As I peruse the national news every day, dominated as it is by an extraordinarily divisive presidential campaign, I gaze out my window at Borough Hall and say a prayer of thanks that I’m here instead of the nation’s capital.
I’ve always been a city government guy, one who likes to focus on the hyperlocal concerns of the Staten Island community. My colleagues from the other boroughs were incredulous when I told them I wouldn’t run for an open congressional seat that I was likely to win; I simply explained that I didn’t want to work in such a divisive environment, and I prefer to wrestle with the issues that only city officials deal with.
I am proud to say that Staten Island is home to New York City’s only thriving two-party system. Obviously, this is not the only thing that differentiates us from our sister boroughs; I have said on more than one occasion, including last year’s introduction to the City & State Staten Island issue, that we have more in common with the rest of the country than we do with the thriving metropolis we call the Big Apple.
I like to think we provide a kind of counterbalance, an offset to the pace of the rest of the city. I like to think residents from other boroughs can look over to our diminutive corner of the coast and see a little less urban tension and a little more of that other America: our tallest buildings are too small to be measured by Manhattan standards; because we have little choice, a car culture dominates our transportation system; and the bulk of the borough is a bedroom community. Yet despite these differences we’re still part of their metropolis.
Interestingly, were Staten Island to separate from New York City, we’d be the second-largest city in New York state by far, and larger than the largest city in 13 of the 50 states – but as the smallest borough, we represent less than 6 percent of the city’s total population.
And there’s something else that can be seen here if you look hard enough: Republican and Democratic elected officials working together to get things done for all Staten Islanders. Here, a rope is used not for a tug-of-war, but as a lasso that binds us together for the good of the borough. Let me put it succinctly: Washington, D.C., we ain’t.
Despite a Democratic edge in voter registration, we are a borough of ticket-splitters not afraid to cross party lines. Our Republican state Senator works hand-in-glove with one of our Democratic Assemblymen. We have, both currently and historically, two Republican City Council members and one Democrat, all three of whom often present a borough-united front because they recognize that a rising Staten Island tide lifts all boats, that what’s good for one district is good for the others. I am, of course, a Republican, but one of my most steadfast allies in promoting and defending Staten Island is a female state Senator – to say she is a “staunch” Democrat is putting it mildly – and you will not easily find two more tenacious and hard-headed individuals.
I’ve ruminated long and hard about this, and I’ve come up with a theory: The majority of Staten Island voters believe that Tip O’Neill was right – all politics is local. We seem to avoid nationalizing the election of local officials, opting instead to vote for the man or woman who either gets the job done, or convinces us that they can.
Those unfamiliar with the real Staten Island, those who employ ignorant stereotypes, don’t really know us at all. We’ve developed a reputation as a Republican bastion – and it is true that Republicans have a much greater influence on our civic life than in the other boroughs. But we are far from monolithic, and we have members of both parties serving proudly, working together, and striving to bring a better life to all of Staten Island’s diverse population.
Isn’t this a good thing? Aren’t we a shining example of inclusion and how the betterment of all citizens trumps adherence to strict party dogma? It is healthy to have Republican and Democrat elected officials working together to solve problems. It is the way it is supposed to be. It is a model for the rest of the city and the nation, and illustrates to officeholders of both parties what can be accomplished through cooperation rather than “gotcha” politics.
Like any community, we have our problems. But I am justly proud of our political culture, one in which ability and experience determine election results, not the name of a party on the top of Column A or Column B.
James Oddo is the borough president of Staten Island.