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COMMENTARY

License plate melee shows New York missed the mark — in multiple ways

New York has a new license plate. Do you love it, hate it or feel something in-between? Are you glad for the Upstate elements? Do you prefer traditional colors? Share your thoughts as a comment below or email Sean Kirst at skirst@buffnews.com.

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Sometimes things work out. I went searching a few days ago for one driver who might epitomize why so many people still use the old white general issue New York license plates the state stopped making about 10 years ago, the ones at the center of a roiling political dispute.

By luck or fate, Ted Kirkland was the guy.

He had a car with a beautiful set of the old plates on the lift Thursday at Ben's Discount Tire in Buffalo, plates carrying images of the Statue of Liberty, rolling mountains and Niagara Falls, the only time in state history Niagara received that kind of play until the state unveiled its latest plate the other day.

At 85, Kirkland is a grandfather, a retired police officer and widely known as an author, columnist and civic activist. While I told him I use the old plates on a car because I like to see the falls, he explained he did not make the decision out of regional loyalty, or even because he liked them better than the gold ones in use for 10 years or so.

The car, a 2002 Lexus, belonged to his wife of 61 years, Winona. She took magnificent care of it until she died last year at 82, her life claimed by a blood clot while with her mother, Brunette Washington, now 105.

"She was with the same woman when she came in and when she went out," Kirkland said of his wife.

He considered selling the car, he said, "but something always tells me not to do it." To him, it evokes the presence he misses from the instant he wakes up every morning. For years, if he saw a similar vehicle near their home, he could tell what really mattered by glancing at the plates:

New York CHY 1575, on a white backdrop.

In a sense, that spelled Winona. While Kirkland said he has barely followed the larger debate, the plates are a reminder of the woman at the core of his life since they met in 1951.

Unless he had no choice, why change them now?

That was the tale I needed to hear, a frame for license plates built on heart and soul.

The state announced its new plate Friday, selected by open polling. Centered around the state motto of "Excelsior," or ever upward, it again has a white backdrop, this time with even tinier make-you-squint images of Liberty, the New York skyline and a waterfall that is most likely Niagara, though if so a generic one, set against trees and mountains apparently intended to represent a larger Upstate landscape.

Maybe it is the beginning of an end to the uproar touched off last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s decision to hold a statewide vote for a new plate. That original notion mandated replacing all plates 10 years or older, and many New Yorkers saw the subsequent $25 fee as an out-of-the-blue tax.

Ted Kirkland with the car driven for years by his late wife, Winona, on Friday at Ben's Discount Tire. The old New York plates are in beautiful condition. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The other rumble was unhappiness with the plates themselves. The five new possibilities included the plate eventually selected, joined by three variations on Liberty. The fifth, of a catchier sky blue, featured the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge over the Hudson – leading some bemused observers, such as statistician Nate Silver, to suggest the governor was stacking the deck to win the thing for his dad, a contention rejected by the DMV.

While much of the subsequent pushback was Republican, it also crossed into Cuomo’s Democratic Party. Accusations of a "money grab," triggered hot denials from Cuomo and state motor vehicles commissioner Mark Schroeder, who might have reasonably believed 10 months ago that serving as boss of the DMV would be quieter than banging heads as comptroller at Buffalo City Hall.

Officials within motor vehicles now speak of working with the Legislature on a plan in which drivers with older plates could hang onto ones in good condition. And Cuomo and Schroeder are both challenging legislators, if they are unhappy, to lower the baseline cost set 10 years ago for new plates.

[RELATED: Amid fee controversy, New Yorkers select a new license plate design]

Even amid a world of concerns of greater magnitude, there is a lesson worth remembering in what went missing in all of this – a vivid awareness of how license plates, in function and endurance, are one of those rare government mandates that represent an actual object present throughout our lives, and thus touch off widespread reaction.

It is why people stick them on garage walls, or hang them in the basement, or pay extra to have them personalized. As underlined by Ted Kirkland's gentle reflections, we can often track family milestones by periods marked or captured by the plates.

Once you concede that kind of touchstone resonance, it leads to a simple question:

Why do we repeatedly do backwards what ought to be so easy?

How different would all of this have been if the governor had simply started off with a thesis readily evident any time you drive down the street, a reality true for many New Yorkers – including me?

Why not simply make the nuanced point that many but not all of the plates from the 2000s – plates potentially on the road now for up to 18 years – had become so tattered or peeling it is hard for a casual onlooker to pick out the numbers, much less for specialized cameras?

The reasonable upshot – the direction in which the DMV is now moving – would be finding some way to fairly rule on that condition, so the state would not arbitrarily wrest away plates in good shape that retain meaning for many people.

And maybe, for those whose plates are so beaten and pockmarked it is simply time to switch, the opposition would not be so adamant if the choice involved, say, the most beautiful plates in state history.

This is what makes the process so puzzling. This is a governor who so often seems to love start-from-scratch design competitions, as evidenced multiple times, such as in the high-profile contest to come up with potential visions for the Skyway.

New York's new license plate. (State image)

It is baffling why he did not do the same for license plates. New York serves as a global center for the arts, a state with a treasury of brilliant artists and designers. Instead of offering this peculiar sampling of new plates designed in what many of us hardly saw as a visionary way, why not make the design itself an open competition?

The state could have set whatever technical criteria it needed, then created a jury mixing designers with everyday people throughout New York, while offering some award of meaning.

The result might have been something of beauty and surprise, which is not exactly the feeling as we stagger out of this whole melee.

How appropriate would it be to see New York, typically listed near the bottom in casual rankings for the nation’s most compelling plates, providing something motorists might be inspired to use, a chance to rival the striking designs used by, say, New Mexico or South Carolina – rather than seeing the entire deal as fang-and-claw politics, as usual?

As for Ted Kirkland, he uses the word "sentimentality" in explaining why he keeps Winona's plates as they are, a response that in some way speaks for a lot of us. A wistful suggestion, then, for every budding state leader who will face this process the next time around, an inevitability that does not need to descend into a brawl.

If you want a model for "excelsior," try CHY 1575.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive. 

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