Perspective: ‘Diet Coke’ Democrats not effective?

Perspective: ‘Diet Coke’ Democrats not effective?

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Anthony Portesy

By Anthony R. Portesy

Over the next few months, voters and pundits alike will dissect and pontificate about how Long Island as a region could be a “red den” when voter registration is relatively even — it was 50/50 in 2020 between Biden and Trump — and given Democratic party victories across other states, including Kentucky.

A familiar chorus making the rounds is saying that Democrats running as “GOP-lite” is not an effective strategy. This theory effectively states that if consumers are given a choice between Coke and Diet Coke, they will invariably choose classic Coke — or the Republican candidate — over the Democratic GOP-lite candidate.

There is some curious credence to that theory as we are entering what I call the “voter silo” era of American politics, where the level of cross-pollination — namely voters spreading their ballot choices among Democrats and Republicans, as well as voters crossing party lines — is a rare phenomenon. This makes messaging to voters more complicated.

When I ran for Brookhaven Town highway superintendent in 2017 and 2019, I engaged in guerilla marketing, carrying a piece of asphalt around to depict how grave our infrastructure problem was. It was entertaining in every room I entered.

I would canvass neighborhoods, find the worst road and open my statement with “Who took Chaplin Boulevard here?” or any other road in the area. “Well, I brought a piece of it here with me” to a chorus of laughter. I was able to lower the margins in some districts that were 75% red to 60% red, and in my hometown of Selden, flip districts 70% red to 55% blue.

Guess what? I still lost, both times. Look, my opponent had a ton of money, the Republican and Conservative line, a 12-year political career and the political machine behind him. While the voters we could get our message to were somewhat responsive, it is very hard to get a majority of red voters to cross over unless you have deep ties to the community you seek to represent in elected office.

The only reason I flipped election districts in Selden and Centereach is because I played on the voters’ baseball teams or shoveled their driveways as a kid. Community ties matter.

Long Island as a region certainly has voters that will never leave the GOP silo no matter how much we hammer them on corruption, cronyism, career political careers or any of the other poll-tested modicums of why America hates politicians. But, as one of my mentors and good friends, Rabia Aziz, has told me over and over, “We have to make political campaigns bottom up from the grassroots instead of top down.”

As Democrats, we tend to believe that our ideas will rule the day and that may be true, but at the end of the day, voters want to vote for someone they feel will represent their interests. This starts by identifying the issues that people care about: the disgraced park, the dilapidated shopping center, the broken road, the burnt-out streetlight. That’s local politics. 

U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY) was called “Senator Pothole” because he was known to personally get involved to fix issues in the local community. His successor, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has copied that business model to a tee.

Look, there are a litany of other issues including fusion voting (the practice should be legislatively banned by the state delegation) and money in local politics (some of these career politicians have more money than people running for Congress in other states). But at the end of the day, we have to cultivate community ties. My councilmember, Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), was a school board member and civic leader before becoming councilmember.

As we analyze the results of the election and agonize over how we repair our relationship with the electorate, let’s remember there is no replacement for local community involvement in the very fabric of the issues that affect our neighborhoods.

The writer is the chair of the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee.


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