As seen in On the electoral road with Rachel, I recently walked with Rachel Barhart as she met voters in the Park Avenue and Beechwood neighborhoods. About ten days ago, I accepted Harry Bronson’s kind invitation to join him in canvassing and conversation, strolling for an hour or so around the Park Avenue area (chosen for my convenience) along with a new campaign volunteer, University of Rochester student Leif Johansen.
The aim was not to delve into the nitty-gritty of the campaign. Instead — along with observing Harry in door-to-door action — our conversation took more philosophical turns. I had sent Harry some questions in advance, asking about the influences on and implications of his political thinking. Our discussion ranged from his personal encounters with the values of honesty and integrity, theories of social justice, and how policies can be realized in a complex word of competing interests. And, as all politics is local and I am an avid cyclist, I made sure to vent my spleen on the speed demon drivers who make Goodman and Mount Hope cycling death traps.
I also mentioned a conversation with Alex White before canvassing with Rachel. Alex — who actually offered a seminar, “Campaign School,” at the Flying Squirrel Community Space — explained the finer points of canvassing: the yard sign, post-its, the door speech, and the essential graceful exit. Alex also extolled the local canvassing legend, Tony Micciche.
Supposedly, Tony the Can Man knocked on 16,000 doors in his first campaign. At the Labor Day Parade, I met Can Man (Tony loved his new nickname) who confirmed Alex’s figure. Harry did not claim he could top the 16,000 magic number.
Before we started, Harry went over the routine with Leif, the new volunteer. Passionate about politics, Leif — a first year UR student — told us he would shortly be announcing his own candidacy for Student Senate. Leif will have it easy canvassing door to door in a dormitory.
As for yard signs, Harry leaves them in his car, installing them himself for any takers. He learned the hard way not to place a sign in someone’s rose bushes.
No one was home at the first stop. But Harry made a mental note that the occupant had a cycling club sticker on his door. Always see what interests your constituents, noted Harry. Smiling, he added, that’s something Alex would probably preach. A few minutes later, the man returned and Harry and he talked biking. Bonus points in Professor White’s Campaign School.
Next was the subtle art of the graceful exit. At the next house, a man looked preoccupied and didn’t open the storm door. Harry didn’t want to leave too cursorily and seem rude, yet also didn’t want to appear intrusive by offering campaign material. As Harry said, the graceful exit is a feel thing.
Our next stop was by the most successful. Who was there but Talker subscriber Frank Regan! These days it’s pretty near impossible to walk the streets without finding Talker subscribers galore. Frank, this featured pic’s for you.
At the house where Harry left a flyer, Leif and I learned another canvassing fundamental: always close the yard door latch behind you, especially if the inhabitant is watching.
No canvass is perfect. At one point, looking at the campaign map of likely voters, Harry realized our route was inefficient. We should be alternating between odd and even numbers while crossing the streets. You don’t reach 16,000 by zigging where you should be zagging.
As we walked, Harry told me about influences and implications of his political thinking. First, Harry described his economically modest upbringing on a farm in rural Broome County, the 11th of 12 children. Though not materially wealthy, his mother had taught him the value of community (the church and the Grange) while his father emphasized hard work, honesty and integrity. I learned that Harry — as he said, like every one in Broome County — was nominally raised a Republican, shifting to the Democratic side sometime in college.
At SUNY Oswego, Harry majored in Public Justice, a course of study encompassing Political Science, Economics, the Social Sciences, History and Philosophy. Etched in Harry’s mind were the two foundational questions of the major: What makes society just? And why is it important for society to be just? In the late 70s, I can imagine Public Justice students playing John Rawls’ Original Position thought experiment and wondering how correct was Richard Hofstadter about the paranoid style in American politics (very). No doubt the answers to those questions became complex.
Harry would receive a law degree from the University of Buffalo and later enter politics. He also has taught Employment Law at Cornell University.
From the foundational issues — What makes society just? And why is it important for society to be just? — Harry distilled his two principles of policy making. The elected officials job is the provide opportunities and to eliminate barriers to opportunities.
Based on his background and approach, my overall sense is that Harry can be called a liberal or progressive pragmatist. Justice is important and can be advanced, but that advancement involves giving careful weight to process and context.
At this point, I went back to how Harry’s father had taught the value of honesty and integrity. I wondered, how much had the principle of honesty played a role in Harry’s decision to come out of the closet as openly gay — itself a kind of honesty with self and society?
Harry reflected for a moment. And gave an honest answer.
First, Harry’s coming out was a long, sometimes painful, process. Not one moment of decision. Harry said that being openly gay — especially in his era — had to be understood in the context of the risks involved. He made it very clear he did not want to suggest people who do not take the enormous risk of coming out are not honest. Attuned to the complexity of contexts, Harry said people may be choosing just not to disclose it or in other situations they may have not have come to terms with themselves on their identity.
At the same time, the principle of integrity seemed to play an important role in Harry’s coming out process. In a story Harry has told on the state assembly floor, Harry had confirmed to another member of his law firm that he was gay. The man said he was ok with it, but if any of the partners discovered, Harry would have no future in the firm.
Harry did not stay to see if the man was correct. He quit two weeks later. Harry could have kept quiet about his gayness — always a personal choice — and minimized risk. But I think Harry realized he did not want to work for a firm that held such narrow and biased views. Staying would have meant compromising his integrity. So he quit.
As we walked, we discussed several issues, especially the minimum wage, of pressing importance to many of his constituents. Harry says he has long pushed for a higher minimum wage, while at the same time supporting indexing provisions for certain occupations.
Harry sees living wages as both an equity issue and opportunity issue. On the one hand, a just society requires a living wage for each member. At the same time, Harry also believes a higher minimum wage spurs overall economic growth. Ultimately, low wages are a barrier to opportunity; while higher wages provide more opportunity.
Playing devil’s advocate, I asked, if higher wages positively benefit society, why don’t employers raise wages voluntarily? Here, Harry’s policy principles came into play. Of course, individual companies fear shrinking profits. Harry believes in profitability; he is a small business owner in business to make money — but he doesn’t believe in the profit motive unchecked. It is government’s role to intervene in the market — including coercion through laws — for the greater good.
But what exact level should be the minimum wage? Here, Harry the pragmatist says finding that level is the nuts and bolts of legislation — operating by principle while balancing competing interests. I also asked if he supported an idea I had heard that government should subsidize a higher minimum wage. No, he said. For Harry, having tax payers pay for a higher minimum wage would become another corporate giveaway.
Harry told a story about a visit to a Participation In Government class at the School Without Walls. Harry began by discussing how the legislative process works. But it was the minimum wage that primarily interested students.Some worked in fast food where wages were being raised; while others worked at Wegmans where wages were not. Feeling the discrepancy to be unfair, the Wegmans workers raised what Harry’s teachers at SUNY Oswego would call a justice argument. The law treated different groups differently.
In principle, Harry agreed with the students. He also explained that various procedural issues has exempted Wegmans, something he wanted to change. Harry the pragmatist suggested it was a step forward for fast food workers to get raises, while still pushing for higher wages at Wegmans.
Finally, as all politics is local, if I lived in Harry’s district, my priority would be improved bicycle safety and accessibility. Throughout our walk, bicyclists were gliding through the neighborhood, creating a Portland, Oregon-like ambience to which all Rochester should aspire. I am an avid bicyclist and member of Bike Writers but dread the treacherous going on crowded city streets. I wondered if it should be legal for bicyclists to use the sidewalks.
At first, Harry (a big cyclist himself) said bikers should stay off the sidewalks. But, Harry, pointing to the street, Goodman is a death trap. When I ride on Goodman, people yell at me to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. Thinking it through, Harry amended his original point. Bikers should stay off the sidewalks for their own safety; cars pulling in and out of driveways are sometimes caught unawares. Harry thinks solutions lie in more of the three foot bike lanes and better cross walks. He’s right up to a point, but I have digressed. Turning Rochester into the Portland, Oregon of the Great Lakes region is a story for another day.
In conclusion, Harry describes as himself as analytical and detail-driven in which his training as a lawyer allows him to see both sides of issues. I’ll buy that description.Early in the conversation, Harry said he didn’t like to label himself as labels mean something different to everyone. Fair enough. But I still see Harry as a liberal or progressive pragmatist. It’s up to voter if that’s the label they want and if Harry can live up to its name.
After leaving Harry to catch up on his canvassing quota (he said his campaign manager would complain he was gabbing with me too much), I dropped by Harry’s Equal=Grounds coffee house on South Avenue. I wanted to read what one of those other papers had to say about the election. There I met an ideal voter, Maggie Benson (who took the photo).
A journalism student at SUNY Brockport, Maggie lives in the 138th District and was undecided. Maggie takes voting very seriously. As a student, pressing issues are loans and tuition. Before elections, she carefully researches each candidate. As the election nears, Maggie pays closer attention to newspaper and tv coverage. She’ll look at campaign websites, but also seeks out more independent sources. Maggie uses good old fashioned yard signs as a helpful barometer. How many yard signs and where they are give her clues to the level of support each candidate has within her community.
Interesting to hear how this ideal voter votes on Tuesday the 13th.