News & Opinion » News

An Upstate farmer takes on Albany


Mark Bitz isn't the kind of man you'd expect to lead a revolution.

The turkey farmer from OnondagaCounty is so soft-spoken it can be difficult to hear him at times, and he frequently stops for real pauses between sentences. But the calm demeanor with which he carries himself at public speaking engagements belies a depth of intensity and an unwavering focus on his mission to re-democratize New York State. In addition to his speeches around the state, Bitz has penned a slim book that lays out a dozen initiatives to reform state government.

The sixth generation to own and operate Plainville Farms, Bitz began working for his father at the age of 8. He studied at Purdue and Cornell, where he earned a master's degree in economics and completed the coursework for a PhD. He forsook academia before he could do his dissertation, though, returning to the farm to help run it through tough business times. That academic background may explain why he's comfortable moving from Euripides to Thomas Friedman in the space of a few sentences, or why his book's epigraph is a Shakespeare quote. Bitz is the walking personification of an old American ideal that died out long ago: the farmer-scholar.

But Bitz traces his most formative period not to Cornell but to trips to Latin America, Cold War Europe, and the Soviet Union during his undergraduate years, followed by a year-long stint teaching English in Poland. The year was 1981, and the hitherto unthinkable was happening: the Poles were restless and agitating for reform. The attitude he'd observed in other Soviet satellite states seemed one of hopelessness when it came to reform. But the Solidarity movement in Poland challenged that and, eventually, succeeded in exposing the Soviet system's vulnerability.

Bitz's travels "were actually good preparation for what I'm doing with the state of New York right now, because I know there's good and bad ways to govern, and there's policies that lead to prosperity and there's policies that lead to decline," he says. "I saw living examples of them in different parts of the world."

He borrows from that experience to talk about New Yorkers' frustration with their state government. At a talk to business leaders in Rochester last week, sponsored by the Rochester Business Alliance as part of its Unshackle Upstate initiative, he went as far as to suggest that Russia of today is a more democratic place than New York. (That may or may not be hyperbole; the criterion Bitz appeared to be using is the state's inordinately high reelection rate for incumbents: about 98 percent.)

In an interview after his talk, Bitz discussed his concerns about state government. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

City: With your background in Eastern Europe and at Cornell, you've been noticing these problems with state government all along. But there must've been a point at which you said, "OK, this is the tipping point."

Mark Bitz: Yeah. Actually, somebody approached us to buy our business, and that was the tipping point. I had to ask the question: Are we better off selling it or trying to have it intact for the seventh generation? We're largely a manufacturer, and New York was one of the two worst states in the country to do manufacturing. And when you aren't in a place where your costs are low, people who are have more resources to take better care of the customers than you do. We were growing and doing OK, but I felt in a lower-cost area we'd be doing a lot better and we'd be a lot stronger company.

So I'm asking myself: Do I really want to pass this on to my kids and set them up for possible failure in a state that makes it so hard to compete? Or do I want to sell the business? Finally I decided that before I sold the business, I would try to affect the policies in the state and make it a better place to do business.

You've got 12 different initiatives in the book. If you distilled those down to one important message, what would that be?

We need to call Albany on the redistricting game they've been playing and vote for Senate Democrats and Assembly Republicans. If we do not change our voting patterns, we're going to continue to get what they've been giving us, which will continue to cause the state to decline. The bottom line is change. The status quo is unacceptable.

What would be the best possible outcome of your campaign?

Well, how the state prospers is subject to a lot of debate, but the democratic process is not subject to any debate. And the thing I would like to see more than anything is for the New YorkState government to truly function as a democracy.

People don't realize that the genius of democracy is not in the ideal that we're all representing. The genius is, just as every cell in our body gives feedback to the brain, every person in a state is giving feedback to the government. And when governments get feedback from everybody, they make much better decisions. When that process is short-circuited or eliminated, and you've got two or three people basically deciding everything, the system does not function at the level that it could if it was getting feedback from all its members.

Have you seen any changes that make you optimistic that we're moving in the right direction?

Yes, I do think people are getting it. The upstate papers and the New York Post are shining light on the systemic problems New York has. This was not done in the past. A recent poll showed that 72 percent of the population felt the state was not doing well, not going in the right direction. So people are sensing a need for change, and the press is illuminating the need for change. Those are very good developments.

You specifically didn't include the New York Times, and you said earlier that you've been disappointed with it. What would you like to see the Times do with its coverage of this?

I'd like to see them spend more time examining the functioning of the government in New YorkState and showing the public how it doesn't function democratically and that it needs to. And then I would also like to see them spend more time on stories that show how much higher the cost of doing business in New York State is and why it is higher. And that the causes for the high costs have to be addressed, or standards of living will steadily decline relative to other states.

You laid out a strategy during your talk about how business organizations like the RBA can touch base with their counterparts in New York City, some of the good-government groups.

In New York City, there are numerous good-government groups, particularly Common Cause, the BrennanCenter at New YorkUniversity, and several others, and they're all concerned about democratic process. And the business community, which usually comes more from the right, should unite with these groups, which come more from the left, and be as concerned about process as they are. Because right now the public-sector unions and the attorneys own the process. And anything that improves the process and makes it more democratic will diminish their influence.