When All Politics Was Truly Local
And why that made politics not only more fun, but made for better government
It may seem hard to believe, but politics were once truly local. A Congressional candidate was nominated by his party only after he had already served his community, usually in local and state offices, where his character and his abilities had been given a chance to reveal themselves.
The erosion of locally-rooted politics has been attributed to the nationalization of congressional races by Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in 1994, to the proliferation of politicized and polarizing radio shows and television networks and to the tides of money from lobbyists and corporations flowing into local races.
Once, even national elections were local, as Harry McDougal, the Republican leader of Essex County for decades, recalled in an interview in the 1960s.
“I remember the old hot campaigns, like the one for Benjamin Harrison when I was a little fellow – the banners across Court Street, the bonfires, the parades, the fistfights, even. Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge used to come up here, but nobody bothers with us anymore,” McDougal said.
Few people remember Harry McDougal today; I doubt this year’s two major party Congressional candidates, both of whom claim Essex County as their homes, have ever heard of him. But in his day, he was local politics personified.
“He loved his country; he loved his state. But most of all he loved his county and the people who lived in it,” my father, Robert F. Hall, wrote in a tribute to McDougal in 1972, the year he died.
McDougal was born in Elizabethtown in 1883. After he married in 1910, he built a house across the road from the family homestead, where he spent the rest of his life. That same year, he and his brother opened a store. But politics, not business, was his true calling.
He entered politics at the age of 21, serving as Elizabethtown’s auditor, Republican town committeeman, Republican county chairman, town supervisor, and, for nearly forty years, the Essex County Clerk.
He was also a Kiwanian, a Mason, Master of the Grange, an Elk and president of the Dairymen’s League.
“I guess I was in everything going,” he once said.
Although he rarely if ever traveled to Albany, he had more influence in the state capitol than any lobbyist has today.
Prior to the reapportionment cases of the 1960s, every county in the state had its own assemblyman (the sole exception being, I believe, Hamilton County), which gave the county chairmen the power to pick the candidates. And in a one-party county like Essex County, the power to pick the next assemblyman. When it came time to choose a candidate for the State Senate, the chairman would meet with a few others, such as Warren County’s Earl Vetter, and the next State Senator was chosen.
“He used his influence in Albany to get special benefits for the people of Essex County, not himself,” my father wrote in his tribute.
And while it might not have appeared so on an organizational chart, the local folks had more influence, collectively, than McDougal himself had as an individual. He was their spokesman, not their boss.
“As county Republican chairman, he felt the need to maintain close contact with the party workers and the people. He spent an evening every week at Burpee’s store in Lewis, reminiscing with his old cronies but more importantly listening to complaints or problems about local government,” my father wrote.
McDougal also used his influence locally, playing a crucial role in the creation of Elizabethtown’s hospital and the Adirondack Center Museum.
It’s also important to note that he was a Republican by inheritance and perhaps by disposition, but not by an attachment to a rigid creed.
“He imbibed his Republicanism from the apple cider pressed from apples in his orchard,” my father put it somewhat colorfully.
His Republican party was the party of Lincoln.
“His father was a soldier in the Union Army and made Abe Lincoln’s name a household word. Harry often spoke with respect for his great uncle, Milo Durand, who operated a station on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada,” my father wrote.
As a county chairman, McDougal naturally prized party loyalty. Although he considered himself a Rockefeller Republican, he still voted for Goldwater and Nixon, and expected his fellow Essex County Republicans to do the same. That’s because loyalty creates unity, unity cohesion, and cohesion, community.
If McDougal lamented the passing of party unity, it was because he foresaw the passing of the community he had known his entire life.
“Republicanism is in the blood up here. But things change, the blood changes. Nowadays, politics comes out of the TV set – just so much toothpaste. People switch their loyalties now. It was all more fun in the old days,” he said.
Good politicians tend to love politics for their own sake and not just for the good things politics can achieve.
McDougal was one of those. Richard Lawrence, the first Adirondack Park Agency chairman and an ally of McDougal’s (and, with State Senator Ron Stafford and former State Senator Eustis Paine, one of the pall bearers at his funeral), once told me that McDougal enjoyed attending the annual town meetings across Lake Champlain in Vermont, just to listen and watch.
That love of politics makes good politicians shrewd observers of political life. The best of them are lovers of gossip, data banks of information about the composition of every voting district in their constituencies and full of sharp insights about the personalities of their colleagues and rivals.
And as observers, as well as practitioners, the best politicians also tend to be good judges of character. Especially of people they’ve seen around and about the county, in every variety of circumstance, for decades.
I suppose it goes without saying that we will never see the likes of Harry McDougal in our lifetimes, or any candidates who had matured under the tutelage of a McDougal. At the very least, that should be cause for regret.