Jim Keane used the hook of an endorsement rally Tuesday to blast Chris Collins, his opponent in the county executive race. The longtime political figure whacked Collins, a Republican businessman, for everything from a questionable real estate deal to a lack of government experience.
The darts hit the target, but it may not matter. Election Day is Tuesday, and my sense is that Keane has more than Collins to worry about. The larger forces that have pummeled this community for decades -- job flight, high taxes, a petrified political culture -- align against the career public official.
By conventional wisdom, a well-known Democrat in a heavily Democratic county, in the wake of a disgraced Republican administration, should coast to victory. Yet Keane was 9 points down in a recent poll to a man who never spent a day in public office.
Keane believes that Democrats will "come home" to him Tuesday. Maybe. But I have the growing sense that Keane has stepped in front of a runaway train. He is not so much running against Collins as he is running against decades of regional decline -- and public disgust with a political culture that is partly to blame. As a longtime public official, he is a convenient poster boy for what ails us.
Maybe it is not fair to Keane, who -- in intelligence and flexibility -- is a cut above our standard politician. Maybe it is not right. But "right" is a two-way street. Nobody can claim that the political establishment -- Democratic or Republican -- has done right by this community in the last few decades.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo cited Keane's experience in his Tuesday endorsement. Cuomo argued that passengers would not want an inexperienced pilot flying their airplane. The problem with the metaphor is we have had career politicians at the controls for decades, and there has been one crash landing after another. Folks do not think that taking a flier on a new face is much of a risk.
Downtown workers Mary Lou Krajnik and Dolores Gajewski walked past Ellicott Square minutes after Cuomo's endorsement speech.
"We need fresh blood," Krajnik said. "A businessman will take a different look at everything."
Collins taps into the same voter frustration that got ideas-heavy maverick Joel Giambra elected eight years ago, over a supposedly bulletproof Democratic incumbent. And Giambra was a career politician, not -- as Collins is -- a CEO. And as a CEO, Collins embodies to many voters the business growth that holds our hope of revival.
"Businesses are failing," Gajewski said. "Look at the mess we're in. We need change to revitalize the county, the city."
Similar comments echoed throughout this campaign. They relate to the failure of an I Got Mine political culture to adapt, with major reforms, to our steady decline. The lack of government mergers, the rejection of a regional planning board, late starts in downtown housing and waterfront development, high utility costs and taxes -- it largely rests at the feet of the political establishment. The establishment's face, in this race, is Jim Keane.
Political machines are content to deliver jobs and to win elections. But any party machine sputters if it does not react to the larger picture. A failure to reform, to make big changes, to open the door to creative outsiders -- all of it eventually exacts a price at the polls.
Keane, to his credit, hammered away at policy issues in an idea-a-week campaign. But he may be a prisoner of forces larger than his candidacy. Political races boil down to basic images, and the contrast in this race is Career Politician vs. CEO.
Maybe Democrats will "come home" to Keane. His problem is that they left in the first place.