The Importance Of “A Bench” – A Political Lesson

Yesterday was sad news here for Democrats in New York’s 21’st District:  Congressman Bill Owens has decided not to run.

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, a Plattsburgh Democrat who was first elected in 2009, abruptly said he will not seek re-election in November to the 21st Congressional District, sending North Country Democrats scrambling to find a successor less two months before ballot petitioning begins.

It’s a little frustrating that he waited this long to make the decision, but the “scrambling” is something that demonstrates why local and other elections are important.

Anyone who follows sports has heard the term “bench player” or that your team has “a strong bench.”  They’re the ones who are counted on to come into the game when a starter goes down, or sometimes just to provide a spark.  It’s where the “next generation” of stars often get their first experience, and any coach who isn’t paying attention to developing a good bench is often left with a serious problem when one or more of their starters goes down.

What does that have to do with politics and local elections?  Local offices are where a party “develops its bench.”  Most of the people running for local offices or holding them, have no desire for higher office.  That’s all well and good.  But there are those who either are looking ahead, or can be persuaded.  It’s one of the first places party officials start looking to find candidates for higher offices, and where they can identify the ones with the potential for that.

If one looks back at 2010, what you see is that the supposed “grassroots Tea Party” wasn’t running a lot of political neophytes, despite their proclamations.  Most of their candidates were either in an elected office or had held one in the recent past.  They didn’t just “appear out of nowhere,” they were already well-known to various factions inside the Republican Party.

Which is why I have often stressed the importance of paying attention and working locally to elect Democrats.  It may not seem like a “big deal” if you’re living in a heavily Democratic area, with almost all your elected officials being members of the Democratic Party.  You have “a deep bench.”  In this area? Well, that’s a problem.

Owens’ departure could force Democrats to choose between a party stalwart with deep ties to the district, or a candidate with a more tenuous local connection, but deeper pockets.

Several observers noted that ex-Rep. Scott Murphy, who represented a neighboring district, lives within the boundaries of Owens’ district, after it was re-drawn in 2012.

While several names are being bandied about, it’s obvious that there isn’t a huge number of choices, or the chance to really have a set of candidates for a primary.  It’s not that we wouldn’t like to have that, it’s just that this area has been historically “safe Republican,” and if there’s a “deep bench,” it’s on the Republican side.  That has gradually been changing, as more Democrats are moving into elected positions and doing well, but we aren’t there yet.  In a few more years, yes, we can be.

It’s sad news for us here, because Congressman Owens was for some areas the first Democrat to be elected to Congress since the 1850’s.  That’s right, 150 years.  His decision not to seek re-election is turning what was going to be a tough race into an extremely difficult one.   I wish he had decided to run, but if there’s a lesson, it’s that we need to get busy and develop a bigger bench.  That way the next time a politician decides to retire, the difficulty is will be choosing one of a number of good candidates, not trying to find one.

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