There is a disconnection between the governing political class and average citizens. In our own neighborhood, the divergent priorities of organizations such the Juniper Park Civic Association and politicians such as Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley are indicative of this unfortunate development in American society.

In the early 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States analyzing its peculiarities and differences with aristocratic Europe. Tocqueville published his analysis, which became the classic Democracy in America. Tocqueville describes how voluntary citizen organizations were at the heart of the American experiment – “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations.”  Unfortunately, in many ways civic organizations do not have the influence they once held. 

In the past elite citizens of the United States had to interact with the average citizen if the ambitious were to succeed in their goals. As the eminent Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol explained, the biographies of historic figures show “memberships and officerships in a wide array of the same fraternal, veterans’, women’s, and civic associations that also involved millions of non-elite citizens. To get ahead within associations, ambitious men and women had to express and act on values and activities shared with people of diverse occupational backgrounds.” [1] Unfortunately the same cannot be said about today’s elite.

A Disconnected Councilwoman
This problem is reflected in the way Councilwoman Crowley addresses the concerns of the Juniper Park Civic Association. For example, Christina Wilkinson, who wrote an excellent piece in the June/July 2012 Juniper Berry, described “How Liz Crowley killed St. Saviors Park and hopes you’ll forget about it.” It is telling that Ms. Wilkinson worked with Councilwoman Crowley for two years on saving the historic St. Saviour’s land and creating a park on the property. Ms. Wilkinson determined that Councilwoman Crowley’s office posited an “obvious lie” about money available for St. Saviour’s and then severely mismanaged negotiations with the Park’s Department resulting in the Department permanently tabling the issue. What did Maspeth get instead of a park? – Four warehouses and the very overdevelopment we elect our representatives to prevent.

You may remember that Councilwoman Crowley co-sponsored the recently passed legislation, Introduction 656, which reduced cooperation between the Department of Corrections and Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents. To summarize, when an illegal alien is arrested for a crime he or she will no longer be turned over to ICE agents to begin deportation proceedings.  Democratic Councilman Peter Vallone opposed the law saying, “As a former prosecutor, I can tell you that many dangerous criminals who have recently snuck into our country have no criminal record. This policy will only succeed in making our streets more dangerous.”

However, it is not just the bad policy which should concern us. It is the surprise by Councilwoman Crowley’s staff at the opposition to the bill. When Lydon Sleeper, Chief of Staff to Councilwoman Crowley, spoke with JPCA’s President Bob Holden about Introduction 656, Mr. Sleeper was genuinely surprised that Mr. Holden and the JPCA opposed the bill so strongly. Mr. Sleeper assured Mr. Holden that at least some members of the JPCA would support the bill. Of course the JPCA fiercely opposed Introduction 656 and featured the article I wrote about the measure on the December 2011 cover of the Juniper Berry.  According to The Forum, the crowd at the Juniper Park Civic Association was “resounding” in their opposition to the idea that illegal immigrants, who had committed a crime in addition to their illegal status, would no longer be turned over to ICE agents. [2]

A lack of empathy
In both the St. Saviour’s issue and the co-sponsoring of Introduction 656, the problems with our local officials go beyond a disagreement over policy. There is a lack of empathy towards the priorities of organizations such as the Juniper Park Civic and all those citizens who are members of the Civic and support it with their money, time and efforts.   
In the case of St. Saviour’s a well-meaning citizen who tried to prevent overdevelopment and create a park came away distraught about the councilperson who represents them. In the case of Introduction 656, Councilwoman Crowley co-sponsored a bill and was surprised at her constituents’ reaction!

We should be clear about the problem – it is not that elected politicians propose measures and take actions which are unpopular with the majority of their constituents. This will naturally happen from time to time.  In the first instance, the problem is that Councilwoman Crowley does not place the same value on preserving neighborhood landmarks such as St. Saviour’s Church and preventing overdevelopment as her constituents do.  In regards to Introduction 656, Councilwoman Crowley does not place the same value on preserving the rule of law as her constituents do. 

For many leaders, arguments over the sanctity of historic places and the rule of law are from a bygone era which has no relevance to the problems facing our nation today. For many average citizens, it is the disparagement of such values and so many others, which are at the heart of our nation’s problems.

Civic associations were once the bedrock of American society.  It was not that everyone in the United States was equal, but the elite and non-elite shared the same values and interacted with each other on a regular basis.  It would be wise of us to return to the days of our founders where our leaders had to interact with local civic associations in order to succeed. A condemnation from civic organizations should be a death sentence for one’s political career. There are many special interest groups who support candidates. However, a civic is the only interest group made up of your neighbors whose only goal is improving the neighborhood.  

The Juniper Park Civic and all those like it deserve our fullest support.
[1] Murray, Charles, Coming Apart, (New York: Crown Forum, 2012)
[2] Dobruck, Jeremiah, “Immigration Bill Stirs Debate at JPCA Meeting.” 
The Forum, November 3, 2011