Erie at Large: Endurance Is More Important Than Truth
How the voice of reason is often lost within the din of extremism
Charles Bukowski taught us that endurance was more important than truth. He applied it to many things: writing, romance, drinking ... but it seems to hold a particular significance in our current political moment as good people, who entered into the sphere for all the right reasons, now resign in protest, sacrificing their commitment and their convictions in an attempt to preserve what they see as the truth of the matter.
Quitting in protest seems to be a more common trend than I remember.
As a kid, I remember other kids quitting the baseball or football team because they didn't get to play the position they wanted or they didn't get the playing time they thought they deserved. I'm not sure I look back on those folks any differently today than I did then. It was mostly a result of immaturity and poor parenting. I remember thinking then as I do now, "How do you get the position you want or the playing time you think you deserve if you don't stay in the game?"
I guess politics is, or should be, a different animal. It's not a game — although it's full of adults who like to play them — and the stakes are usually higher than who's on second base or who's getting the ball inside the red zone.
This year alone we've seen good people — intelligent people who entered the political fray for all the right reasons — walk away from their elected or appointed positions in protest of problems with the process of government and what they believed the long-term impact of those problems would be.
Most recently, Erie County Councilwoman Mary Rennie announced on July 24 that she decided not to continue her re-election efforts, removed herself from the November ballot, and walked away from her seat on the county's most important elected body.
"It has been observed many times that county government over the past 40+ years may not have always been pretty or perfect, but officials always came together in the end to do what was right and to protect the public interest," Rennie wrote in her resignation letter. "I don't believe the same can be said today."
She argues that the processes of county government have been "compromised and destabilized to such a degree in less than two short years [since Brenton Davis took office] that any end product will never make up for the damage done. In the final analysis, the actions of the majority of County Council do not represent me or my values."
But now she's gone and her values — and those of her constituents — have no voice in the conversation.
A month before Rennie's resignation, three members of the all-volunteer Blasco Library Advisory Board resigned in protest of the removal of a Pride month display in the children's section of the library.
The Davis administration demanded the display be "removed or relocated," according to a report by the Erie Times-News, and the library's director, Karen Pierce, complied. The advisory board was not consulted on the status of the display, and when it attempted to call an emergency meeting, its attempts were rebuffed.
Former County Councilwoman Rennie, who formerly served as executive director of the Erie County Library prior to her retirement and election to County Council, told the Times-News that she was concerned the library staff worried about retribution from the administration if they pushed back on, or spoke out about, the decision to remove the display.
"They shouldn't have to feel afraid to lose their jobs simply because they speak to someone, especially myself," Rennie told the Times-News. "I'm horribly offended that I have different people who work in the county who tell me they're not allowed to speak to me. What year are we living in?"
These are just two recent — and not disconnected — high-profile resignations in a series of resignations from city government and borough councils to advisory boards and authorities where quality individuals — whether elected by the voters in their district or appointed by municipal bodies with the power to do so — feel compelled to walk away from the problems they face instead of staying to right the wrongs they've encountered.
And while it may feel like a new problem to us, it's not a 21st century convention. Indeed, the New York Times asked in 1974: "Resignation in Protest: Is It Meaningful?"
The conclusion: maybe.
Bureaucrats used to see resigning in protest as a way to stifle the blind loyalty to one-man rule, particularly a powerful president or cabinet secretary. But that was an age of more reason and a more balanced government. A well-timed resignation of a respected public servant could, perhaps, have a chilling effect on the momentum of sometimes myopic and often power-hungry political climbers.
Today, while the spirit remains the same, the political sphere is one of extremists. And the more extreme the membership of a political body, or the more ideologically extreme the tendencies of a political leader, the more endurance they seem to have. The moderate factions of an institution are the people more likely to walk away in protest.
That was the conclusion of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which published a report on the subject in April 2020.
"Those most likely to quit are a range of moderate bureaucrats," the report concludes.
Extremists, the authors argue, are more likely to wait out a president or policymaker of another ideological faction than are their moderate counterparts in an attempt to advance policy based on their own belief. While the NBER report is focused on presidential politics, we watch their study play out at home. All politics is local, after all.
With Rennie and the advisory board members now gone, the future of these bodies sits in the hands of an extremist four-person majority on Erie County Council. The moderate voices of reason are gone and with them goes the fight for truth.
We need good people in government. We need people who can and will endure.
There is, after all, no better prescription for the extremism of an institution than resistance from within.
Jim Wertz is a contributing editor and Chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. He can be reached at jWertz@eriedems.com and you can follow him on Twitter (or whatever its called) @jim_wertz