The North Country Difference

These are polarized times in our country, and it seems like Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on anything anymore. Congress is passing laws at its slowest rate in more than half a century. If you head several hundred miles north from Washington to the 21st congressional district in upstate New York, about which I wrote last month, you will find something different. You will find a congressional district where sensible elected officials-- encouraged by sensible local voters and local political parties--have worked well together for decades. The reason why politics works better there than elsewhere is simple: the district has resisted the efforts of national political parties that have poisoned politics elsewhere.

The 21st congressional district is a beautiful and historic district in upstate New York, one of the largest congressional districts in the country east of the Mississippi. It features places from Glens Falls in the south of the district to Watertown in the west of the district to Plattsburgh (the town where I spent most of my childhood) in the north of the district. In the past few decades, the North Country has emerged as unusual--and unusually appealing--for its combination of voters and officials who have been willing to cross party lines and work together to get things done.

The voters in this district have proven themselves to be different than voters in other districts because of their willingness sometimes to vote for Democratic candidates and sometimes to vote for Republican candidates. Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district, but President Obama won the district twice. This already makes this district unusual. Only a small number of congressional districts with a majority of voters from one party voted twice for the presidential nominee of the other party.

It is not just the voters in this district that have proven willing to cross party lines. It is that their elected officials have acted differently as well. In the small number of other districts where the voters make the district a "swing" district, elected officials do not respond accordingly. Once elected and heading to Washington or to the state legislature, these officials tend to vote according to what their national party demands rather than supporting the cross-party cooperation their constituents prefer.

This has not been the case in the North Country. Consider, for instance, the Republicans elected from this district. Ronald Stafford represented parts of the district as one of the more powerful Republicans in the State Senate for many decades. At the same time as national and even state Republicans demonized government and Democrats who might sometimes support government, Stafford was not afraid to work across the aisle to promote government efforts to help his district. He was partly responsible for environmental protection, disaster relief and tuition assistance programs.

At a time when some Republicans were comparing homosexuality to "man on dog" sex, one city in this district elected New York State's first openly gay mayor--and he was a Republican. Just three years ago, North Country Republicans in the state legislature played a crucial role in supporting New York State's successful effort to recognize gay marriage.

Because of how Republicans from this district behaved, this led Democrats in this district to do some surprising things. My mother has been a loyal and active member of the Democratic Party her entire life. When I was a child growing up in this district, my mother did not hesitate to vote for a local Republican candidate for office (her name was Janet Duprey, and she now sits in the state legislature).

This tradition of Republicans willing to be constructive has been facilitated by a tradition of Democratic officials with the same attitude as well. The current member of Congress, Bill Owens, was elected in a special election in 2009, becoming the first Democrat to represent parts of the district in 164 years. Owens was known before that election for being willing to work with political figures from all perspectives. One newspaper called him a "Non-Democrat." He had been a registered Independent for several decades. He was the shared name partner of a law firm in Plattsburgh with the aforementioned Republican Party giant from the region, Ronald Stafford.

During his five years in office, as his reputation suggested, Owens has proven to be a good Democrat and willing to work with Republicans. In his first day in office, he voted for President Obama's health care law. He strongly supported North Country agriculture. He worked with Republicans to support aggressive military expenditures, another important issue in his district and one that many Democrats felt should lead to conflict rather than compromise with Republicans.

This tradition of sensible voters and sensible elected officials working together has helped the district manage some difficult issues. Agriculture has long been a big part of the local economy--my memories of school bus rides going past North Country farms feels like just yesterday--but needed the progress that state and federal legislation facilitated. One major military installation in the district closed several decades ago and caused initial economic harms for the district. In response, sensible voters and sensible officials working together across party lines brought other economic activity to the district.

If this sounds so desirable--and so different than most of our political life--then what explains the North Country difference? How has this district managed to avoid these deep and fundamental trends that have made our politics elsewhere so corrosive?

The answer, to quote the late Massachusetts Representative and Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill, is that "all politics is local." In the rest of the country, polarization has been fueled by national political party elites and their colonization and polarization of local voters, local political parties, and local officials. In the North Country, by contrast, local politics has remained just that--local.

Consider, first, the voters of the district. In other congressional districts, national political party elites have changed how local voters think about the world. These national parties have convinced conservative voters to become more conservative, more Republican, and less willing to work with--or tolerate--Democratic politicians or even regular citizens who happen to be Democrats. Something similar, although far less intense, has led liberal voters to become more liberal, more Democratic and less willing to work with Republicans.

North Country voters, though, have resisted this trend and maintained their willingness to work across party lines regardless of their own politics. Evidence from this district suggests that voter sentiment is still more cooperative, and has not been moved by national party polarization activists as much as have voters in many other districts. Local voters have insisted on candidates that will get things done in office rather than just complain and criticize.

There are conservative voters, but they do not demonize liberal voters. You will not hear a Republican voter in the district talking about what one Florida Republican said: that President Obama should be hanged. There are liberal voters, but they believe that cooperation with conservatives can sometimes be helpful. In the rest of the country, the opposition is the enemy. In the North Country, the opposition can still be your partner and even your friend.

Local political parties are also a big part of the story. In other districts, national political parties have not just polarized voters, but have also convinced or coerced local parties into nominating more polarized candidates. With their joint success in polarizing voters and polarizing parties, this means that national political parties have done what was needed to create officials that do not want to work together with others and get things done.

National party leaders trying to interfere in what local political parties do have had a notably harder time in the North Country. In the special congressional election of 2009, the locally selected, moderate Republican candidate for Congress Dede Scozzafava was forced from the race because of pressure from national Republicans like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. At a time when the national Republican Party was experiencing its first wave of success in encouraging Tea Party candidates, the national Republican Party failed miserably in its attempt to do this in the North Country.

Local leaders--including local Republican leaders--did not embrace the Tea Party candidate that Limbaugh and Palin preferred as Scozzafava's replacement, Douglas Hoffman. One local Republican leader later said that Hoffman "was clearly ignorant of what was happening on the ground here in the North Country." Hoffman might have been the darling of the Republicans in Washington, but not of the Republicans of the North Country.

Just as the local Republican Party has in the past resisted efforts by the national Republican Party, so too has the local Democratic Party resisted efforts by the national Democratic Party. In 2009, when Owens wanted to be the Democratic nominee for Congress, many national Democrats were uneasy that Owens didn't fit their (national) stereotype of a candidate. He had worked with Republicans throughout his career, and promised to do so again. In other districts, this might have deterred or even prevented the local political party from endorsing Owens.

The local Democratic Party resisted these national pressures and nominated Owens. He won a historic special election victory in 2009. Despite a voting record that didn't always fit what the national Democratic Party wanted, the local Democratic Party re-nominated him without significant challenge in both 2010 and 2012, and he won the general election both times.

Our country feels very bad about its current government. The approval rating for Congress reached single digits late last year. Think about what this means: only 1 out of 12 people you talk to approves of the part of the government that spends several trillion dollars of our money every year. If this is what American democracy is now, then democracy might be necessary but depressing.

Sometimes we need a reason to feel better, and that reason lies in upstate New York. Politics is highly imperfect even there, but politics are better there. The voters, their political parties, and their elected officials have kept politics local, and have made politics work. Politics in Washington might be broken, but politics in the North Country are not, and our country might learn from that.

David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School