Dump Stereotypes About Government

Attorney General Cuomo opened his campaign for Governor by attacking state government. Frankly I’m tired of all these attacks coupled with the systematic failure to acknowledge all the good work being done by state government.

I’m not naive. I know there are people out there who are not doing good jobs. I know that there are programs gone awry or miscast from the beginning. That’s true in all fields of life. But living in Albany I also know people who are working their hearts out for the people of New York State and I have no doubt the same is true of the other states our listeners live in.

I know these people as neighbors, former students, people I meet in community projects. When we first moved in to Albany, one of our neighbors was shortly to become the head of the Environmental Bureau of the Attorney General’s office. He had offices both here and in New York City and worked long hours on the public’s litigation. Some of the most exciting environmental litigation in the country was being handled in his office. The work excited and drove him. The staff he acquired continue to be recognized as experts in the field. But some years ago an election resulted in another politician running against government and he stripped the office of its experts. Sometimes it is important to recognize the quality of the work being done lest we lose it.

Right now the public outcry about the closing of state parks is an indication that the people think our Park Service is doing an important job, doing it well and deserve our support. One of my former students is the great grandson of the donor of one of those parks and he is fighting, not to get the land back, but to keep it where it belongs, in the hands of the State Park Service and open for business.

I’ve known a number of people in the NY State Department of Health. I doubt the public understands just how valuable the State Department of Health is. People in the Health Department are scientists. They spend their time trying to identify infections, stave off health threats and keep us healthy. They run some of the largest and most important laboratories in the nation, indeed in the world. They don’t spend their time figuring out how to tell the public that they are doing a great job. But someone needs to acknowledge their work.

Another person we know works on a project trying to deal with the impact on New York’s coastline. She stunned me when she told me that New York has more than a thousand miles of coast line – not just NY harbor but both sides of Long Island, both sides of the Hudson which is tidal up to Albany, and the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. All of these and more will be affected by rising waters, just as the health of New Yorkers will be affected by organisms that will grow in a warmer climate. Their work needs to be acknowledged so that we are smart enough to protect it.

Certainly there are mistakes being made and there are problems with the way the legislature works and other structural problems. But politics has become a war of stereotypes. And that is unhealthy. It is no more true that government employees can be painted with the same verbal brush than it is true of any of the groups we identify with, whether our ethnic, religious or racial background, or people in our niche in the economy. Maturity and common sense requires outgrowing childish stereotypes.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2010.

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