Sydney and Smizik: Debate
Published in the Brookline
July 20, 2000
It's time for Ronny Sydney and Frank Smizik to schedule a debate. I know
there's still two months until the Democratic Party's primary election,
but a debate now between Brookline's candidates for state representative
would help clarify issues and positions while we've still got time to
come up with new questions. And instead of a polite but boringly stilted
interview-style format, the debate should allow some direct give-and-take
so that each can pin down the other on the differences between them.
As described recently by John Lauerman in the Boston Globe, the race
has increased the widespread hostility and disarray among town progressives
that began two years ago when Sydney unseated longtime representative
John Businger. With Smizik now trying to unseat the new incumbent, the
main question is simple: Does it really make much difference which liberal
wins? It's often just such slugfests among former comrades-in-arms that
get the juices flowing and the troops motivated.
I had only been living in Brookline two weeks when Sydney beat Businger,
so I wasn't around for that particular battle. But from what I can tell,
some issues remain the same. Are the privileges of incumbency worth maintaining?
Would the challenger be more effective than the incumbent? Do the candidates
differ philosophically or only tactically, and how much do tactics really
Smizik stakes out more progressive terrain than Sydney, whose cautious
positions are sometimes harder to discern and who sometimes seems to be
playing catch-up. But on many issues the candidates' views are more alike
than different. Neither will thrill me by straying far enough leftward
from mainstream liberalism's traditionally modest core.
Where the candidates differ most is in tactics and style. Sydney beat
Businger partly by claiming she'd be more effective at building congenial
working relationships in the House. Now Smizik says Sydney's gone too
far, opting for rock-no-boats congeniality with conservative Speaker Thomas
Finneran, at Brookline's expense. Most significantly, according to Smizik,
Sydney has abandoned progressive principles and refused to support efforts
to change autocratic House rules that block action on a host of issues.
Sydney should respond more fully to this charge. Smizik has documented
a number of examples where the incumbent failed the activism test; Sydney's
responses have varied in completeness and persuasiveness. A debate moderator
who required specific, substantive answers from both candidates would
go a long way to clearing the air on this central campaign issue.
As for Smizik, I'd like him to explain why a liberal incumbent should
be tossed out after only one term in office. Even if he'd be more aggressive
than Sydney in resisting Finneran's stranglehold over the rules, is there
any evidence the rules will change? Will adding one more activist voice
to the dozen or so legislators willing to buck the Speaker really have
an impact beyond warming the hearts of Brookline progressives?
There's a second issue for Smizik, discussed privately by many but, as
far as I can tell, rarely raised in public: the woman question. Women
hold only 26 percent of statewide seats in Massachusetts (though half
of Brookline's six positions). Smizik should clarify the rationale for
ousting a liberal female legislator. Numerical parity may be a superficial
goal, a sad retreat from an early feminist agenda aimed at transforming
elite power-abusive institutions rather than merely becoming an equal
part of them. But because it remains highly symbolic, the issue should
be addressed openly.
Both Smizik's aggressive, independent style and Sydney's nonconfrontational
work-through-the-system approach might simply be chalked up to traditional
gender roles. Yet there's an irony here: Smizik focuses on reducing the
Speaker's ability to dominate others and on empowering House members to
make decisions as a deliberative legislative body. This emphasis coincides
with the broader feminist goal of ending abuses of power by whatever man
is at the top. So it's up to Sydney to explain how her Speaker-friendly
approach will change the legislature's curry-favor-with-the-boss culture.
Voters with faith in the legislative process should find debates useful.
Those who doubt the election will make much difference would enjoy the
spectacle. Let the debates begin!
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