Lipsyte Column: A lesson in Island politics

Supervisor Jim Dougherty in a Shelter Island Reporter file photo.
Supervisor Jim Dougherty in a Shelter Island Reporter file photo.

Codger was roused last week when just before the election our once and future supervisor railed lustily against the specter of outside Republican money threatening to turn the East End into a “financial slush pit” to buy politicians. Jim Dougherty knows how to crank up the amps. But Codger was also pleased when a friendly Republican gently advised Dougherty to turn it down lest he damage the fragile ecosystem of bipartisanship on Shelter Island. It sounded like pragmatic advice, a balance to Dougherty’s warning, which contained a valuable and ominous lesson for the future: All politics is local until it turns national. 

The immediate subject, of course, was the looming election in East Hampton, which was fueled by what the East Hampton Star called “tainted money.”

Much of the $380,000 donated to Republican candidates for supervisor and town board came from such “outside interests” as “businesses and individuals seeking to block tough new aircraft limits.”

Codger read that and began to hear once again the summertime buzz and rattle of helicopters overhead. Shelter Island may have banned helicopters from landing here in 2008, but it hasn’t been able to ban the choppers heading to the South Fork from turning us into flyover people. As Codger says, No island is an island.

In the interests of bipartisanship, Dougherty was gracious enough to admit that there could be fat-cat Democrats who don’t want to sit on the LIE with the rest of us. Codger wonders if the idea of Democrats and Republicans is old hat; make way for the Rich Party and the Leftovers Party.

After Dougherty’s victory, his fifth, which Codger thinks may put him right up there with such other island legends as Papa Doc Duvalier and Fidel Castro, anything Papa Jim says sounds downright prophetic. His warning is particularly worth remembering because it’s harder and harder these days to maintain the illusion that any place can wall itself off from the world, not when state and federal laws about drones, plastic bags, immigration, guns, water, marijuana and discrimination can have local impact.

Thankfully, we seem to have dodged the golden bullet/ballot this time.  The East Hampton candidates who took the tainted money were defeated. This time. But it will happen again. The donors, which included, according to the Star, a Manhattan lawyer linked to a New Jersey helicopter company, claimed that what they did was misinterpreted. They weren’t buying politicians for just one cause, they were merely trying to create a more business-friendly climate on the South Fork. Codger wonders what other businesses they’ve got in mind and how it might affect us. Big-time national money — and there is lots more of it than small-time local money — can make us collateral damage.

So what should we do now besides checking the skies waiting for the Empire to strike back? How about looking down and fixing our potholes? That’s easy, right?

So after the polls closed, Codger found Jay Card Jr., the incumbent highway superintendent, who won again. Before Codger could ask him about potholes, Card started talking about potholes, about the Island’s deteriorating roads and his upcoming begathons for state and federal funds.

Card thinks that Shelter Island doesn’t get its deserved share of tax money allocated to the infrastructure, which often forces him into hard choices that dissatisfy him. Do you fix one road completely and let another crumble, do you patch them both as best you can cheaply and thus delay repairs until a road is in truly bad shape and the remedy is time-consuming and even more expensive? 

He gave Codger homework, a dump of statistics and charts from an organization for highway superintendents that basically cried out for more state and federal funding for local roads in this time when allocations are being cut. It’s all complicated by decisions being made for us in Albany and Washington and perhaps Geneva and Beijing, which include commodity contracts and foreign bank settlements, which is way over Codger’s head, although seemingly not Card’s. The re-elected highway superintendent planned to celebrate his unopposed victory at both the Democrat and Republican post-election events, which seems hopeful.

Also hopeful was a thoughtful column in this space last week in which Julie Lane affirmed her faith in the intelligence and dedication of Shelter Island politicians willing to put aside partisanship and focus on reasonable solutions. She particularly cited ongoing work in water quality and proportionately-sized housing. In a way, Lane’s positivity and Card’s dilemmas and Dougherty’s warning are pieces of the puzzle of balancing local and national politics in a vulnerable environment.

It will take work. In a remarkable recent dialogue with the novelist Marilynne Robinson (“Housekeeping,” “Gilead”) in the New York Review of Books, President Obama deplored the current political noise of pessimism and sensation that smothers the “story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.”

No island is an island, but it can at least act like one.