This is our “A republic, if you can keep it” moment

By Mark C. Poloncarz

Today, Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News wrote a column addressing President Trump’s rejection of the opinion of the US intelligence community, including National Intelligence Director Dan Coats (a former conservative Republican Senator), regarding whether Russia interfered in our election and his taking of the word of Vladimir Putin instead. Zremski noted in his column and on his Facebook page, “It’s time to be a patriot, and that means more than supporting the troops and standing for the national anthem. It means that every one of us must focus on what’s happening in Washington, distasteful though it may be, and act as our consciences direct us in response.” It is an excellent column all should read, and you can do so here.

Zremski’s post called on all of us to start doing what our Founding Fathers expected we would do: be an informed and active citizenry. He then noted as examples of our Founding Fathers’ expectations quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams (now more famously known for the beer that carries his name) noting what true patriots must do: act in times of crises to protect our democracy.

There is no doubt our Forefathers expected more from the citizenry than what we generally see today, including being informed on the issues affecting our nation, listening to and considering multiple viewpoints and willing to take action to ensure the viability of the Republic. Zremski’s column though got me thinking about another Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, and one of his most famous quotes.

Today’s events are, in a nutshell, what Franklin meant when he responded to the question what form of government has been created at the Constitutional Convention: “A republic, if you can keep it.” In other words, if an informed citizenry acts to protect the institutions of democracy it shall succeed, if not it shall fail.

I believe we are at one of these “if you can keep it” moments. Our nation is predicated on the notion the people will act to protect the institutions of our nation (the rule of law, the separation of powers, the ideal symbolized by the quote “e pluribus unum”) in order to protect the nation. If institutions are no longer trusted, and the personality of one becomes stronger in the eyes of the people than the concept of the constitutional democratic as a whole, our republic will fail.

That is the moment we are in: a time when we must stand up, regardless of political party, to demand that all the facts of the Russian interference in our 2016 elections be revealed and determine if any Americans were complicit in that interference; to stand up to a president who took the word of an autocratic former KGB officer over our own intelligence community and state our love of country is greater than our love for any one president; and to confirm that the principles of our democracy are worth defending, even if that means rejecting a president who is wildly popular with members of his own party.

During my lifetime our nation has seen some of its best days and one of its worst. Following that worst day, September 11, 2001, our nation rallied together because we were attacked by a foreign enemy. No one was a partisan democrat or republican, was not called a “libtard” or a “deplorable,” but just an American in the days and months following 9-11. However, in 2016 one of our nation’s most sacred institutions, the election of our president, was attacked by a foreign enemy and our president and a significant part of our population just shrug it off. If we as a nation do not stand up to protect this most sacred right – the right to ensure a free and fair election – how can we expect the institution of our democracy to survive.

This is our “A republic, if you can keep it” moment. It’s up to all of us, not as partisan democrats or republicans, but as Americans to ensure the Mueller investigation continues until such time as all questions about Russian interference are answered and then hold those accountable for their actions, regardless of what office they hold or power they have. A country founded under the principle that we the people are greater than any one person can only survive when the people enforce the laws against those that broke it, whether it be one or many. It is that important.

Mark C. Poloncarz is the County Executive of Erie County, New York
Copyright 2018

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County leads in reducing greenhouse gas emissions

On June 1, 2017, the federal government announced its intention to withdraw from the international Paris Climate Agreement, a historic compact that 195 countries entered into in 2015 to address the mitigation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The agreement marked a turning point in raising global awareness about climate change and garnering international support for efforts to reduce pollution and promote green energy policies. The United States now stands alone in the world as the only country outside of the agreement, an unthinkable position given the enormity of our economy, our traditional role of global leadership, and our concurring ability to effect positive change.

While officials in Washington may ignore reality, in Erie County we are taking action and leading the way to better energy choices. On June 2, 2017, I issued my 17th executive order in response to the federal decision, directing county departments to prepare a report to implement a plan of action for Erie County to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement by 2025. That report, the product of a working group formed to identify strategies for the county to meet the target goals set out by the agreement, is now complete and can be read at the Erie County website. The report’s findings are encouraging and show that while Erie County government is making significant strides in reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions, the county can also play a lead role in community-wide reduction efforts.

The report is titled “Erie County Commits to Paris: How Erie County Can Meet U.S. Target Reductions for Greenhouse Gas Emissions” and identifies the greenhouse gas emission inventory for the Paris Climate Agreement baseline year of 2005 for both Erie County government and the community at large, as well as for 2014, the most recent year with complete data. The report found that compared to the baseline year of 2005, Erie County as a government had already reduced its greenhouse gas emission usage by 26 percent in 2014, thereby meaning Erie County has met the goal of a 26 percent to 28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions usage as required by the agreement. The report also found that the Erie County community at large saw a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions usage in 2014 versus the baseline year of 2005. We all have a role to play in creating a cleaner, healthier future, and Erie County is leading the way.

This column was printed in the February 13th editions of the Bee Newspaper Group
Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, 2018

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Tyranny of the Minority

By Mark C. Poloncarz
October 3, 2017

On October 2, America woke up to the terrible news of the slaughter of innocent concert-goers in Las Vegas. As we all know, 59 persons were murdered and more than 500 injured in a fusillade of bullets that lasted minutes, but must have seemed to be a lifetime to those seeking shelter. A sniper unleashed terror from 32 floors in the sky, ending the lives of dozens of innocent people and destroyed countless families with a rage I will never understand.

As the day progressed we learned the shooter had stockpiled nearly 20 guns in his Mandalay Bay hotel room, many of which were capable of firing as many as 9 rounds a second. Since 1986 the purchase of newly made automatic weapons (an automatic weapon being one in which the squeezing of the trigger releases multiple bullets at a time) has been banned in the United States, though weapons made before the “ban” was enacted can still be purchased. Semi-automatic weapons (squeezing the trigger only releases one bullet) are widely available across the United States and sometimes can be modified to mimic automatic weapons. Regardless of whether the shooter used automatic or semi-automatic weapons, in a very short period of time he murdered in cold blood 59 innocent people and shocked the world.

Our nation’s Constitution is built upon the premise that our laws must protect the individual from the “tyranny of the majority.” In Federalist No. 10, part of the entirety of writings we know today as “The Federalist Papers,” James Madison argued for the passage of the Constitution because a representative republic would best protect against the non-land owning majority of citizens taking action against the minority landed gentry. He feared a true democracy in which everyone has a vote and say in the running of the country.

Federalist No. 10 was often used as the legal argument for not only passage of the Constitution, but the enactment of the first 10 amendments to it – the Bill of Rights – which truly did guarantee many of the rights that form the bedrock of our country. Madison did in fact champion individual liberty, but his reasoning for it might not always be as glorious and “American” as we wish it to be. The common good matters, but not if it conflicts with the minority that actually owned land, property (including slaves) and ran the economy. Thus, protection from the tyranny of the majority was a necessary evil.

But what happens when a right adopted in 1791 is so bastardized that a person in 2017 can legally acquire weapons of mass death and destruction and mow down helpless citizens?

What happens when we are told, repeatedly, we are helpless to stop the slaughter of patrons at a movie theater, party-goers at a club, representatives on a baseball field, attendees at a concert, and, still unbelievably, kindergartners in their classroom because the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms is so sacrosanct that it matters more than my or your right to live?

What actually happens is you have tyranny of the minority because it is only a small minority of Americans that support the unfettered right to purchase and own arms which are created for one purpose: the murder of as many people in as short of period of time as possible. Study after study show a large majority of Americans support restrictions that are designed to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them.

For example, in June of this year, the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan and highly respected research and polling entity, released the results of a nationwide poll that showed:

• 89% of Democrats and 89% of Republicans favor legislation that prevents the mentally ill from purchasing guns;

• 85% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans favor legislation that prevents gun purchases by people on no-fly or watch lists;

• 90% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans favor legislation that requires background checks for individuals purchasing guns at private sales and gun shows; and

• 80% of Democrats and even 54% of Republicans favor banning assault weapons.

Yet, none of this legislation can pass through Congress because of the tyranny of the minority represented by the National Rifle Association (NRA), other pro-gun organizations and gun and arms manufacturers, known on Capitol Hill as the “Gun Lobby.” Through the donations it has made, and threats of retribution it will make if representatives do not vote the way they want, the Gun Lobby owns the majority in Congress lock, stock and barrel. They own it so much that the only piece of gun legislation that is presently being considered is not a measure to restrict guns, but a law to legalize silencers.

Our Constitution is a wonderful document, but it is not perfect. Its original construct denied women the right to vote and legalized slavery. Court decisions based on it will change over time. Legal precedent is not carved in stone for all eternity, but can and often change based on the will of the people. That is why the Plessy v. Ferguson decision providing for separate but equal facilities for African-Americans and whites is no longer the law of the land. That is why almost every major law and interpretation of the Constitution has changed over the years, including interpretations of the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has held you do not have a right to own a weapon that can inflict mass casualties, like a bazooka, artillery or tank. Banning of assault weapons and other devices that can end so many lives in an instant is constitutionally legal.

So why is it we as a nation continue to offer only our thoughts and prayers when a person opens fire into a crowd? When are we as a nation going to say enough is enough, a civilized society does not permit the massacre of its citizens under the “justified” response that it is the price we pay for freedom?

Common sense gun laws are supported by a large majority of Americans. No one is talking about taking away shotguns or hunting rifles, but prohibiting the sale of weapons of mass death and destruction and preventing those who should not own any gun, like the mentally ill, from having them.

I come from a family of hunters and I have many friends that are hunters. But no matter who I talk to I cannot find anyone who thinks it makes sense to have complete and unfettered access to guns that can kill dozens, perhaps hundreds, in the time it took you to read this paragraph.

It is time we do more than just offer our thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families of this senseless gun violence.

It is time we took our nation back from the very few who believe their right to own weapons of mass death and destruction is more important than our right to live.

It is time our nation, as a civilized society, stands up and passes common sense gun laws that prevent those who should not have guns from buying them.

It is time we require all sellers of guns, including unlicensed sellers at shows and through internet sales, to perform background checks for all sales.

It is time we pass legislation that values our unalienable right to life over the right of some person to terrorize us or end our life no matter where we are: at school, a church, a movie theater, or as witnessed in Las Vegas, a concert.

It is time we take back our country from the tyranny of the minority represented by the Gun Lobby.

Mark C. Poloncarz is the Erie County (NY) Executive.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz 2017

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Buffalo 1981, Charlottesville 2017

In 1981 Karl Hand, a neo-nazi sympathizer, organized a “whites have rights” rally in Buffalo and called on others to join him. I remember it clearly because there was a big lead up to it and counter protests were scheduled. The community was on edge, worried about what might happen.

On the day of the event Karl Hand was joined by no one. A swarm of media and counter protestors were there but no one other than Hand showed up for his rally. He stood there alone, a solitary bigoted figure, against a united greater community.

I remember taking great pride in my community knowing no one would stand with that Nazi racist. I talked about it then with my late grandfather Mark Lewandowski. Grandpa Mark served in WWII. He was from the “Greatest Generation” that gave so much to rid the world of fascism. He was equally proud of our community for standing up to Hand and all the bigotry and hatred he stood for.

While I miss my grandfather I am glad he did not witness the events of yesterday and the previous night. During his time while bigots existed, they hid from plain sight, certainly not showing their face to the public. He would not have believed his eyes seeing such overt racism and open bigotry. He would have thought, like I did until the recent years, that the open racism and bigotry of the past was long gone. However, as we have unfortunately seen recently, not only is it still alive, it is open for all to see. The bigots of the past wore white sheets over their heads to protect their identities. Today they proudly carry tiki torches while making a Nazi salute for all to see.

The First Amendment protects the right of such a bigoted, racist white supremacist/member of the KKK/Nazi to state those beliefs; however it does not protect such an individual from being called what you are – a weak, racist bigoted person – and being told how your hate will not be tolerated in our country. We as a nation, united as Americans regardless of the color of one’s skin, religion, sex, ethnicity, etc., must stand up to such racism and say not here, not ever.

That is what Heather Heyer and others who came out to peacefully counter-protest did yesterday. They joined together to say your hatred, your racism will not tolerated in Charlottesville today, tomorrow, or ever. Now her name will be forever linked with a stained day in our American democracy due to her death in a terrorist attack by a weak, sick racist. Just like Virginia State Police Officers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates names will be forever linked to this sad day as they died in a helicopter crash while responding to the Charlottesville incident. One person died peaceably protesting the hatred of others, two others died while protecting the public. This should not happen in our country.

36 years have passed since Karl Hand’s solitary protest, but instead of our nation extinguishing the embers of hatred represented by Hand, the smoldering embers were fanned during the past three decades (especially on the Internet) and took fire during last year’s presidential campaign. As a result, 36 years after Buffalo and Erie County said “not here, not ever” to the bigoted hatred of one, three people are dead because of the open bigoted hatred of many.

This is not now and can never be deemed acceptable. Violence and terrorism, whether it be by hand, knife, gun or a Dodge Charger, must always be condemned and those who perpetrate it prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law. Hatred and bigotry of any kind can never be tolerated. There are not multiple sides in this issue and no excuses can be made for the vitriolic statements and actions of others. There are only those who espouse racism and hatred and the rest of a civilized society. We as a nation must rise up like Buffalo and Erie County did in 1981 and say we will not tolerate White Supremacists, Nazis, the KKK or whatever is the name used that day; not here, not ever.

Mark Poloncarz is the County Executive of Erie County, New York
Copyright 2017

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Trip to Washington covers people’s business

BY Mark Poloncarz
Erie County Executive
(This Column originally appeared in various editions of the Bee Group Newspapers in July, 2017.)

I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to join my counterparts from across the country for a special meeting of the County Executives of America Association, a nonpartisan organization that includes elected officials from more than 700 counties nationwide. The CEA brings these individuals together to discuss a multitude of national issues and their effects at the county level, as well as county-level responses to national challenges.

My trip to our nation’s capital involved not only a meeting with my colleagues to discuss the latest information from the fight against the opioid epidemic, but also a meeting with Sen. Charles Schumer to review the information. In addition, I was honored to take part in a ceremony remembering the victims of Flight 3407 and urging Congress to maintain air travel protections put in place since that tragedy eight years ago.

The opioid epidemic sweeping the country has alarm bells ringing at all levels of government and was a main point of dialogue among the assembled officials. As the sole NYS representative to the National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic, I was honored to present them with the findings from our report, “A Prescription for Action: Local Leadership in Ending the Opioid Crisis,” which outlines steps local officials and agencies can take to stem the tide of opioid abuse in their communities.

The report is the result of a yearlong effort on the part of the National Task Force and examines the widespread issue of opioid abuse and best practices in dealing with it. Many of Erie County’s responses to the epidemic were included among the report’s recommendations and are now part of this blueprint for community anti opioid action. I also had the opportunity to discuss the report, its recommendations, other Erie County anti-opioid efforts and the importance of federal funding to continue the fight along with Sen. Schumer, who understands the gravity of the issue and is a staunch supporter in the struggle. It was a sobering conversation but one that underscored the need for partnerships at all levels of government to combat the problem.

While in Washington, I also joined our local congressional delegation in a Flight 3407 remembrance event that served a dual purpose: to recall the lives of the individuals lost in that tragedy and issue a call to lawmakers to preserve flight safety rules put in place since then to prevent another such incident.

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