Thursday, July 27, 2006

Political Posturing

As hurricane season kicks into gear and the Gulf Coast is still a mess, more Americans are losing health care, housing and energy costs skyrocket, and more jobs head overseas – our federal legislators are dealing with issues of monumental importance – like flag burning. It is midterm, time for the pre-2008 posturing to begin. Here in NH the furor over our first in the nation primary is in full roar. The Democratic National Committee wants to give Nevada the first primary, followed closely by NH and Iowa. The blame is flying in all directions.

NH abandoned the caucus system in 1913, and substituted a primary instead. The first real official presidential primary took place in 1916, but it didn’t become important until 1952. That was the year that Eisenhower defeated Taft, and Estes Kefauver defeated Truman in the primary, and as a result, Truman gave up on running for a third term. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson also dropped out of the race, after winning the NH primary by a very small margin (49 -42%) over Eugene McCarthy. Prior to 1992, the person elected president had always won the NH primary. Bill Clinton broke the pattern in 1992. Since then, John McCain and Pat Buchanan have both won the NH presidential primary, but did not go on to win their party’s nomination. In 1977, NH passed legislation stating that the NH primary would fall before that of any other state.

It is a tradition for those first cold ballots to be cast in tiny Dixville Notch, just after midnight. News broadcasts around the nation show footage of that voting, which may seem peculiar in some parts of the country, but it is tradition. Ritual and tradition are important, as well as comforting, in an increasingly disordered world. I don’t subscribe to the “we’ve always done it that way” school of thought, but I do respect tradition, and as a long time NH resident, I like the primary tradition.

The Democratic Party doesn’t see it the same way. Despite the fact that NH was the only state that went from red to blue in 2004, the Democrats have had the first in the nation primary in their sights, and this year they’ve gone after it. NH is a state full of white people, and that the population has been largely conservative. The DNC has stated that their goal is to add early primaries that are more representative of other states in terms of racial diversity and political viewpoint. Are we truly a political bellwether for the rest of the nation? Probably not - but NH is becoming more diverse with each passing year, and our political viewpoint is shifting. We’re on the cusp of actually becoming a two-party state! The DNC’s timing couldn’t be more wretched.

Let us not overlook the real reason for the outrage. Most of it is around money. I realize this may sound cynical – but think about it. Presidential candidates drop a bundle here. That income is important to tax free NH. The other reason is that the primary puts us on the map. If NH didn’t have that first in the nation primary, would candidates bother to spend as much time here in our small, not particularly influential state? Would we all still be able to boast that we’d met all, or most of the candidates? The first in the nation primary puts us on the map. It’s not surprising that we’d be upset about being shoved off the map.
The state GOP and our NH Congressional delegation are blaming all of this on state Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan. I’m no friend of Ms. Sullivan – but this is hardly her fault. The DNC has been worked hard by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Just in case the NH GOP hasn’t been paying attention – NH doesn’t have a Democrat in Washington. A state party chair doesn’t have the same clout as a senator. There are drawbacks to the one party rule we’ve been enjoying since the Civil War, and this is certainly one of them.

The NH GOP is behaving rather badly on other levels. When state senate candidate Mark Hounsell was forced to drop out of the race, because of health concerns, the NH GOP suggested that perhaps Mark wasn’t really sick. They quickly realized that taking that view made them look like utter slime, and have since gone on to challenge new candidate George Cleveland’s party affiliation. Honest to bob – of all the people to question, they pick George Cleveland?? Given that George and his family have a long visible history with the Democratic Party, their charges are ridiculous, and serve to make state GOP Chair Wayne Semprini look weak and petty. One would hope that they don’t feel that incumbent Joe Kenney could only win if he ran unopposed, but their tactics would seem to indicate otherwise.

That these battles are raging says a lot about the political climate in our state. NH is on the brink of long overdue change. We badly need a two party system – both in our state and in our nation’s capital. Some of the issues our state legislature faced this year are also being faced by our Congressional delegation. NH legislators chose not to put a constitutional amendment banning same gender marriage on the ballot this year. Jeb Bradley was the only member of the New England Congressional delegation to vote in favor of amending the US Constitution to discriminate against a minority population. Numerous anti-immigrant bills were proposed in the NH legislature this year, and all of them went down in flames. Our federal delegation seems rather out of step with the voters of our state. Luckily, we have the power to change that on November 7.

“How can one conceive of a one-party system in a country that has over 200 varieties of cheeses?” Charles De Gaulle (feel free to substitute beer for cheese to make it fit NH)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Killing the Goose

Twenty-two years ago I moved to the valley. The weekly commute to Concord provides ample time for observation and reflection on the changes that have taken place since I arrived. Nothing lasts forever – and with an expanding population changes are bound to take place. Still, hardly any of those changes are for the better. In 1984, the Shedd Woods really were woods. The site could better be called the Shedd Clearing now. The Scenic Vista was, once upon a time. One of the most profound changes has been in air quality. It is my habit to look out over the open fields in Conway village, just before the railroad tracks next to Kennett High, as I drive into or out of town. In past years one could almost always see Mt. Washington in that view. That’s been a scarce view this summer. One day a few weeks ago the air was so bad that the haze looked more like smoke from a huge forest fire.

As someone who drives a lot, I am aware that I am part of the problem. We all are. We live in communities that have been created around the ownership of automobiles, and we don’t have any kind of public transportation. An informal study last week found that 7 out of every 10 vehicles on Rt. 16 were SUVs, trucks, or motor homes. Even with the high price of gas, gas guzzlers rule our roads. Conservation is an alien concept. Jimmy Carter was (and still is) the subject of ridicule for appearing on national television wearing a sweater, and urging us to turn down our thermostats. Many businesses have nearly as many lights on at night when they’re closed as they do during the day when they are open.

Many people are stuck with gas sucking vehicles, because the US automakers were offering plenty of incentives to buy them. The US car manufacturers are practically giving them away, these days, because the demand for vehicles that get 10 miles per gallon has diminished considerably, and the manufacturers are stuck with the fruit of their ultimate demise. While others in the auto industry were manufacturing hybrids, knowing that oil is a finite resource, the US companies clung to the production of trucks and SUVs. The US automotive industry is in deep trouble – but Big Oil is dancing all the way to the bank. We hear the phrase “reducing our dependence on foreign oil” at least once a day. We seldom hear the correct phrase, which would be “reducing our dependence on oil.”

NH has a love – hate relationship with Big Oil. We love the tourist dollars that drive here in big vehicles. We love the tourist dollars that bring boats, snow machines, and personal watercraft. We’re also suing 22 major oil companies for water pollution caused by the gasoline additive MTBE. The oil industry relentlessly lobbied Congress to require MTBE as an additive, even though they were aware in the 1980’s that MTBE caused undrinkable water. The suit was filed in 2003. As of January 1, 2007, MTBE will no longer be used in NH. The damage is done, however. About 60% of the state relies on groundwater wells. Over 40,000 private wells contain some level of MTBE. At least 15% of the public water supplies in our state have been contaminated.

MTBE leaches into the groundwater through leaky underground tanks. It also enters the water supply through boats and personal watercraft. The old school two-stroke jet skis were terrible polluters, dumping 25-30 percent of their fuel, unburned, into the water. The manufacturers are now producing 4 stroke engines that cut down on the pollution (both noise and water) but create different problems. Many of the lakes that ban the 2 person watercraft have to allow the new, larger 3 and 4 person craft because current NH law considers them boats. The new, larger personal watercraft can reach speeds of over 60 mph, which makes for a lot of conflict between swimmers, jet skis, canoes, and kayaks. Manufacturers claim that the new craft are less noisy. Those fine distinctions are lost on me, they’re all annoyingly loud. These vessels are allowed on Conway, Silver, and Ossippee Lakes. Even when the MTBE ban goes into effect, there is no way of policing MTBE tainted gas coming in from out of state, in recreational vehicles, and dumping into our water.

We find ourselves living in a paradox, here in this part of the state. We are dependent on tourist dollars, and will do anything to court them. We continue to build and pave, and destroy what brought us all here in the first place. We boast of our clean air and water, yet we are unwilling to regulate or ban pollution causing devices. The personal watercraft manufacturers have plenty of lobbyists, and the NH legislature has so far been unwilling to change the laws that apply to them. The mantra of the free trade worshippers is oft invoked “we must give consumers choices.” Yep, even as those choices are made by morons who have no respect for the environment – even as they pollute our water supply, we must accept those choices. Last year I heard Congressman Jeb Bradley, who drives a hybrid truck invoke the consumer choice argument about motor vehicles. It’s as if we are powerless – we must accept pollution and environmental destruction because it is the choice of consumers. We already have significant groundwater pollution as a result of MTBE – will we need to destroy our recreational water supplies, too, before we are willing to change our behavior?

Once we lived on a beautiful planet, with abundant natural resources. We are hell bent on destroying the goose that laid the golden egg.

“The gluttonies devouring nature are remorseless.” Edward Hoagland