In Defense of the Diva of the District

Election 2012

New York City has never lacked for colorful and even divisive political figures. We have a great tolerance for the theatrical, for bombast, and for the quixotic.

This year has featured historic contested bids for the US Congress, including nomination pick-ups by Grace Meng and Rep. Charlie Rangel, both of which received national attention. This attention was well-deserved, and with the NY-13 race in particular, it was a nail-biter with outsized implications for Uptown and the Bronx, the region where I am pleased to live.

Only one race has consistently punched above its weight in terms of the media attention it has garnered, and that is the oddball race for the 21st SD by Mindy Meyer, who has achieved inclusion on the Conservative party line of the ballot.

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People look at Mindy, whose hot pink website features animated glitter-text saying “I’m Senator and I Know It!”, who self-identifies as “The Diva of the District”, and whose fashion-forward approach (Elle Woods inspired her choice of pink, and nothing else, she insists) to campaigning appears central to her appeal, and they wonder. She is 22, Orthodox Jewish, and completely unlike any other candidate we have seen before. Her website notes that she is the youngest woman ever to appear on New York’s ballot. And her statements profess either ignorance or a lack of interest in our current governance. She could name Cuomo, though she admitted his policy record was not in her brief (yet), but no other members of the “Three Men in a Room” came to mind when she was asked about it.

People who see her website assume it’s a prank. They read her media and begin to assume it is in fact a really good prank, a sort of long-con on electoral politics. Nobody can make heads or tails of some of her statements on the trail. I have told maybe a dozen gobsmacked people that she is actually on the ballot. In fact, while we’re at it, here is Mindy in her own words, as I recorded them, during her interview on Yetta Kurland Live! which she gave on Wednesday, 8/1. This should give you a clear picture of her presentation:

Before pivoting to my Defense of her candidacy, however, a pallete cleanser. I present to you a clip from a CNN/YouTube debate hosted by Anderson Cooper five years ago, in advance of the 2008 Democratic Primary.

“It’s a funny video, it’s a serious question.”

I watched that debate with a handful of people in my home. Several were furious that our politics itself had been demeaned by making candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States answer a question from a Talking Snow-Man. They saw this as emblematic of why crossing a phenomenon like YouTube with presidential politics was a bad mix, one that actually disturbed the somber seriousness of the contest.

My response to this was actually to say “F@#$ it, the Talking Snow-Man is part of the conversation now!” and by that, I meant that YouTube already had, and would continue to be an important part of our political dialog, and that CNN was merely acknowledging that people now valued sincere engagement over rarefied and stuffy seriousness.

The reason I bring this up is because nearly all of the critiques of Mindy boil down to her apparent lack of seriousness, her lack of inclination to play how everybody else plays, and her incongruous style. She defies a large basket of expectations and in general isn’t even thought to have a chance against the incumbent, State Senator Kevin Parker (D).

Here’s the breakdown as I see it:

For those of you who want to judge her website, with the exception of the music which auto-plays on her landing page (a feature I abhor) her site is as functionally and aesthetically valid in the context of modern web-design as that of most other candidates, and especially that of incumbents. Mindy’s site has a web counter on it, and she has received half a million views. That is, in fact, the core purpose of a campaign website. And I have been up on the web stats of numerous state legislative candidates, and if that counter is true, the metrics on her are that she has destroyed everyone who has ever run for the state legislature in New York, ever. She has our attention, even if she doesn’t make the most of it.

For those of you who want to question her seriousness as a candidate, look she is on the ballot. Pretty much everyone reading this has handled a ballot petition at one point. These petitions are then scrutinized under a procedure where Board of Elections is both the court and the appelate court. You have to make a real and sustained effort and it has to pass muster. I have sat through these proceedings, and worked on a handful of races that have faced aggressive ballot challenges. Getting on the ballot in New York is non-trivial, as is deciding to run for office.

I spoke with a politician just last night (who I will not name due to the nature of his remarks) who had this to say about it:

“We live in a city where electeds can serve as their own district leader. In this city, electeds can be appointed party chair, wherein they make appointments to BOE. In this city, there are so many reasons that someone with unelected power can stop your candidacy cold. The more we are dismissive of candidates from any background, the more our democracy suffers.”

The Talking Snow-Man is part of the conversation now, and so is Mindy Meyer. Board of Elections would have been where talk of her ended if she had not made suitable efforts to pass muster.

Most non-insider people already know more about her than they do about Kevin Parker, a five-term State Senator whose Wikipedia page is fully 50% about his controversial anger issues, felony criminal charges (acquitted) and misdemeanor charge (convicted). During the senate leadership crisis of 2009, he blocked Gov. Paterson and Comptroller DiNapoli from docking senate pay.

Which is to say, the incumbent she is running against is also the Talking Snow-Man in a way, same as Mindy. I am not endorsing Mindy over him, because his pecadillos concern me less than Democratic control of the State Senate, but Parker has picked vicious fights with colleagues, swatted constituents on Twitter, and offended the Orthodox community. My own incumbent congressman, Charlie Rangel, who is 110% likely to be my incumbent congressman some more, and who I respect and admire (but who I voted for in only 5 of his last 6 elections) was convicted by his own Chamber on 11 out of 13 counts of ethics violations, and like Kevin Parker, he was booted from a key committee leadership post.

Mindy Meyer, with whom I agree on pretty much nothing, has done something which I respect mightily and that is, she has gotten on the ballot in New York, and captured both our attention and our imaginations as a soupçon. Perhaps this year’s Talking Snow-Man is actually using pink, glitter, leopard-print, and a Real Housewives form of shout-talking to change the game in electoral politics and you know, God bless her! She is a 22 year old woman who put herself on the ballot. Perhaps she has made a poor tactical choice and chose the wrong race. Perhaps she would not make an effective senator at all, even if elected. She might be completely unready for the role.

But yet again, we’re talking about a body full of many Talking Snow-Men who were so paralyzed they had no choice but to make Pedro Espada, Jr. their Majority Leader. He has been convicted and is going to jail. But first, he hung out in our State Senate with a comically corrupt group of Talking Snow-Men with names like Carl Kruger (in federal prison), and Hiram “The Bottle Slasher” Montserrate (under indictment for a whole new set of federal crimes, facing 20 years in the slammer), who was literally last seen working at Papaya Pizza in Corona, Queens, where it was unclear if he was an owner or only an employee. One fun fact I learned on the NY-33 trail is that both of Espada’s predecessors, Efrain Gonzalez and Israel Ruiz are convicted criminals too.

At the end of the day, there are a handful of senators for whom I have enormous respect, but the New York State Legislature is not necessarily a place where Mindy absolutely couldn’t fit in. She actually shares one admirable quality with every legislator in Albany who currently rocks my world:

She saw a need for a change, became passionate about it, and stood up. If we do not respect that, we can just keep hanging out with Krugers instead of Kruegers, with more Espadas and one fewer Rivera, one less Lincoln Restler would have stood up, and our upcoming Young Gets It Done event would not have featured any fresh-faced electeds among our honorees ever in its prior 3 years. Because those young candidates, they’d have found no encouragement, and no quarter from us.

I first became aware of Barack Obama, 44th President and all, during his primary race for US Senate, because I was visiting a friend at UChigago, and he had posters all up and down the Hyde Park area. The first conversation I ever had about him (seven months before his convention speech) was about his challenging name, and I wouldn’t even learn about his middle name for another three years. I decided I would support Obama the night before the Iowa caucus, and heard all manner of criticism about his quixotic race from Republicans, Hillary supporters, and even the odd Edwards supporter. “You mean a 47 year-old bi-racial guy with a first, a middle and a last name each derived from totally separate cultures, who has served less than one full term in the US Senate, whose inexperience on the world stage leads him to sound like a damned fool by saying he’d order air strikes and even the capture or killing of Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil if necessary can be elected President? Puhlease.”