In a disaster, people expect government to respond

November 6, 2012

Walking the Rehoboth Boardwalk Tuesday morning after Superstorm Sandy, I saw one of those funny/defiant messages on a boarded-up business: We will defeat Hurricane Sandy and Obama.

I could be wrong but I suspect one of the reasons that business owner dislikes Obama is because he (or she) dislikes big government. It’s also likely he considers Obama an incompetent.

I can’t help wondering, though, what his reaction would be if Sandy had slammed Delaware the way it had New Jersey and New York.

Only a week before - though I’m sure it feels like a lifetime for him - Gov. Chris Christie had mocked President Obama as “clutching for the light switch of leadership.”

Not the most illuminating phrase, so to speak, but clear enough in its contempt for the president.

And then the world changed. Sandy hit the Jersey Shore, and Christie and his state needed help.

Christie had delivered the earlier message with his usual swagger. The University of Delaware graduate probably has more swagger than anyone in American politics. But standing on the podium with the president, he looked almost shell-shocked - and very grateful for the assistance offered by Obama on behalf of the federal government.

Christie praised his erstwhile enemy for his “extraordinary leadership.” He called the president “outstanding” and “incredibly supportive.” He practically bragged about how he and the president spoke on the phone - just the two of them, not some conference call.

People say they don’t want big government. They sure as heck don’t want to pay for it. But when they need help, when disaster strikes, they want government to show up - and make it snappy.

Perhaps Superstorm Sandy will serve as a clarifying moment for American politics, no matter who’s declared the winner tonight. (And yes, I’m hoping it’s not a replay of Election 2000, Gore vs. Bush.)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting smaller government. The argument about the size and role of government goes back to the very founding of our nation. Washington and Hamilton sought a stronger, more vigorous federal government; Jefferson and Madison feared the power of such centralized authority. Their differences led to the formation of political parties, which Washington, unrealistically, had hoped to avoid.

Today, the argument continues, as it should. In fact, the whole campaign has focused, almost exclusively, on the role of government.

But often it’s been a dishonest discussion. For example, during the 2011 primaries, Romney said he would do away with FEMA; disaster assistance was best left to the states. (He even mentioned privatization, a truly novel thought.) After Hurricane Sandy, come to think of it, Romney has come to say he would fully fund FEMA. (The inconsistencies go on and on.)

My guess is that Delawareans of all political persuasions - including those most critical of Obama and big government - would react much like Gov. Christie did after Sandy’s onslaught. They would be very grateful for a helping hand.

Pires makes splash

I don’t know how successful Alex Pires, the Dewey Beach resident running for the U.S. Senate, will be in attracting votes, but he has done something quite remarkable for an independent candidate in Delaware: He’s attracting attention from the incumbent, in this case Democrat Tom Carper.

A TV ad for Carper says, “Hold it, Mr. Pires. Here are facts that even you can understand.” It goes on to emphasize Carper’s support for Social Security.

Republican candidate Kevin Wade isn’t even mentioned. (If there have been Carper ads attacking Wade, I’ve missed them.)

It’s easy to say, why bother? Carper is arguably the most successful vote-getter in Delaware history. If anyone’s a lock to win today, it’s Carper.

But as his friend, Republican Mike Castle, learned in 2010, you can never take anything for granted.

Deaver mentions sheriff’s role

Finally, a candidate makes a clear statement about Sheriff Jeff Christopher’s attempt to expand his department’s policing powers.

A mailer from Joan Deaver, incumbent for Sussex County Council’s Third District, notes that having the county fully fund the sheriff’s department - in effect, turn it into a county police department - would cost taxpayers $127,497 per deputy.

“This is not the way to protect our communities,” the mailer says.

It’s also not the way to keep government small and taxes low. The cost to add state troopers is $49,082 per position.

State troopers are much cheaper to add because the infrastructure is already in place - the headquarters, the communications, the support staff, etc.

However, most candidates decline to comment on the issue, deferring to the courts to decide the issue. The problem is that the Delaware Constitution is very vague, referring to sheriffs only as “conservators of the peace.”

I don’t know what the courts will decide, but it would be ridiculous for unelected judges to attempt to force elected Sussex County officials to fund a police force they don’t want. That’s why it’s important for candidates to say what they think about the issue.

Get out and vote

And one last time, we have new districts this year and new maps. If you’re unsure in which district you reside, check the Sussex County Department of Elections website.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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