WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — February 4, 2020 — One of the most attractive things about the politics of Albany is the vast infrastructure of individual citizens and organizations battling for what they think is right. Spend some time at the Capitol on a Tuesday when thousands of real people show up to make sure that legislators hear them and act accordingly. It’s wonderful.
Union members, enviros, animal rights activists, organized religious believers, political party members, racial, gender and ethnic advocates, you name them, flow through the Capitol. If you believe in democracy, it’s a grand thing and counteracts the cynicism that often reigns in the halls of power.
And there’s nothing new about it. Albany’s tradition of citizen activism has a history worth recognizing. I had occasion recently to review documents connected to Gov. Thomas Dewey’s decision, in 1947, to sign a bill requiring a nonparty candidate to get permission to run in a primary election (otherwise know as the Wilson Pakula law). This included a letter from a group called the League of Women Shoppers. They wanted Dewey to veto the bill on the grounds that it would have given party bosses power over the rights of voters to select their primary candidate of choice.
That stopped me cold. I’m familiar with the League of Women Voters. But the League of Women Shoppers was a new one. A little internet research paid off. It turns out that from around 1935 to 1948, the League of Women Shoppers was a well-known if controversial group of prominent women who organized in support of workers involved in strikes and other labor disputes. The theory was that women, in their role as shoppers, could affect employer policies by choosing to spend their money only in labor-friendly establishments. There were about 25,000 members and their leadership and sponsors included such names as Margaret Bourke-White, Mrs. Ira Gershwin, Mrs. Stephen Wise, Mrs. Boris Karloff and Mrs. Carl Sandburg, among others.
The league was red-baited out of existence as part of the McCarthyite reaction to left-wing and labor activism. But its name, purposes, and actions are a grand reminder of the concerns and inventiveness of regular people and their capacity to have an impact on public life.
It’s worth worrying about the health and survival of such activities. Social media has transformed political campaigning and lobbying, especially in creating a generational divide. If citizen lobbying is transformed to remote interaction by younger Twitterists, we lose the human impact of face-to-face conversation. I remember vividly the impact of explaining my opposition to the death penalty to victims’ families, or listening respectfully to the families of disabled kids as they told their stories. Public service without these interactions would be dry and isolated.
Dewey didn’t take the advice offered by the League of Women Shoppers. He signed the bill, which to this day governs primary elections. Nonetheless, we all have a debt to the league and to those who stand in their shoes today. The issues have changed, but the need for an engaged citizenry has never been greater.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on February 2, 2020.