A VERY COMMON COUNCIL
We failed you, Buffalo, and we’re sorry. The failure pains us even more because we take our responsibility as a beacon of civic truth so seriously.
In response to the Common Council redistricting issue, we wanted desperately to show that Buffalo was missing the point in its argument over whether to eliminate four, six, or none of its elected leaders. We’d hoped that an unusual BEAST survey would reveal that they were ALL morons, and that the city would do better placing its trust in 13 heads of lettuce than in nine or even seven expensive lawmakers.
But our survey fell short of being comprehensive. As a result, we can only report that many of the city’s lawmakers, while perhaps not being unfit for office exactly, might do well to go back to school–and by that we mean junior high school–before embarking upon any more ambitious and divisive reform initiatives.
The Common Council issue reminds us a lot of the upcoming baseball strike. Both sides started out with plenty of options, graudally eliminated all the reasonable solutions, and have by now railroaded each other onto a path leading directly toward the worst possible scenario, one in which both sides really lose. In baseball, a strike will cripple a business that made both sides rich. In Buffalo, the redistricting issue will lead to hideous race problems in a city already full enough with them.
The basic storyline that The Buffalo News and other local media has mainly followed in covering the uproar over a plan to eliminate four council seats–three of which are occupied by black council members–has been that of the black contingent playing the race card on the one hand, and the rest of the civilized world (read: white Buffalo) on the other accusing them of being self-seeking jobholders needlessly inflaming the public.
Most everybody who has made any public pronouncement on the issue has fallen on one side or the other of the Either/Or conception of the story, i.e. either it’s racism, or it’s a necessary move to reduce municipal spending in a city that’s already fired numerous teachers and policemen. Another common Either/Or paradigm: either James Pitts and his followers are cynical hacks bent on saving their jobs at the expense of fiscal sanity and racial unity, or they’re responsible representatives fighting to retain power for their people.
Almost no one has been willing to say what seems to obvious here: that all of these things are true. Are the cuts economically necessary? Obviously the city can’t afford all of these council members, and obviously it looks extremely bad when six white council members propose eliminating three black seats. At the same time, Pitts is obviously a crudely self-seeking politician, while it is also obviously true that the people he represents are extremely pissed about the black/white ratio being reduced in the Council and would want him to fight it out to the end.
Hell, if we were black, we’d feel the same way. The at-large system in this country was primarily designed to reduce black voting power during the reconstruction, when the black populations in cities were not so high. Now whitey wants to end the system because it “doesn’t make sense”–well, that would sound like bullshit to us, too.
All of which leads us to the conclusion that the whole thing is an enormous mess, and that we don’t have the slightest idea of what anyone could do to make it all better now. However, we did think to ask one illustrative question. In retaining this or that council member, what, exactly, is being retained? Who are these people we’re fighting over? Using a unique scientific method, we decided to find out.
What we did was call each of the council members posing as a Gallup pollster–”Mark Greenberg”–and ask each of them to answer a “spot survey of elected officials” about the upcoming military action in Iraq. We read off a series of statements to each legislator we reached, asking them to respond in one of four ways: “Agree,” “Disagree,” “Agree Strongly,” and “Disagree Strongly.”
One of the things you learn after years of working in journalism is that few public officials will ever admit to not knowing something when asked. Politicians, academics, and particularly spoksemen from research think-tanks will seldom pass up the opportunity to make a statement on any issue, even if they have no idea what they’re talking about. Even if they should know what they’re talking about, and don’t, prudent silence is rarely if ever offered.
The first council member we got on the phone was Joe Golombek of the North District. The former teacher with the pocket-protector nerd appearance has a Master’s Degree in history from Marquette, but you’d never know it from his poll answers. The first question in each survey was straight. After that, we started in with the curveballs…
BEAST: Okay, first question. “The U.S. has the right to launch a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.”
Golombek: I don’t know… undecided.
BEAST: Okay… undecided… Second question. “Saddam Hussein has at least some control of the Bedouin territories in Northern Iraq.”
This is a bit of a cheap question, but we had to test the waters. The territories in northern Iraq are Kurdish, not Bedouin. There are scarcely any Bedouins left in Iraq, or indeed in the world outside of video copies of Lawrence of Arabia.
Golombek: Well, I’ve heard that’s true.
BEAST: So should I put “agree”?
Golombek: I suppose.
We followed that with two straight questions, one about the 1991 Gulf War resolution and another about whether or not Iraq poses a terrorist threat. Then we came to the real test question–to see if Golombek could recognize the difference between Iraqi geography and a shitty white funk band:
BEAST: Last question. “The planned invasion would be motivated at least in part by a desire to extend U.S. influence to the petroleum fields of the Jamiroquai province.”
Golombek: I strongly agree.
Legislative opinion about Jamiroquai’s talents turned out to be sharply divided. The Niagara district’s Dominic Bonifacio, for instance, was far more decisive in his answers than Golombek. He strongly agreed that the U.S. had a right to invade Iraq, and strongly agreed that the U.S. had real reason to be concerned about a Iraqi terrorist attack. As for Saddam Hussein’s control over the fictional Bedouin territories, he had no doubt about that:
BEAST: Second question. “Saddam Hussein has at least some control over the Bedouin territories in northern Iraq.”
Bonifacio: Oh, I agree with that.
Likewise, Bonifacio scoffed that the unpatriotic suggestion that the U.S. as mainly interested in Jamiroquai’s oil fields:
BEAST: “The planned invasion would be motivated at least in part by a desire to extend U.S. influence to the Jamiroquai oil fields.”
Bonifacio: (angrily) I strongly disagree.
After talking to these two, we realized that we had to make the test a little harder. Once we did, we ran into a surprise. When we contacted David Franczyk’s office, the Councilman himself wasn’t in. However, his assistant, attorney Michael Kuzma, quickly asked if he could answer the poll on Franczyk’s behalf. Kuzma has an interesting biography that we will probably elaborate upon at some point, and also happens to be Dick Kern’s lawyer; it was a bit surprising to hear him bargaining on the phone.
BEAST: Uh, I’m not sure… the survey is of elected officials.
Kuzma: I’m his assistant and his chief of staff. Does that qualify?
BEAST: Um… sure. Why not?
Kuzma’s answers were directly opposite to Bonifacio’s. He saw U.S. skullduggery everywhere. He strongly disagreed with our first few questions, then didn’t slow down when we tossed him a curve:
BEAST: Question three. “U.S. lead negotiator Anders Rasmussen is doing everything he can to avoid a military confrontation.”
Kuzma: I strongly disagree!
Anders Rasmussen is the Prime Minister of Denmark, and there are no negotiations with Iraq going on right now. We pushed on:
BEAST: Last question. “The planned invasion would be motivated at least in part by a desire to extend U.S. influence to the petroleum fields in the Jamiroquai province.”
Kuzma paused for a very long time. We thought he had us.
Kuzma: (after seven seconds) I would have to say that I agree with that.
The next council member we reached was Marc Coppola. Of all of them (with the possible exception of Richard Fontana; more on him later) he came the closest to passing the test. He was candid and more than once refused to answer a question he didn’t know the answer to. In fact, he gave us a great disclaimer at the start of the interview:
BEAST: …we’ll be giving a series of statements, and then after each one you’ll say, “agree,” disagree,” “strongly agree,” strongly disagree…”
Coppola: Okay. Just so you know, I don’t really have any strong opinions at this point, so…
Coppola: So I don’t know how helpful I can be.
BEAST: Okay! Well, we’ll just play it…
Coppola: We’ve got our own little mess over here.
BEAST: I understand. With the redistricting business, you’re probably very busy.
Coppola: (sighing) Yeah.
We pushed on with the test. As to whether or not the U.S. has a right to invade Iraq, Coppola candidly answered “undecided.” And he didn’t know anything about any Bedouin territories. As for Jamiroquai:
BEAST: Next question: “The planned invasion is motivated in part by a desire to extend U.S. influence over the petroleum fields in the Jamiroquai province.”
Coppola: (laughing) I don’t know about that province. I think it has something to do with it, but I don’t know specifically. I would have to say either I agree, or I don’t know.
Fair enough! After that, we moved on to the really hard question; it turns out Coppola’s geography is a little shaky:
BEAST: Last question. “The U.S. should revoke aid to Liechtenstein if it refuses to allow the United States to place troops along its border with Iraq in the event of an invasion.”
Coppola: (pausing for a long time) I would have to say I agree.
In between reaching these four, we were in the middle of striking out in our attempts to get most of the rest of the council on the phone. Pitts and Fisher, perhaps wisely, refused to return repeated calls. Gray not only didn’t return our call; her secretary flatly told us she would not take our call under any circumstances. Davis was out of town until September 3.
As for Thompson, we screwed up badly: he called back, but unfortunately while we happened to be on the phone. Call waiting forwarded him through to the BEAST answering machine, where we found a somewhat suspicious message from the former track star. No big loss; from what we can tell, Thompson is the sharpest of the
bunch and would have been tough to fool on the phone. A man who studied in Ghana is not likely to think Liechtenstein borders Iraq. You never know, though.
Fontana, meanwhile, took our call. We identified ourselves in this one as actually being from the BEAST and simply tried to get him to comment on a nonexistent news story, asking him about the “upcoming anti-WTO demonstrations in Halifax, Nova Scotia,” which of course are not planned at all.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Fontana said bluntly. A few minutes later, we squirmed out of the call.
The only remaining member to reach was Betty Jean Grant. After repeated phone calls, we finally got her on the phone for the Gallup poll. It took some doing even to get the questions going, however:
BEAST: First question. “The U.S. is justified in launching a pre-emptive invasion into Iraq.”
Grant: I disagree. Because I don’t know why they launched it. Can you tell me why they launched it?
BEAST: (startled) Um, well, we haven’t launched it yet. But there’s talk of doing so.
BEAST: Based on the belief that Iraq has chemical and, possibly, nuclear weapons that they’re hiding.
Grant: That’s not the only nation that has it, right… the only nation that has nuclear weapons?
BEAST: No, but the fear is that Iraq qould use these weapons.
Grant: Does India have it, and does the Pakistan have the weapons also?
BEAST: Yes, they have nuclear weapons. I’m not sure about chemical weapons.
Grant: So why is Iraq targeted? China has nuclear weapons too, we’re not launching anything against China. Why is Iraq targeted? That’s what I don’t understand.
BEAST: (sternly) That’s not really the point of the poll.
We moved on. Grant candidly said she didn’t know anything about any Bedouin territories. She sensibly said she thought an act of war should have congressional approval. As for designs upon the oil of the Jamiroquai province, she said, “That’s a possibility. That would be ‘agree somewhat.’” We added a few more questions:
BEAST: Next question. “The U.S. should wait to see if initiatives like the Ottawa peace resolution pan out before resorting to military action.”
Grant: I strongly agree.
There is no Ottawa Peace resolution, nor any peace initiative being offered. We moved on:
BEAST: Do you think the U.S. should revoke its aid to Burkina Faso if it does not allow our army to place troops along its border with Iraq?
Grant: What kind of aid do we give? If it’s humanitarian aid, then I don’t think any humanitarian aid should be revoked? If military aid, then I strongly agree it should be revoked.
Nice sentiment, except that Burkina Faso is in Africa. God help us all.