Friday, December 16, 2005

Pop Mannion's Last Hurrah

This is part two. Part one is here.

One day, when my father was still relatively new on the job as town supervisor, he and I were talking about what he hoped to accomplish and there was a point when he was explaining to me why he was thinking about running for the State Senate when his eyes lit up and a sly smile spread across his face, and I swear, at that moment, although probably just for that moment, my father saw his path clear to the Governorship.

If I asked him about this now, he probably wouldn't believe it of himself. He was a practical-minded politician and he knew that no upstate New York Democrat, especially one from a small suburban town, stood a chance of becoming Governor then, and none stands a chance now. Couldn't get past any rivals from New York City in a primary. But for that second, I swear my father had big dreams.

Maybe those were my dreams I saw. Maybe what I saw was that my father had it in him to be governor, like his hero, FDR. Lots of kids think their fathers are great men. I think that might have been the moment when I realized that my father really was one.

Shortly after he gave up being town supervisor, my father ran for one more office, a seat on the county legislature. He lost and at that point I think he believed he was done with politics.

But as I wrote this morning, even while he was the lone Democrat on the town board the town was changing. More and more Democrats were appearing on the voting rolls along with more and more independents who were in inclination and practice more Democratic than Republican. Eight years after my dad left office, the town elected not one, not two, but three Democrats---a new supervisor and two council members. And one of the two Republicans was a fairly liberal Republican of the type that used to be called Rockefeller Republicans and which Republicans now call Democrats.

But town supervisor was a part-time job---my father was a college professor while he served. The new supervisor was an executive at some national company and shortly after he was sworn in he was promoted and transfered. This meant that a new supervisor had to be appointed to fill out his term.

I don't know whose idea it was. I half-believe it was that Rockefeller Republican's, but probably not, it was probably some Democrat. Whoever it was, they said, "We should get someone with experience. Someone who can just step in and do the job. I know! Let's ask Lance Mannion."

You didn't know I'm Lance Mannion, Jr., did you?

First commenter who starts addressing me as Junior gets banned.

Come to think of it, must have been a Democrat who thought of it because I think the real reason for asking my father to come back was to have his name at the top of the ticket in the next election. The reason I want to believe it was that Rockefeller Republican's idea is that in his second tenure in office she was one of his best allies on the board, more reliable and trustworthy than at least one of the other Democrats.

So Pop Mannion was back, and with not just a Democratic majority to work with, with a liberalish Republican ally too.

Time to get to work!

They didn't go on a spending toot. These were post-Jimmy Carter Democrats. Pretty soon they would be Bill Clinton Democrats. They were fiscally more conservative than Democrats were usually thought to be. Democrats have always been pretty fiscally conservative. That is, they've been responsible. When Republicans sneer at tax and spend Democrats they are admitting to a truth. Democrats know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Bills have to be paid. My father has always believed this. One of the things he likes about Howard Dean is that Dean likes to say something my father used to say himself before he ever heard of Dean, "Republicans can't be trusted with money."

But the Democrats did spend some money. Under my father's leadership they built a big new park, they improved the old ones, they built new Little League and soccer fields. They undertook many new projects, all the while holding the line on taxes. Some years the taxes had to go up. Some years they came down. (I'm sure it's just a coincidence that those years they went down were election years. The important thing to remember is that they didn't just go down for the sake of going down; they went down when the town could afford to let them go down. I doubt George Bush is reading this. Too bad.) My father wrote all the budgets, which were required by state law to balance, so the trick wasn't making them balance. The trick was finding ways of paying for everything without sending taxes through the roof. He was lucky. Ours is a prosperous town and it was expanding. But he was also very smart.

And he saw that the town had the money to do what he'd dreamed of doing since that summer night when he was a very young man and, driving his wife and small children on a long explore around Cape Cod, he blundered into Chatham and saw maybe a thousand people gathered on the village green around a whitewashed bandstand listening to a brass band play to the stars.

He wanted our town to have a town square, with a bandstand, and he wanted it to be in front of a new town hall.

The town had outgrown the old one long ago. The police department and town court were crammed in the basement. The town offices had become very large file cabinets in which people did business around and between and on top of stacks and stacks of bankers boxes. There weren't enough lines for the phones. There were no spaces for the new computers. A new town hall had to be built.

Convincing voters to spend money to house politicians and bureaucrats isn't easy.

And my father didn't want to build just a bigger box in which to store the bureaucracy.

I suppose all politicians dream of building lasting monuments to themselves, and my father's no exception. That kind of vanity and ego is very human, understandable, forgiveable, to a degree, and in a way even admirable. But my dad wanted to do more with his town hall than make it the house that Pop Mannion built. He wanted it to be a monument not to himself but to Thomas Jefferson. He wanted it to be something that wouldn't look out of place on the Grounds of the University of Virginia or even next to Monticello itself. He wanted a building that would make the people of our town proud not just of it but of themselves for having built it. He wanted a building that was Jeffersonian not only in its aesthetic appeal but in its spirit. He wanted a town hall that made people remember they live in a democracy and glad that they do.

Look around. Do you see many government buildings that look like that anymore? Most of them are as blocky as a Home Depot and have less ornamentation.

That's because most of them are built on the cheap.

Like too much of everything in the country these days.

My dad wanted to build a beautiful town hall, and beauty costs money, and that made his new town hall a tough sell, even to some of his fellow Democrats on the town board, one of whom told the newspapers that as far as she was concerned the town could operate out of a quonset hut.

<>But he persuaded them and then he persuaded the town to vote for building it by persuading them that he could pay for it without raising taxes.

Compromises had to be made. Corners cut. Luxuries sacrificed, and even a few necessities. But he got it built. Jefferson would have done better himself, but I think he'd have appreciated the effort.

Around the same time, the county was looking to build a new branch library. The town gave them a plot of land across the street from the new town hall. The high school was already up there, and there were a few businesses. More have been built, and there are more houses nearby. A true village center hasn't ever truly coalesced, but there's a real, livable, walkable, bikable neighborhood there, and on summer nights you can find maybe a thousand people gathered around a whitewashed bandstand on the town lawn, listening to a band playing to the stars.

Of all the disappointments he had in his political career, not counting the elections he lost, I think the one that still pangs my dad the most was that he only had two years to enjoy in the new town hall.

My father won re-election the November after the town hall opened, so at first glance you wouldn't have said that voters were dissatistified with either the building itself or with the cost of building the building itself. But his margin of victory was only a little more than half of what it had been the election before, and the two Democratic candidates for town board running with him lost.

There were plenty of people in the town who thought that the town hall ought to have cost even less, that my father had been somehow high-handed, or even underhanded, in how he'd gone about getting it built, and that in having arranged for the taxpayers to build him a large, "opulent" "castle" to work in---people called it things like Mannion's Mansion---revealed an unattractive, even un-Democratic side of his character. In the next election, his opponet ran on a platform that was essentially King Mannion is spending your money like water and he's old and he's past it to boot.

My father helped make the case for the old and past it part by having a heart attack one day while he was out canvassing for votes.

It was a mild heart attack. He didn't even know what was happening and kept ringing doorbells, thinking he was just coming down with the flu or something. But I don't imagine it won him many votes that day, showing up on people's doorsteps, looking like death warmed over.

He quit early and after a trip to the doctor cut back on his campaigning.

He didn't tell anyone what the doctor said. But who knows if the news got around somehow anyway.

Who knows if it mattered one way or the other.

He lost by 400 votes.

That's a swing of over a thousand votes in two years. A thousand out of about 7500.

End of part two.


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