Deep in the heart of America’s first mass-produced suburb, a tall woman stands speaking to two Highway Department workers. She has on bluejeans and a fleece pullover, looking calm and in command. There is no outward indication that she is the supervisor of the largest municipality in the nation and is in the midst of directing one of the largest rescue and recovery efforts in this town’s history in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The Town of Hempstead, on New York’s Long Island, has a population larger than a handful of states with over 850,000 people. Its supervisor, Kate Murray, presides over a local government which has consistently run budget surpluses despite the economic hardships of our time. It has also been run by Republicans for its entire modern history.
I live in a part of the Town of Hempstead called Levittown. Many are familiar with it through American History classes, as Bill Levitt built affordable housing for veterans returning from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Our famous scions include Eddie Money, Billy Joel and Bill O’Reilly. Many other Levittowns sprung up around the country, and the model was replicated worldwide.
When the town was built, its trees too were planted at the same time. The trees that smashed through two houses on Rose Lane were about 60 years old. Kate Murray’s highway department was busy clearing these trees and at least a dozen others on my block alone as early as Tuesday morning, as Hurricane Sandy was exiting the region. By Wednesday morning virtually all of the roads in our part of the Town of Hempstead were passable, the linemen began working on restoring power, and residents began assessing damage to their property.
As I have had very little access to the internet this week and no power, I have had time to think about the role of government in our lives at a time such as this. When I saw Kate Murray down the block on Tuesday morning, I thought that she should be somewhere else, perhaps in a command center, managing the crisis. Later in the week I realized that Murray’s leadership style is the ideal. She has able commissioners in place to run the departments of her government. There’s little need for photo ops for someone like her although she is sure to indulge in them as she is, after all, a politician.
You see, when the President comes to town after a crisis there is really very little that he can do to alleviate the suffering of the people on the streets. Is there really any way for me to gauge whether or not FEMA money is flowing into state coffers? Do I really care if President Obama and Governor Andrew Cuomo are getting along and if that is going to impact New York’s recovery?
People can look out their windows to decide if Kate Murray is doing her job. Are the streets clear? Are the roads passable? Yes, they are. Local government is working. I can’t speak for the state or federal governments.
Here’s what I know. The government that is closest to us is the most effective. Local government, if run properly, can respond to our needs and work with local businesses and community groups to make life a little better. Far-removed government in Washington and Albany seems to be better at getting in the way of our success and happiness and moves at a snail’s pace to respond to disasters. One can only think of Ronald Reagan’s famous line that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Mayor Mike Bloomberg spent much of the week defending his decision to allow the ING NYC Marathon to continue despite the suffering on Staten Island and the rest of the city. He ultimately cancelled it, after plenty of outrage on Twitter and talk radio. After all, the marathon kicks off just a stone’s throw from where they are still pulling bodies from the rubble. Last I heard, all of his roads aren’t clear and the lights aren’t on. Nanny Bloomberg needs a lesson in decisive leadership from Kate Murray.
I’ll take Kate over Mike, Andrew, or Barack any day.
Kyle Sabo | Hunter College