Adventures In White Knuckle Driving

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This past weekend reminded me there’s a good reason why I stopped scheduling travel meetings during the winter.

It didn’t always used to be this way.

In the time before Covid, unusual was the week when I did not put on several hundred miles of business meetings. I find riding for an hour (or more) relaxing. I’ve got a huge library of college-level lectures on a variety of subjects. (As the price for an intensive virtually triple major in the hard sciences, my college major left little room for electives.)

The destination also (usually) excited me, too. Either a conference to learn more and meet Continue Reading “Adventures In White Knuckle Driving”

New York State Has A Serious Gerrymandering Problem – Here’s What To Do About It, But First…

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Original 1812 drawing of the Gerrymander by Elkanah Tisdale.

Marshall Pinckney Wilder was a popular humorist who travelled the world. A favorite of the British royal family, he wrote books, appeared in movies, and always signed his correspondence “Merrily yours.” He was born in Geneva in 1859 and grew up in Rochester, where he developed his talent as a storyteller (and also dabbled in clairvoyance, which was popular in Western New York during that era).

He was named after his great-uncle, a famed phytologist in Boston.

Well, not quite.

When the Bostonian botanist came into this world in 1798, his father gave him the name “Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder,” in honor of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry, the envoys to France appointed by President John Adams in 1797.

By the time he became a teenager, the name was shorted to “Marshall Pinckney Wilder.”

What happened to “Gerry”? Therein lies a tale of political intrigue and comeuppance that continues to this day.

More than a mere envoy, Elbridge Gerry stood out as a true Founding Father who eventually became the fifth Vice President of the United States. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He would have signed the United States Constitution, but he was one of three delegates who refused to do so on account it lacked a Bill of Rights.

So, what did he do? He became a congressman and, as such, spearheaded the effort to adopt the Bill of Rights (as the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Like George Washington, he opposed the idea of political parties.

Until France, that is.

You see, the three envoys were dispatched to iron out the Franco-American diplomatic breakdown that would come to be known as “the XYZ Affair.” Long story short, Gerry and his fellow Americans refused to bribe the French foreign minister Talleyrand. This was considered common practice in Europe, but, well, America was not Europe (especially at that time).

While Pinckney’s dad (and others) admired the envoys’ stand, the Federalists (who held the House, the Senate, and the Presidency) did not. They blamed the envoys for the failure to negotiate.

Up until then, Gerry had been staunchly non-partisan. After the Federalists vilification of him, he joined the Democratic-Republican party (the predecessor of our current Democrat party). He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Massachusetts under that banner before finally being elected to the position in 1810.  He was reelected the following year after promoting a moderate if not bi-partisan course.

It was, however, in that second term where Gerry earned his infamous stripes. With the Democratic-Republican party in full control, Gerry showed his true partisan colors. He removed Federalist appointees from their State positions. But the worst was yet to come.

Although Massachusetts was evenly divided, the Democratic-Republicans used their power to apportion electoral district boundaries to make it more difficult for Federalists to regain the majority. The new districts they created were so contorted, Elkanah Tisdale, a well-known engraver, most likely was the person responsible for making a political cartoon lampooning the strange-shaped district. This first appeared in the March 26, 1812 Edition of the Boston Gazette.

We’ll let John Ward Dean tell the rest of the story (as he related it in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 46, published in 1892):

“Washington Allston, calling there with James Ogilvie, a lecturer on oratory, and noticing the figure, remarked to [Benjamin] Russell, the editor, ‘What an odd-looking creature is this! it looks like a Salamander.’ On which Ogilvie, quick as light, replies, ‘Why, let it be named Gerrymander, for the governor.’”

The Democratic-Republican plan, signed into law by Gerry, worked, but not for Gerry. He lost the next election. Though the Federalists had the most votes statewide, the Democratic-Republicans ended up with a three to one edge in the State Senate.

The vilified public pronounced their judgment by forcing Gerry out. He was assailed in the popular press. The May 23, 1812 Colombian Centinel (yes, they spelled it that way), quoting a Judge Story, wrote, “It would be well, however, if we could so ascertain beyond a doubt the real Father of this unnatural monster, that we might hold him up to everlasting scorn and contempt.”

Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder’s father took the measure one step further. According to Dean, who was quoting Wilder himself on this, “after the gerrymandering doings he lost his admiration and had the ‘Gerry’ struck out of his son’s name.”

By now, you’ve all read of our current state of Gerrymandering right here in New York State. It’s more than the usual tilting, it’s as egregious as Gerry’s was in 1812. We all know the motivations, but here’s how it hurts Monroe County especially.

Traditionally, Monroe County has had two Congressional districts. In recent years, this has meant we’ve been represented by both parties. That’s good because you never know which party will retain control of the House. By have two seats, one from each party, we’re guaranteed to have access to the majority.

If you listen to the experts, the Republicans are expected to gain control of the House following the mid-term elections. (This is a reasonable guess, given the number of Democrats who have decided not to seek reelection, the population shifting to “Red” states, and the usual party loss based on the White House incumbent.) As of now, Monroe County has only one seat (by comparison, Erie County has three) and it’s designed to be won by a Democrat.

Not good for Monroe County should the Republicans retake the house.

What’s the solution? There’s not a clear one. Basically, the majority rules, and the Democrats have a clear majority in the New York State legislature. They made a mockery of the independent bipartisan committee that was supposed to be responsible for redistricting, so you can see that’s not a viable option.

The fairest way to prevent gerrymandering is geometry-based rules. For example, every district must touch at least three other districts (two if the district is on a border) and at least two of those districts must not touch each other. In other words, each district must be a parallelogram (e.g., a square or a rectangular).

We don’t need a special commission, but we do need to prevent the redistricting abuse we’re seeing in our state.

Perhaps you should clip this column out and send it to an appropriate judge since there are now at least two cases challenging the New York State Gerrymander.

What Do You Think An Independent Greater Western New York Should Look Like?

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Last week’s Commentary received an inordinate amount of positive feedback (see “It’s Time For Greater Western New York To Declare Its Own Independence,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, July 1, 2021). Since these came from a variety of sources on a plethora of platforms, it’s likely you haven’t had the opportunity to see them all.

Allow me to summarize.

It starts with a simple question:

“What do you think an independent Greater Western New York should look like?

OK, it turns out it’s not so simple as you might think. But at least it sounds straight-forward. While the answer to this question yields a spectrum of solutions, at least most Continue Reading “What Do You Think An Independent Greater Western New York Should Look Like?”

Life is a (Small Town) Carnival

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Like any kid growing up in the snowbelt otherwise known as Blasdell, I looked forward to three things each summer. The beginning of summer would signal going to IMG_0016_Mendon_Carnival_Twilight_300Fantasy Island to celebrate a good report card, ride the steamboat and watch the live shootouts. The end of summer meant going to the Erie County Fair to see the vast array of other-worldly side shows on the Midway, the acrid smell of burnt oil and rubber at the demolition derby and the taste of my grandfather’s sumptuous pizza. Sandwiched in between, both chronologically and geographically was the Big Tree Fireman’s Carnival. I think it was actually called the Big Tree Firemen’s Annual Field Days. But for kids (and headline writers short on space) it was the Big Tree Carnival.

Here’s the real difference between Fantasy Island, the Erie County Fair and the Big Tree Continue Reading “Life is a (Small Town) Carnival”

A Model of Christian Spirit

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Ever since John Winthrop’s famous “city upon a hill” sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630, it’s been tough to separate religion from the spirit of America’s founding. Indeed, IMG_2733_Spiritual_Out-of_Focus_300some say the evangelical movement of the mid-eighteenth century known as The First Great Awakening played a key role in America’s strive for independence.1 And don’t think the whole “separation of Church and State” thing in the Constitution came about because the Founding Fathers felt the First Great Awakening was a tad too much. I’ll remind you the whole purpose of the First Great Awakening was to rebel against the Church of England and to recognize broader religious freedom. This is the very philosophy embodied by our constitution.

Our focus in this chapter, though, isn’t the First Great Awakening, but the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening began in 1790 and lasted for about 50 years. It featured traveling preachers leading revival camps where “hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would gather for miles around in wilderness encampment for four days to a week.”2 One such preacher was Charles Finney, who, from September 1830, through June 1831, led various revival campaigns3 in Rochester, Buffalo and “the intermediate towns between there.”4 And what facilitated this travel? Why, none other Continue Reading “A Model of Christian Spirit”

Seeds of a New Movement

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The Erie Canal made Buffalo. Joseph Dart made Buffalo memorable.

Through Joseph Ellicott and the establishment of Greater Western New York west of the Genesee River, we’ve seen the importance of the canal from before it was even drawn up. We’ve witnessed how its opening paved the way for the creation of America’s first tourist destination – Niagara Falls. We’ll discover in a few chapters how it allowed our region to become ground zero for Continue Reading “Seeds of a New Movement”

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

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By the time Thomas S. Allen wrote The Erie Canal Song (as the song is most commonly referred to) in 1905,1 the famous canal had already been in operation for 80 years. Allen chose the title Low Bridge, Everybody Down because the canal had just ditched the mules for steam power and he wanted to pay homage to the animal so critical to canal operations.2 That Allen celebrates the mule Sal tells us he’s commemorating a then not-too-distant past. Incidentally, the title wasn’t the only thing about the song that changed over the years, including, ironically, the word “years.” The original lyrics were “fifteen years on the Erie Canal” and  refers to the length of the partnership between Sal and his owner, while the new lyrics are “fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,” referring to how Continue Reading ““Low Bridge, Everybody Down””

The Best Little Hole House in Greater Western New York

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Our family moved to the Rochester suburb of Chili during the Christmas break of my fifth grade. There are a lot of things I can tell you about that particular transition. It’s amazing what I still remember. There’s the “long” (because it was written on a narrow roll of paper) letter I received from the fifth grade classmates I had left behind in Woodlawn Intermediate. There’s my rediscovery of the game of chess while partaking in what was promoted as “science” class. (Apparently, “mapping” the moves – not even real chess notation – had something to do with scientific thinking.) Most relevant for this tome, however, was my new classmates’ anticipation of summer.

For many youngsters in and around the Rochester area, the summer not only brought the welcome end of “pencils, books and teacher’s dirty looks,” but it also ushered in the Continue Reading “The Best Little Hole House in Greater Western New York”

A Whole Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

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Now that we’ve marked the boundaries of Greater Western New York, the fun really begins. First, we can delineate the counties included. Greater Western New York contains 17 counties. These represent all the counties west of or touching the correct Pre-Emption Line. Those counties are:

● Allegany             ● Chautauqua
● Cattaraugus      ● Chemung
● Erie                    ● Genesee
● Livingston          ● Monroe
● Niagara              ● Ontario
● Orleans              ● Seneca
● Schuyler            ● Steuben            ● Wayne               ● Wyoming            ● Yates

We should note that Pre-Emption Line marks the western border of both Seneca County (maybe, depending on who owns Seneca Lake) and Chemung County. The Line slices through the counties of Wayne, Yates and Schuyler. As it stands, the eastern borders of Wayne, Seneca, Schuyler and Chemung form a fairly straight line from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania line. OK, maybe it’s not quite straight enough to convince an officer you’re not unduly influenced, but it’s close enough.

What exactly does this constellation of the 17 western-most counties of New York State tell us? I discovered this particular hidden gem while preparing for a January 2004 Continue Reading “A Whole Greater than the Sum of Its Parts”

We Preempt Westward American Expansion for…

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A funny thing happened on the way to researching my book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. For years I had been trying to explain to people just what exactly I meant by “Greater Western New York.” From a regional mutual fund’s perspective, it was easy. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires all regional funds to specify the municipalities covered by the fund. In the case where a fund’s region encompasses only a portion of a state, the fund’s prospectus must list all the counties included in its unique definition of the region covered. Like I said, from the SEC’s standpoint, defining Greater Western New York was easy.

Beyond that, though, I had to justify why we chose those particular counties. This was especially important because we market the fund only to New York residents, specifically, Western New York residents. And the folks we consider “Western” New York residents don’t necessarily consider themselves “western.” Or, in the case of those in the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area, they don’t consider Continue Reading “We Preempt Westward American Expansion for…”