Village Mayor Tom Briggs holds up a tent during the annual Franklin Blueberry Festival as a deluge of rain begins.
All Politics Is Local (or – The Key To Getting Along Is To Avoid Being A Jerk)
This is a story about the town and the village of Franklin in Delaware County, two related communities with very different political views. They co-exist peacefully most of the time.
A very smart editor I know has told me that a vital local political scene is a healthy thing for American politics. The “habits of the heart” that French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed here, he says, – family life, local politics, religious affiliation – helped a young country maintain free institutions while nurturing the rugged individualism that is so characteristically American. Collective action at the local level was essential for creating and retaining healthy communities, de Tocqueville argued. My friend the editor believes this, at least, has not changed.
How that’s working in today’s world? This was the question he asked me to explore, here in a very small corner of the far western Catskills.
Delaware County encompasses over 1400 square miles. It’s the fifth biggest county in area in New York. But Delaware is also small, According to the last national census, just 45,000 people live here. According to voting records, there are fewer than 30,000 registered voters in the entire county, which is Republican by a three-to-two margin. The number of Democrats is the same countywide as it was a decade ago, but there’s been a decrease of about 1000 registered Republicans.
By comparison, Ulster County, about 300 square miles smaller, has a population of more than 180,000 people. More than 50,000 of its registered voters are now Democrats, up from 41,500 a decade ago. Meanwhile, Ulster County Republicans have decreased in number from 32,000 to barely 30,000.
Kathleen Hayek, a Brooklyn weekender who moved to the county full- time in 2015, is finishing up her first term as head of the Delaware County Democratic Party. She’s been learning how to navigate local politics on the job. She’s learning what it would take to make the party competitive in local elections.
“It’s not so much party, locally,” Hayek said. “People don’t care on the local level. What gets you elected is name recognition, whether you’re liked, and what you’ve done for the party.”
It’s the unaffiliated voters of Delaware County who make the difference, she says. She thinks the way in with these folks is to help explain why Democratic values are a better match with rural life.
“We don’t tell our story,” Hayek said. “Labor unions, values, value of farm crops, caring for your neighbor, those are Democratic values. The GOP philosophy is, ‘I got mine, everybody help yourself.’ But the rural voters’ perception is that the Democrats have abandoned them. We need to be the people-first party again. We always have been, but we need to say so.”
Delaware County’s sparse population means its local governments are, for most communities, quite different from the full-time-job career positions found in more populous areas. In the town of Franklin, where I live, the town clerk has office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a healthy break for lunch, and reopens for a couple of hours on Saturday. Everyone knows everyone else, and if you really need something quickly (and you’re not a jerk about it), you can generally get whatever you need. Or you might have to slow down and be patient.
The key to getting along in a rural community, from what I’ve seen, is just that simple: don’t be a jerk. Online rants and letters to the editor may be cathartic, but they don’t accomplish anything except make your neighbors wonder if you’re a hothead. I speak from experience.
The town of Franklin is very Republican. The town clerk is a Democrat, but every seat on the town board is held by a Republican man. The town board is pro-farm, pro-business, and very leery of too much regulation.
That has sometimes put it at loggerheads with the village of Franklin, which has elected a Democratic mayor and some residents who have created a very active, very effective environmental lobby.
Compressor Free Franklin became a legend in state government and activist circles, effectively lobbying to stop what seemed, at first, an unstoppable gas pipeline and compressor station aimed straight at Franklin. Such issues create unlikely alliances. Even the town’s Republican supervisor said he was “still not sold” on the compressor station.
The issue is on hold for now. The state Department of Environmental Conservation rejected one proposed gas line that would have used the station. The other was put on hold by its parent company three years ago.
Franklin village mayor Tom Briggs, a Democrat, brings a studied even-handedness to his job. He grew up in a small town in southern Delaware County. He says he understands the issues. After five years as mayor, he sees economic concerns as the key issues in Franklin.
“Granville Hicks was a socialist and a communist who moved to a small town and explored politics back in the Forties,” he noted. “It’s probably still the seminal work on rural life. I don’t think some things have changed all that much.”
In his book “Small Town,” Hicks concluded that rural communities practiced democracy in its purest form. Rural people, mayor Briggs said, stand up for what’s right, regardless of politics. And he sees, as Hicks did, a divide between locals and outsiders/newcomers. Hicks found the divide wasn’t about money. It was about education. The well-educated, Hicks found in his studies, were intimidating to rural people. They were seen as pretentious.
There are indications that the newcomers are affecting the political balance between the major parties in Franklin a little more rapidly than they are in Delaware County as a whole. In April 2009, when Franklin had 1603 potential voters, 737 of them were registered as Republicans, 409 as Democrats, and the rest otherwise. Of the 1675 people on the election rolls this February, almost a decade later, 716 were Republicans and 557 were Democrats. At this rate of change, the number of Democrats will catch up with the number of Republicans in about another decade. Change is happening.
Jeff Taggart grew up in Franklin. He is a Republican and has been town supervisor for three terms. He’s running for a fourth. Before that, he was deputy supervisor and a town-board member. He sees the philosophical divide as one of conservatives versus liberals, not one of party affiliation.
“The great thing about politics in a small town is that it’s people-oriented, not party-oriented,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of difference between Republicans and Democrats here. The difference is between liberals and conservatives in both parties. So the important thing is to keep open ears. People want you to hear them. Bottom line, I want to I feel like I’m doing the right thing, even if not everyone agrees with me.”
Taggart describes himself as “old school.” No computer, no cell phone.
“I know things are changing. Society is changing,” he says. “But even though we’ve got two entities here, the town and village, we converse. We’ve worked together on some things.”
Carla Nordstrom is one of Franklin’s more visible activists. The co-founder of Seeds of Democracy lives in a farmhouse just outside of town and is head of the Friends of the Franklin Library. She’s a registered Democrat, but she found that running candidates on what is now The Franklin Party has been a more effective way to chip away at the Republican-Conservative establishment.
“The first year, our candidates lost by a couple of hundred votes,” she said. The last election, our candidate lost by only nine votes. What we’ve done is forced the Republicans to at least come out and run. We’ve insisted they hold forums when we challenge them. And once we learned that most of their organizing was done in the churches, we started organizing at the Franklin farmers’ market on Sundays. There’s a lot of Sunday organizing that occurs in this town.”
Nordstrom and her husband have worked to bring campaigning in Franklin into modern times. They’ve shot videos for candidates and made Facebook pages. This year, due to changes in state election laws that caught Delaware County unprepared, there are no Democratic candidates for local office in Franklin.
Two issues will, however, be mobilizing voters. The first is a referendum on whether to change the current law prohibiting the sale of wine and beer at local restaurants. Franklin’s been partially dry for years – you can buy a six-pack of beer at the gas station, but you can’t drink one at the local pizza place. And there’s a fine dining experience to be had at The Tulip and The Rose, but no wine.
“I think it’s going to pass this time,” Nordstrom said. “A lot of the people who were against it are gone. And a lot of newcomers want it.”
There’s probably another cross-party alliance in the making. The owner of the local pizza place, who is very much in favor of changing the law, is a Taggart.
The other issue likely to create new alliances is the possibility of a Dollar General in an open field just outside the village. The first planning board meeting on the proposal, even before any proposal has been made, involved the real estate developer for the corporation and a standing room only crowd that filled the town garage and spilled out into the parking lot to listen and to be heard.
It’s less than six miles to another Dollar General in Otego. Oneonta, with multiple box stores and groceries, is just a 15-minute drive away. And Franklin this year has been enjoying a big influx of downstate visitors, drawn to its well-preserved architecture, carefully tended gardens, and small-town charm. Real estate values have been rising.
On the flip side, there’s an aging population in Franklin. The local gas station and convenience store has limited offerings. There is no other market in town.
And no jobs. It was jobs that made the compressor station and a gas pipeline look appealing, Mayor Briggs said.
“I guess I’m neutral on the Dollar General,” he said. “It will be just outside the village, so it’s not going to impact us directly. But I’d certainly ask how the building is going to be made to fit the look of this community. That’s a question that ought to be asked. People here are desperate for jobs, so desperate that they’re willing to risk some compromise to be able to stay and raise families here.”
Taggart said he isn’t taking a position yet, either.
The main employers in the area are two SUNY schools and the local hospitals, all at least 15 minutes away. In town, there’s the public school, a bank, a gas station and a few small businesses. Farming is still a major industry here, and trucking is another steady employer. That’s about where the local job market ends.
The past year has seen an influx of a few young families who work remotely. Franklin has not only high-speed cable Internet, but new fiber optic lines being run by Delhi Telephone. There are empty buildings that might be perfect offices for Internet based businesses, but they come with historic and environmental complications.
The opposition to the pipeline and the compressor station has well-taken points, Briggs said, but some of their warnings were seen by the pro-compressor population as hyperbole. Briggs references the Soft Revolution – trying to find common ground, understanding that anger and hate can’t lead to a conversation.
“I wrote a piece asking if the compressor station isn’t the answer, what can we bring here that will mean jobs and wealth for this area?” Briggs said. “There’s no forum for politics at the local level. Our job is to bring stakeholders together, improve things where you can, and hope that the result is that you make others respect your political position. Save Our School, the group that organized to keep the Franklin school open – that’s good stuff. That’s something we can all agree on.”
Local-level collective action is apparently still the best antidote to corrosive individualism. Healthy local politics makes for healthy communities. If you don’t find a place for yourself where you are, it may not be you. Your community is out there. It just may be smaller than you expected.