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After the vote: potholes ahead


A week after Maggie Brooks' victory over Bill Johnson, I'm drawn back to Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" --- or national "malaise," as it became known. Carter was addressing the US "energy crisis" of the moment (apart from his attachment to coal and oil, he mused that solar power would provide 20 percent of the country's energy by 2000!). But the decades-old speech sounds as if it had been made for us here and now in Monroe County.

            "We are at a turning point in our history," said Carter. "There are two paths to choose. One is a path... that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility."

            The path Maggie Brooks and local voters have chosen is the very one Carter feared. The majority chose a security blanket woven of "flat taxes" and muted racial and class antagonisms, and rejected a cautious, thoughtful program --- a quite conservative one, in fact --- based on real-world analysis. They bought into fiscal policies that already have hammered the poor and will do further damage. Almost worse, the voters were persuaded by the dumbed-down, feel-good Brooks persona, set against a blitzkrieg of fear-mongering ads concocted by the Minarik machine and condoned by Brooks.

            In short, the majority chose "a mistaken idea of freedom." Now the Community of Monroe is even further from living up to its own name.

The unofficial vote totals shed a little light here.

            Brooks defeated Johnson 65 percent to 35 percent overall. Look, though, at some oddities in the most populous suburban towns. Henrietta went for Brooks by 70 to 30 percent. But in Greece, the largest suburb, Brooks won 77 to 23 percent.

            This tracks with the towns' different racial compositions: Greece is just 3 percent black; Henrietta is 7 percent black. In other respects, the towns are practically twins. In 2000, for example, the median household income in Greece was $48,000. In Henrietta, it was $51,000. So I ask you, when certain voters in these towns drove to their polling place --- took the "path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest" --- what proportions of racism and classism were at the wheel?

            By the numbers, the picture is no pleasure to behold. But what's really depressing is the handwriting on the wall: the future that the majority has wished on itself. More economic and racial apartheid. More disinvestment from the urban core. Annual budget fiascoes, followed by cuts in basic services. More hunger and homelessness. Less health care.

            "Bring 'em on," says the majority --- their votes seconding the Great Prevaricator in Washington, who also talks tough while other poor slobs get whacked.

            A few local organizations and social workers have been leading "reality tours" lately. They bus people around the city's poorest neighborhoods, giving riders a dose of hard experience. It's a great effort. But we should extend the concept. How about reality tours to, say, parts of Buffalo that have been bulldozed and abandoned? Buffalo shows where we're headed: "chaos and immobility," to adapt Carter's phrase. It's just what every Brooks aficionado needs to see.

            And when we get done in Buffalo, we could turn east toward Hartford, Connecticut, another city said to be further down the road we're on. The Children's Defense Fund, using census 2000 data, says Hartford has the nation's second-worst childhood poverty rate: number 244 of 245 US cities with populations over 100,000. (The worst is Brownsville, State of Bush.) Buffalo is number 240. Rochester is 235.

            We don't have much lower to sink in the record books. So maybe we might as well pull the plug. That's what the vote seems to say.

Let's get personal, too. Maggie Brooks smoothly presented herself as a conciliator, but as a true communicator she left a lot to be desired.

            Take what happened to the Center for Disability Rights. In early October, CDR sent a questionnaire to both county executive candidates. Bill Johnson responded, but Brooks did not, even after "numerous calls," said a CDR news release. On October 30, Brooks did send CDR a nice note, subsequently published by CDR. "I have reviewed the survey... and I am interested in learning more about the issues raised in it," Brooks wrote. She said she'd "welcome a meeting" later, "once the dust settles from the election season."

            Sounds like kinder, gentler manipulation to me. And here's a coincidence: CDR has been involved in litigation against the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority over services for the disabled. Thus the group crossed swords with the local Republican Party ruling clique: folks like Bill Nojay and ultimately Jack Doyle and Steve Minarik. Brooks is more than an honorary member of this inner circle.

            Well, it's going to be a long four years for a lot of Rochesterians. But there's another thing people should be upset about, something more philosophical but not without palpable effect on everyone.

            We went through a very ugly district attorney campaign, and a major issue got hardly any attention. That issue is capital punishment. Both candidates supported it; one, enthusiastically; the other, passively at least. What's happened to us? Are we --- I mean that merciless majority again --- so far removed from our moral bearings that we've accepted capital punishment as a permanent feature of this society? Is the debate over?

            It's like the old TV ad, without the easy laugh: After all, what are we, barbarians? And that goes for our economic and civic values as well as our sense of justice.