Have We Exhausted the ‘Political Outsider’ Image?

Prior experience in office becoming too belittled in elections

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New York State Sen. John DeFrancisco

In a few weeks, state Republican leaders will coalesce in New York City to formally nominate their candidate in the race for New York governor.

Three months ago, it seemed like state Sen. John DeFrancisco was well on his way to being that candidate. But since then, the central New York lawmaker has gone from the clear front-runner to being on political life support.

DeFrancisco announced at the end of April that he would no longer be actively campaigning ― no doubt acknowledging the momentous task of continuing on. After essentially coming out of nowhere, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro quickly vacuumed up support from county Republican committees across the state. Indeed, several county committees who had endorsed DeFrancisco months ago ― including those in his home district ― have switched their support to Molinaro in recent weeks.

By mid-March, Molinaro locked up a majority of the weighted vote of the Republican State Committee, and he hadn’t even announced his candidacy yet.

The reason for Molinaro’s successful blitz is that of the most classic of campaign rhetoric: He is the “political outsider.” DeFrancisco is not.

The term has been used by just about every candidate in every race who thinks it even remotely applies to them. And just about every candidate has interpreted the term in their own way. But Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 completely redefined what it means to be a political outsider. The election of someone who never served in government to the highest office in the land sent a strong message to party leaders everywhere that citizens are really tired of the way that current government operates.

Since then, party officials at every level of government are much more likely to endorse political outsiders because of their electability in the current political climate. Now, New York Republicans are poised to do the same with the office that presides over the Albany culture that everyone loves to hate.

Now, voters are naturally drawn in each election to the “change candidate.” And we should encourage fresh faces running for office. A stagnant legislature or city council isn’t healthy for democracy.

But the saga of DeFrancisco’s campaign is a good example for us to question if our romanticism with political outsiders has gone too far.

The main consensus seems to be that while DeFrancisco has the experience, a proven track record of standing up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as a character that has earned him respect from Republicans and Democrats alike, he is simply as far from a political outsider as one can be measured.

The 71-year-old Syracuse native has more than four decades of public service under his belt. He was a past member and president of the Syracuse Common Council, president of the Syracuse City Board of Education and Onondaga County assistant district attorney. He has been a state senator since 1993 and has served as deputy Senate majority leader since 2015.

DeFrancisco has no doubt wanted to use that history as a springboard to the governor’s mansion. While as voters we tend to despise career politicians and scream for term limits any chance we get, the kind of experience someone like DeFrancisco has should still mean something to us.

Are we really at the point where we deem candidates for high offices as unqualified because of the very things that make them qualified? Is prior civic involvement so poisonous that we should automatically belittle it in our mainstream politics? Experience is a top tier requirement and beneficial selling point for any other job in any other market. Why should it be so different for those who lead our cities, villages and states? Indeed, Buffalo-area state Sen. Patrick Gallivan last month in City & State likened DeFrancisco’s campaign to a private sector job application, adding that “he’d be hired as the CEO.”

There’s a reason for that. The power structure of New York government is a complex, dynamic and often ugly system that takes someone with intense skill to properly navigate through in order to get anything done. After spending the last 25 years as part of that system, including the last three as the Senate’s second-in-command, DeFrancisco is undoubtedly familiar with how the system works. Why are we so afraid of that?

All of this is not saying that Mr. Molinaro doesn’t have a significant amount of experience himself. On the contrary, he is hardly the political outsider that he is being depicted as. He was first elected mayor of his hometown at the age of 19, went on to serve in the Dutchess County legislature, and spent five years in the state Assembly. He resigned his post in the minority in 2012 to become county executive.

But in a matchup with DeFrancisco, it’s hard to see how Molinaro comes out with more or better experience.

Is experience everything? Of course not. There are a million variables that go into New York gubernatorial races — Molinaro’s ties to the downstate power machine no doubt being one of them. But experience seems to be a value that’s slipping away at an alarming rate.

That’s something we should all be concerned about — both party officials who pick political candidates and those of us who vote for them.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

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