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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Campaign Promises and budgetary priorities

By Mark Poloncarz
May 25, 2017

When a government issues a budget it is usually met with yawns from the public, if it is even noticed at all. However, if you ever want to understand what an administration’s priorities are and if it upholds its campaign promises, whether it is on the local, state, or national level, all you have to do is review its first budget proposal.

A budget is much more than spreadsheets on a page; it is a window into the administration’s goals. It symbolizes the administration’s view of the role of government – is it aspirational in nature by investing in the well-being of its people through targeted programs or, as President Ronald Reagan stated, does it view government as being the problem.

The release of President Donald J. Trump’s first proposed budget shows exactly what his priorities are: increasing military spending and reducing taxes on the wealthy paid for by significant cuts in almost every other part of the federal government. It is pretty much what everyone expected but is not what exactly he said on the campaign trail.

As he promised, Trump’s budget increased the Department of Defense’s budget by more than $50 billion, as well as the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs (a most worthy increase) and Homeland Security. It then cut just about everything else.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposed to be cut by an astonishing thirty-one percent ($8.2 Billion to $5.7 Billion); the Department of Labor is to be cut by nineteen percent ($12.1 Billion to $9.7 Billion); the Education Department is to be slashed by more than fourteen percent (from $68 Billion to $59 Billion); and programs to support refugee resettlement are to be cut by nearly ninety percent ($4.5 Billion to $500million). If you followed the president’s campaign none of this would surprise anyone.

However, based on his campaign promises you would be surprised to know what other programs the president cut: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” and formerly known as Food Stamps), cutting the eligibility requirements for Social Security Disability eligibility and its corresponding Supplemental Security Income program, Medicaid, and even the Department of Transportation. On the campaign trail the president pledged not to cut Medicaid, Social Security and other important social welfare programs like SNAP. He also promised a huge increase in infrastructure spending, such as building new roads, bridges, train lines, etc.

Yet, when his final budget came out it included the aforementioned cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, SNAP, and a thirteen percent cut in the Department of Transportation (including elimination of the popular TIGER grant program which has been instrumental to restoring cars to Main Street in Buffalo).

You do not create thousands of more jobs for middle-class Americans by cutting funding to the federal department that pays for the projects. There is no magic economic formula to make that work. By cutting transportation funding the president is actually cutting jobs dependent on that funding.

This cut is in some ways more telling on what this administration stands for than others. While many expected cuts to programs that benefit the poor, or are considered more liberal in nature, transportation spending is one of the few spending programs (other than defense spending) promoted by Republicans. It is the type of program “middle America” likes – everyone enjoys driving on a new road, even if they do not like paying for it.

Yet instead of honoring his campaign pledge to increase infrastructure spending President Trump significantly cut it. In effect, President Trump lied to a vast portion of those who voted for him based on the promise of job growth from the increased investment in repairing our infrastructure. This first budget proves for all his campaign rhetoric of investing in the heart of America President Trump’s priorities lie elsewhere.

We knew he was going to cut programs that assist the poor and those most in need, but now he has proved he will not even invest our tax dollars in job growth programs that could benefit many of his own supporters. Instead of investing in the people who voted for him, Trump’s priorities are increasing defense spending and “investing” in the wealthiest Americans who will benefit from a big tax cut if this budget was passed.

It turns out candidate Trump’s promise of investing in middle-class America through the creation of thousands of new construction jobs is as real as the degree offered by Trump University – it is not worth the words on the paper – and President Trump just proved it by issuing this budget.

Mark Poloncarz is the Erie County (NY) Executive and is responsible for preparing an approximately $1.7 Billion annual budget for the county.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz 2017

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History 101 in the Trump Era

History 101 in the Trump era
By: Mark Poloncarz
May 2, 2017

The last few days will not go down in history as the best days of the Donald Trump presidency, or for that matter any presidency. In the span of less than forty-eight hours President Trump: (1) invited a brutal dictator to the White House; (2) tweeted an incredibly inaccurate statement about Andrew Jackson and the causes of the Civil War; and (3) cut short an interview when pressed to explain his own words, admitting “I don’t stand by anything.” These three actions tell us everything we need to know about the man in the Oval Office, and it is not good.

First, the United States of America has a long, proud history of being the example to the rest of the world of what a representative democracy can and should be. While our own history is not perfect, the United States is known worldwide as the champion of human rights. No other country can claim the mantle of protector of human rights around the world like our nation, and, regardless of president or political party, for the past fifty years we have publicly called out brutal dictators across the world.

That ended two nights ago when, during a phone call, President Trump casually invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House. Duterte is not your usual president. According to published reports, Duterte has a brutal record on human rights. In approximately a year since he became president, more than 7,000 people have been killed during his crackdown on suspected drug dealers and even addicts.

Additionally, Duterte claimed to have killed three people himself when he was mayor of a Philippine city, drawing the wrath of human rights organizations across the world. He threatened to burn down the United Nations building in New York, and most notably in the United States, publicly lashed out against President Obama in an obscenity laced tirade, resulting in the cancelling of a one-on-one meeting between the two presidents.

He is the last person who should be invited to the White House. Yet, President Trump did so.

Giving the president the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did not know about Duterte’s penchant for ordering the killing of his own citizens or his self-professed extra-curricular activities while mayor (though he should have). Or perhaps he was tired when making the late night phone call. If so, what is more troubling is instead of admitting it was wrong to do so when faced with criticism of the invite, the president doubled down and defended his invite. There can be no defending of this action. If you are going to invite Rodrigo Duterte to the White House you might as well start inviting Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Bashar al-Assad of Syria for state visits.

The president should have admitted he was wrong and retracted the invite. However, as we know, Donald Trump the president, or previously the businessman, is incapable of admitting anything he says or does is wrong. This is a very bad trait for any leader, nevertheless the president of the United States.

Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. We have to admit our mistakes, learn from them and move forward, hopefully to never repeat them again. However, this president first has to admit he made a mistake before he can ever learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately the Duterte episode shows, once again, admitting a mistake or weakness is not something Donald Trump is capable of doing.

Normally the Duterte incident would be the worst event for any president during a twenty-four period, but in this presidency it was not because President Trump dropped jaws nationwide a day later when he discussed the reasons for the Civil War and opined it would not have happened if Andrew Jackson was president. He said:

I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

In one paragraph the president seemed to forget everything he was taught in school about the causes of the Civil War, or for that matter, Andrew Jackson’s own history as a slave owner and having died sixteen years before the Civil War began. The quote was so outlandish one might think the president might have just appeared on an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” Yet, he did not, leading one to question whether President Trump was awake during any history class or paid attention to anything else other than his businesses because if there is one event in U.S. History perpetually discussed it is the Civil War and its causes. (See Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War” as example number 1).

Then later in the day, after general astonishment with his statement, President Trump did what he always does, he doubled down tweeting “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!”

There really is no response to the president’s Civil War statements and tweet other than he does not know his history. Ask any 10th grade high school student and he or she will probably come up with a more historically accurate and cogent answer as to the causes of the Civil War.

When the original Constitution differentiated between the rights of “free persons” and “three fifths of all other persons,” or slaves, our nation was on a collision course to either exist as one free nation or split into two states: one free and the other slave owning. Andrew Jackson could not have prevented the Civil War. No one, no matter how angry they were, could have prevented the Civil War. It is as simple as that.

President Trump seems to not know this most basic of historical facts about the United States. The Civil War is the seminal event in our nation’s history since its creation. Our president should know more about the cause of it and how, in some ways, we still deal with the bigotry and racism that created it. He should read a respected treatise on it, or at least watch Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War.”

Finally, as was released yesterday, President Trump abruptly ended an interview with John Dickerson of CBS News when he was pressed on his claim President Obama wire-tapped his phones. In trying not to respond, President Trump said this, “I don’t stand by anything.” He then deflected a bit, saying he has “own opinions. You can have your own opinions,” and then ended the interview.

It seems in a moment under pressure the president flinched and finally admitted what most Americans are figuring out – he does not stand by or for anything – and he will casually toss aside campaign pledges or statements now that he is president. He has been unable to pass one major piece of legislation, the Republican controlled Congress is starting to go it alone, in some ways ignoring him, as it negotiates a new federal spending bill with democrats, and even some of his most strident supporters are starting to question if his signature campaign promises – to build a wall on the southern border and repeal Obamacare – will ever occur.

In saying he does not “stand by anything” it may be as close as the president gets to admitting he was wrong. It appears we have witnessed a rare moment of truth by President Trump in an otherwise long period of alternative facts and head scratching statements. He may never ever admit he was wrong, but he just may have admitted what many assumed: he does not really stand for anything other than himself and ‘Donald Trump’ the brand.

These three episodes should be viewed as a window in how the remainder of his presidency will play out.

In inviting Philippines President Duterte to the White House and then doubling down in the face of criticism, President Trump tossed aside our nation’s long standing history of being the protector of human rights, showing we should expect anything from him, including taking stances which will only degrade our nation’s reputation in the world.

In showing an amazing lack of knowledge on the reasons for the Civil War, and then defending his first ill-informed statement, it showed the president will state whatever alternative facts come to his mind. I expect our president to at least know basic U.S. history, not come up with an alternative version of our nation’s history.

Finally, in stating “I don’t stand by anything,” President Trump finally admitted in a moment under stress what we should assume going forward: he does not really have any true political convictions and will casually toss aside what he said before if it no longer fits the current narrative. This will cause serious consternation with our allies as no one can ever be truly sure where the president, and by way of association the United States stands on any issue.

When the history of the Donald Trump presidency is written these three episodes in a two day period might be as good as any other to explain his presidency and the underlying person. While we do not know how his presidency will end up, we at least have a very good understanding on what to expect going forward, and it a presidency unlike any other we have witnessed.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, May 2, 2017

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