3 Reasons Why Amtrak Should Not Rename Rochester’s Train Station after Louise Slaughter

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Many who met her say she seemed like a nice lady, but should Amtrak rename the Rochester train station after Louise Slaughter? To best answer this question, we should consider her legacy, a legacy long forgotten but memorialized in a book written nearly three decades ago. Here’s what made me remember it:

About a year ago, Ted Benna went over the beginnings of the 401k with me. The interview was for part of a series of articles that would eventually be published in several national media outlets. You might not recognize the name “Ted Benna” but you should. Chances are he changed your life and the lives of many of your neighbors. He was the man who discovered and created the world’s first 401k account. Well, he didn’t exactly do it alone.

Ted Benna’s discovery of the true significance of section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code required confirmation. As he retold the story of the very beginning, he read through the litany of executive branch policymakers who helped pave the wave for Benna and his coworkers. They represented familiar figures from the Reagan administration.

But Benna said the seeds for his discovery were sown years before when Congress amended the U.S. Tax Code in 1978. He mentioned many names, quite a few who I remembered. I listened and let him talk uninterrupted. Until he said one congressman in particular offered the key piece to this 1978 legislation. His name was Barber Conable.

“Barber Conable?” I asked in shocked disbelief. “You mean the same mild-mannered congressman who was born in Warsaw, New York and served Rochester and Western New York for nearly two decades? You mean the Barber Conable who was once voted by his peers as the ‘most respected’ member of Congress? You mean the same Barber Conable who never accepted personal contributions larger than $50 and who put his country above partisan divide by renouncing his party’s sitting president in the midst of the scandal of Watergate? Barber Conable was once my congressman! I met Barber Conable on several occasions. He seemed like a nice guy.”

Today, look at those around you. Do you think they know who Barber Conable was? (We’ve already established they probably don’t know who Ted Benna is, but that’s more forgivable. He’s from Pennsylvania right outside of Philadelphia.)

This is a shame. Barber Conable wasn’t merely a congressman who authored life-changing legislation, he was an Eagle Scout who graduated from Cornell University, fought as a Marine in the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, went back and earned a law degree from Cornell before re-enlisting to fight in the Korean War. Besides that, he was a full-blooded Western New Yorker. He was born here and lived here his entire life. You can’t show a more impressive resume than that.

And what did it get him? A meager 16-line biography in Wikipedia. People, this is the former President of the World Bank we’re talking about! (President Reagan appointed him to that role after he retired from the House in 1984.

Fred J. Eckert modeled his campaign for congress after the retiring Barber Conable. Eckert, the former Ambassador to Fiji, was well respected in diplomatic circles. The April 14, 1984 Fiji Sun reported Eckert “has done more than any previous American Ambassador to bring our two countries closer together.” Eckert easily won election to Conable’s vacated seat. I met him on several occasions. He seemed like a nice guy.

While Eckert was an early and ardent supporter of President Reagan, he was hardly viewed by his contemporaries as a Republican partisan. Indeed, in the first act of his political career, he took on the party establishment of his hometown of Greece, handily winning the Town Supervisor’s race first in the Republican primary, and again in the general election against the “independent” slate of those same establishment Republicans.

In two significant areas, Eckert’s views presaged today’s top political issues. He broke from Reagan on the issue of amnesty for illegal aliens when the President signed the 1986 Simpson-Missoula amnesty immigration reform bill. Eckert felt the bill set a poor precedent by rewarding those who broke the law. In an eerie foreshadowing to current events, Eckert was castigated in the May 8, 1986 Times-Union for saying international terrorists should be treated as enemy combatants, not ordinary criminals. Most impressively, though, Eckert had earned the ultimate trophy when it came to representing his constituents. Reader’s Digest named him “a legislator who had the courage to say no to special interests.”

Three material facts left Eckert vulnerable when it came for him to run for re-election. First, intra-party fighting, not just with the Greece Republican party (he defeated Donald Riley in the 1984 primary) but due to Eckert’s “outsider” image, left him with a less than solid party backing.

Second, as profiled in the 1989 book Political Ambition: Who Decides to Run for Congress (by Linda L. Fowler and Robert D. McClure, Yale University Press), by 1986 congressional races had become too expensive for their own districts to support. Both Eckert and his opponent required national party PAC money to win. With the Republicans needing everything possible to hold their Senate majority (they didn’t), there was no money for Eckert. On the local level, the Republicans decided to put all their money in the State Senate race, figuring Eckert could win on his own. On the other hand, his opponent received plenty of outside money as the Democrats targeted his district.

Finally, times had changed. Eckert didn’t. In retrospect, this shows you how devastatingly evil politics can be. Conable offered a model of the quiet campaigner which Eckert sought to exemplify. His opponent, fueled by partisan money, fought an aggressively negative campaign. For example, as described in Political Ambition, Eckert’s challenger, a member of the majority New York State Assembly, made the following argument: “In four years as a state legislator, she had been instrumental in enacting 112 pieces of legislation, while over the course of an entire term Eckert had not a single bill to his credit and had sponsored only three. ‘The score, sports fans,’ [his opponent] would say triumphantly, ‘is 112 to zero. It’s clear that I will stand up for the district, while my opponent has accomplished nothing.’” His opponent conveniently ignored the fact Eckert was a freshman in the minority. But the soundbite stuck.

There was a far the more effective negative ad. It attacked Eckert’s most recognized virtue, the one identified by Reader’s Digest. To this day, I remember the “Congressman NO!” ad. This political ad featured an actor impersonating Eckert. Papers representing various popular reforms were placed in front of the actor who would eagerly stamp a big red “NO!” on them. In reality, Eckert wasn’t against any of these reforms. But this was towards the beginning of the era of bald-faced negative campaigning. Eckert felt it beneath him to honor these inane spots with a response. By the time he did it was too late.

This particular episode stands as a lesson in how to use “The Dark Side” to counter the opposition’s strengths. Eckert’s opponent (or, more likely, her advisors) knew this. Eckert (and, more importantly, his advisors) didn’t. As a result, he couldn’t remove the feathers his opponent tarred him with.

If you thought this was ironic, consider this negative ad used by Eckert’s opponent. Peggy Say, the sister of Terry Anderson, a journalist held hostage in Lebanon, appeared in an ad for Eckert’s opponent. In it, she blamed Eckert for “doing nothing” to secure her brother’s release. Eckert could not respond. At the time, the Reagan administration, through Oliver North, was in secret negotiations to release the hostages. This failed and became a partisan scandal. Years later, the Bush administration used the same tactic, only this time through third party countries (including China), to obtain Terry Anderson’s release.

In the 1986 general election, Eckert’s opponent outspent him by $75,000 and defeated him by a mere 3,300 votes (51%-49%). In 1989, Fowler and McClure wrote in Political Ambition, “Instead of making his incumbency work for him, Eckert allowed it to be used against him.” Even today, people say Eckert refused to lower himself to the demands of negative campaigning. As a result, he lost. He was one of only six incumbents to lose in 1986.

Just as he campaigned, Eckert left quietly, becoming US Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food & Agriculture. His opponent become the prototype for success when it came to negative campaigning. As late as September, relying on mostly fluffy positive ads about herself, she was 20% behind in the polls. More importantly, though, she was $50,000 ahead in campaign funds. It was at that point when she went all out negative. Outside events, and perhaps overconfidence, prevented Eckert from promptly addressing these negative ads. Not only was he saddled by a late congressional session that forced him to stay in Washington so he couldn’t come home to campaign, but he was also too busy with real estate transactions because his wife wanted to move the family back to Rochester.

Today, we regularly see political ads that exaggerate the weaknesses of the opponent rather than the strengths of the ad’s sponsor. We regularly see ads that distort the strength of the opponent into a “soundbite” weakness rather than honestly assess policy differences. We regularly see political ads that feature a victim, hoping to tug at the emotional strings of the voter rather than give the voter a rational reason to make a decision.

Who was Eckert’s opponent? It was Dorothy Louise McIntosh, born in Lynch, Kentucky on August 14, 1929. You might recognize her by her married name, Louise Slaughter. She passed away on March 19, 2018. I met her on several occasions. She seemed like a nice lady.

Who was Louise Slaughter? She was the oldest person serving in Congress when she passed away. Thanks in part to Fowler’s and McClure’s book, her successful 1986 campaign has become and remains the template for today’s political climate. It’s been used by both Republicans and Democrats.

Does this merit Amtrak renaming the Rochester train station after her? The simple and direct answer is “no.” I can offer three reasons: 1) Unless you’re a political junkie, you’re likely to view negative campaigning as a tarnish on honest political dialog; 2) Unless you’re a very partisan Democrat, you’re likely to understand how many who recognize her political career as divisive and non-inclusive may be offended by seeing her name on the train station; and, 3) Unless you think it’s OK to use someone else’s money for your own personal good, we should never name projects, building, and the like for the politician responsible for securing funds for them.

In general, unless they paid for the naming rights with their own money, we should never erect statues or name buildings after people unless they have been dead for at least 50 years (or perhaps 70 years when U.S. copyright law says their intellectual property exclusive rights expire). This prevents a regrettable “knee-jerk” sympathy response. Look at all the statues and names people want to remove.

Besides, if we’re going to name the train station after someone, why not consider the modest Barber Conable? After all, if it weren’t for him, many Americans all across our country would not be retiring rich and on their own terms. Isn’t that a better legacy to memorialize?

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