executive after being Glen Cove mayor from 1994-2001, announced his intention to explore a run for New York’s 3rd Congressional District at a Tuesday morning event held at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury. A CPA and lawyer at the law firm of Harris Beach, Suozzi formally filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to form a fundraising committee, an initial step in the process.
“Over the next month or two, I’m going to talk to people in the district, raise some money, really think it through with Helene and the kids and try to make the right decision,” Suozzi said.
Come September he’ll have two kids in college and a son still in high school, so currently weighing on his and his wife Helene’s minds is that the commute to Washington, D.C., is longer than the one to Albany, which he considered making in 2006 before he lost a Democratic gubernatorial primary to then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
In 2009 Suozzi lost his race for a third term as county executive to then-Republican Legis. Ed Mangano, who beat the incumbent by 386 votes. Four years later, Suozzi ended up much further behind County Executive Mangano in a rematch, losing by 59-to-41 percent of the vote.
“I know that people are sick of politicians and they’re sick of politics,” Suozzi tells the Press. “Going back into the arena is not an easy thing to do but I’m frustrated by what I see going on in politics these days and it’s got to be shaken up.”
He took issue with the current campaign rhetoric coming from both the right and the left in the national discourse.
“The Republicans are saying, ‘Let the marketplace take care of it. Let the rich continue to succeed and that will take care of everything,’ ” Suozzi complained. “And I don’t think it’s accurate what a lot of Democrats are saying, which is, ‘Let’s raise taxes on the rich.’ It’s not as simple as that….I want to work together with other people to actually solve real problems that face the people who live in the Third Congressional District.”
At this early stage Suozzi is arguably the front-runner from his side of the aisle since he’s the only Democratic elected official to win county-wide office twice. The district stretches from northern Queens to Suffolk’s Huntington Town but its largest bulk includes Nassau’s Gold Coast.
At this point, a dozen Democrats have expressed varying degrees of interest, and they’re all scheduled to meet Wednesday with Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs and other party leaders in Glen Cove. Among the contenders are Nassau Interim Finance Authority Chairman Jon Kaiman, former North Hempstead Supervisor; Suffolk Legis. Steve Sterns (D-Dix Hills), who’s term-limited; North Hempstead Town board member Anna Kaplan; Brad Gerstman, a lobbyist; Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove); Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member, who co-runs a public relations firm; Suffolk Legis. Dr. William Spencer (D-Huntington); Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone; former Suffolk Legis. Jon Cooper; Todd Richman, a Great Neck businessman and philanthropist; and Laurie Scheinman, a psychologist and philanthropist from Port Washington.
Interest is also heating up on the Republican side. At this early stage the contenders are State Sen. Sen. Jack Martins (R-Old Westbury), the former mayor of Mineola; Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga); Assemb. Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station); and David Gurfein, a former Marine and currently president of a health & wellness business.
“Jack’s all in, no question about it,” says E. O’Brien Murray, a campaign strategist for State Sen. Jack Martins, in a phone interview with the Press. “He’s definitely running.”
Although Murray says he’s sure that Nassau Republicans will eventually come around to regard the former mayor of Mineola as their best candidate for the congressional seat, he was quick to criticize the former Nassau County Executive.
“This is the same Tom Suozzi who brought us corruption in his first term, created the energy tax in his second term, and raised taxes 20 percent,” says Martins’ Republican spokesman. “The voters threw him out once and overwhelmingly rejected him the second time when he tried to come back.”
Rep. Steve Israel, a former Huntington Town council member, was first elected to Congress in 2000 when the district included more of Suffolk than it does now after it was redrawn. For two terms Israel served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He resigned that post following the brutal drubbing of Democrats in the 2014 mid-term elections, which included the defeat of Rep. Tim Bishop, who had represented the East End of Long Island in the 1st Congressional District but lost to then-State Sen. Lee Zeldin. Until Israel made his announcement two weeks ago, the race for Zeldin’s Congressional seat was the only one on Long Island drawing attention—and money—considering that Republicans hold a 30-seat majority in the House of Representatives and this district was considered a toss-up. Vying to run against Zeldin are Democrats Anna Throne-Holst, the former Southold Supervisor, and David Calone, the former Suffolk County planner and investor.
Now Long Island has two hot Congressional races with national implications in 2016 when the White House is also up for grabs.
On Tuesday night, when the words rang out through the expectant House chamber, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States,” it was hard not to feel the rush of emotion about the historic significance. Here was the first African-American to be elected to the White House and he was about to give his last State of the Union address to the nation. No, he didn’t end racism in America during his tenure in office, as his more naïve supporters may have hoped in 2008. But he proved something to the world, no less: that we could rise above that prejudice in the name of progress.
As Obama made his way to the podium, he was trailed by the Senate Majority Leader, Kentucky’s reactionary Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, wearing an ugly green tie, and looking like a turtle out of his shell. McConnell’s stubborn vow in early January 2009 to not let the president-elect “succeed in anything” should follow him to his grave.
Obama was in a good mood, shaking hands, reaching out, touching supporters, kissing cheeks, and giving Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg a big hug—reminding us that if only we had more liberal jurists like her on the Court, we wouldn’t have Chief Justice Roberts poised to roll back the power of public unions—another item on the conservative billionaires’ agenda.
When the president said “there is red tape to be cut,” that was red meat to the Republican side of the aisle. Not what came next. “But after years of record corporate profits,” Obama continued, “working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense.”
When he mentioned making Wall Street pay more instead of trimming food stamps to balance the budget, the reaction got partisan. “Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up,” Obama told the country. “Those decisions are made in boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.” Touche!
Then he doubled down on another issue that’s roiling the Republican electorate. “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there!” he said, drawing laughter in the House chamber. “We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”
As he tackled climate change, the lack of Republicans applauding was painfully obvious even while he tried to appeal to their enlightened self-interest. “But even if—even if the planet wasn’t at stake, even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record until 2015 turned out even hotter—why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”
Emphatically Obama said that the United States was “the most powerful nation on Earth, period,” and the camera pointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff seated in the front row. They resembled a gang of thugs or a grizzled old rugby team. Either way, you don’t want to mess with those guys. They didn’t break a smile.
Then Obama took on the issue driving the Republican presidential nominees: al Qaeda and ISIL (aka ISIS). Against the threat, he defended his use of American power, and called on Congress to approve the unauthorized war against ISIS. “Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he said.
He cited what happened in Vietnam and Iraq, and said, wisely, that we should learn from our mistakes. In fact, if President George W. Bush hadn’t let his quasi-Prime Minister Dick Cheney pull a bait and switch by leaving Afghanistan prematurely to take out Saddam Hussein, it’s doubtful that ISIS would have risen in the Mideast region that his administration destabilized. On Tuesday night, Obama didn’t say, “Told you so!,” although he could have, considering he voted against the Iraq invasion, unlike his 2008 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Instead, Obama said that “masses of fighter on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages” are not a threat to our national existence. Apparently Obama’s observation lit up the right-wing twitter-sphere, drawing condemnation from the fear-mongering GOP candidates and their bellicose conservative pundits.
Obama turned up the heat when he subtly referred to Sen. Ted Cruz’s plan to carpet-bomb the ISIS state and somehow spare the innocent civilians they’re holding hostage. Because Cruz was on the campaign trail, the camera cut to Cruz’s rival who had actually showed up, Sen. Marco Rubio—a wise move on the Florida Senator’s part since his record of absenteeism has become an issue used against him—but Rubio looked like an impatient high school kid waiting for class to end so he could dash off to recess.
With tight-lipped Vice President Joe Biden seated behind him on one side and smirking House Speaker Paul Ryan on the other, Obama was clearly enjoying himself. In a nice moment, full of portent given the tragic death of Biden’s son Beau, the president made Biden his cancer czar. Biden beamed with gratitude.
Then Obama took on the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, without mentioning him by name. He started by pointing out that right at the same spot where he was giving his State of the Union address, the Pope had delivered a speech extolling the virtues of tolerance over the tyranny of hate. Obama expanded on that theme.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” the president said. “It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.” He reminded the country that “We the People” are the first three words of our Constitution, and that means everybody.
From there his speech took a poignant, lofty turn as he called upon the better angels of our nature to fix our politics, to free us from the rancor that has trapped too many people, and how wrong it is to assert that our political opponents are unpatriotic just because they take a different point of view. He regretted that he didn’t have the eloquence of Lincoln or Roosevelt to bridge the gap, and that the country is more divided now than when he tried to sow the seeds of hope and change.
He urged politicians to tune out the noise of their base and listen to the voice of the people. He reminded them of their duties as citizens to defend the weak. Then, rising to the occasion, he wanted to end on an optimistic note. He pointed out the global appeal of America’s brand of diversity, and how that mix of religions and races has made us strong. And if we embrace those values, our best days will still lie ahead, he insisted.
It may have been his best State of the Union speech, reminding us what he’s accomplished despite hostile opposition that bordered on racism. It got us feeling nostalgic, remembering how he’d stood tall in 2009 when the economy was sliding into the abyss of the Great Recession and Congressional Republicans had gone AWOL. With only Democrats on Capitol Hill lined up behind him, Obama used his presidential power to pass the stimulus package and get the country on the right track back. No, it didn’t go nearly far enough but it was better than doing nothing. For their efforts, many of those Democrats were defeated at the polls as the Tea Party surged two years later.
But look at the country now. Even a conservative columnist like David Brooks has had to admit this: “…America is in better economic shape than any other major nation on Earth. Crime is down. Abortion rates are down. Fourteen million new jobs have been created in five years.”
Let’s not forget that millions of Americans also have health insurance for the first time and marriage equality is the law of the land. That’s truly a tribute to Obama’s leadership.
But there’s a limit to Obama’s lofty oratorical skills. Words alone won’t redress the oligarchs’ concentration of wealth. So it was interesting to see Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is predicated on doing something about it, come on camera, however briefly, during the night’s proceedings. He looked like an eccentric Ivy League professor, especially when he pulled a notepad out of his inside jacket pocket. Currently, the Vermonter is leading Hillary Clinton in Iowa’s upcoming caucus and the New Hampshire primary. If those results hold, it could be a very close race between them to succeed Obama and build upon his legacy.
For the Republican rebuttal, the Grand Old Party turned to its third woman in four years, giving the spotlight to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants with a compelling personal narrative that led her to the governor’s mansion in Columbia. As she spoke, it was hard to ignore her blinding white teeth, a shining dental achievement in themselves. But the words she uttered were quite unusual for someone in her role. Of course, she obliged her party by blaming Obama for not accomplishing anything but falling short on the economy, tax reform, urban unrest and the national debt.
But then Haley told her party’s supporters, “We need to be honest with each other and with ourselves: while Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around. We as Republicans need to own that truth.”
She didn’t stop there, she went significantly further. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” the governor said. “We must resist that temptation.” Then Haley issued a clarion call to tone down the extremist rhetoric.
Movingly, the governor recounted the mass shooting last June at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, sparked by an angry white man—Haley actually called him “a domestic terrorist”—who had turned his gun on a Bible study meeting and killed nine black parishioners, according to authorities. Gov. Haley praised how her state responded to this hate crime: “We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs.”
Just as important she authorized that South Carolina remove “a symbol that was being used to divide us.” And so the Confederate flag no longer waves over the capitol, something that some of us with long memories of the civil rights struggle in the South thought we’d never see. Definitely a positive sign.
So, as pundits parsed the State of the Union speech and the rebuttal, some themes have emerged that will play out the rest of this important, bitterly contentious campaign season: Will 2016 be a year for our best hopes or our worst fears? How the voters answer will determine the future of our country for a long time to come. Let’s hope they heed the president’s call to do their civic duty.