Reclining with the enemy

Most people think of New York as a liberal state, but Oswego County is truly an island of red in a sea of blue. Republicans are everywhere in Oswego, especially in the county legislature.

There are 69,995 active registered voters in Oswego County. Of those, 18,104 are active registered Democrats and 33,063 are active registered Republicans. The difference is enough to fill half the Carrier Dome for a typical S.U. basketball game. The Legislature consists of 25 districts with each legislator representing about 5,000 people. Of the 25 districts, Democrats represent only four. Simply put, Oswego County is a Republican stronghold.

With such a massive majority in the Legislature, the Republicans can pass virtually any bill with little opposition. Even if Minority Leader Michael Kunzwiler, Minority Whip Doug Malone, Jacob Mulcahey (D-Oswego) and Amy Tresidder (D-Oswego) banded together on a particularly important issue, they would still be nine votes shy of the 13-vote majority needed to stop a particular piece of legislation. This means the Republicans bring almost anything to the Legislature from committee and rest at ease, knowing it will pass with a healthy margin. The Republicans don’t even need absolute unity within their own party. There can be four or five dissenters without a bill ever being in jeopardy. It’s worth noting that all the Democrats in the Legislature, except Malone, represent districts in the City of Oswego. Malone represents the Town of Oswego. The county’s rural areas are represented entirely by Republicans.

Even something as simple as seating arrangements becomes political in a place where the person to your left, to your right, behind you, in front of you and your neighbor is a member of the same party. Each year the majority, always the Republicans, chooses a new majority leader. The majority leader’s responsibilities include, among other things, choosing the seating arrangements for the Legislative chamber. This means the majority can effectively choose to put the minority in the less desirable seating in the chamber, which they do.

It’s not as if each of the four Democrats is being put in a corner and told to stay there and think about what he’s done, but it doesn’t seem right to reserve the best seats in the house for the up-and-coming Republicans. The majority leader certainly tries to accommodate each legislator’s requests in determining a seating chart, but everyone can’t get the seat he wants. While simple seating arrangements aren’t going to stop the Democrats from doing their jobs, the symbolic and psychological effects can be far-reaching. Democrats are outnumbered, outgunned and split up.

One Democrat who actually does sit in the corner is Doug Malone. Malone’s desk rests in the back corner of the chamber. An outspoken legislator, Malone has sparred with Beardsley and others on a regular basis. For doing so, Malone will likely remain in the corner for years to come.

In January, Oswego County Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann (R-Amboy), announced appointments to the Legislature’s seven standing committees for 2011. These committees oversee various departments of county government, and make budgetary and policy recommendations to the full Legislature. All the chairs appointed to head the Legislature’s seven committees are Republicans. Majority Leader Fred Beardsley (R-Hastings) was appointed to chair the Economic Development and Planning Committee, while Vice Chairman Arthur Ospelt (R-Schroeppel) will chair the Finance and Personnel Committee. Terry Wilbur (R-Hannibal), a novice legislator in his 20s, was appointed chair of the Community and Consumer Affairs Committee.

The Republican stronghold on county government extends beyond the Legislature to judges, the county clerk and even the sheriff. The fact that Oswego County government is saturated with Republicans doesn’t mean it is wrong or corrupt. It’s fair to say that most Republicans in the Legislature are honest, decent people who want to do right by their constituents.

There is, however, a great danger that must be guarded against. Without an opposition of any consequence to challenge the majority, the possibility exists for corruption. If the majority, whoever they are, can do as they please without oversight, they will. John Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and his words could not be truer in this situation. To counteract the natural tendency of people, even good people, we need to watch our county government with a careful eye.