Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Changing the subject

Something has happened in our national political discussion in the past few weeks, and it seems to have slipped under the radar.

The Republicans changed the subject.

Remember all the way back to the fall of 2010? The Democrats were the party in charge, so they were the ones who took the fall when the unemployment rate hovered in the nine-to-10 percent range. That's the price of being in charge in this country; parties (and Presidents) get too much credit for economic affairs when things go right, and too much blame when things go wrong.

Besides, as I think I've written here, the Democrats did a poor job of explaining their actions in 2010. They needed to say how bad the recession was, and that government programs and bailouts such as the one for General Motors lowered the unemployment rate by a few percentage points. If anything, the financial wizards did a very good job of preventing much more pain than we actually suffered.

Then, after the election, the numbers started to turn more drastically. Unemployment dropped down to nine percent -- still very high, but headed in the correct direction. The Dow Jones continued going up. The industrial average has doubled in the past two-plus years. It's not where it once was, but it's headed in the correct direction.

Suddenly, we've stopped hearing about jobs, jobs and jobs. All of a sudden, the conversation has shifted to budget deficits. House Speaker John Boehmer talked about the need for cuts in federal spending. In a quote that may stick with him for a while, he said that if people lose their jobs along the way, "so be it."

The reaction to President Obama's proposed federal budget goes along with that. You've seen the pictures of copies of the budget, bigger than the Manhattan phone book. I assume this means that a lot of work went into it, and that preparation for its release was done months in advance.

It sure looks as if the Obama proposed budget was based on the fall of 2010 conversation -- prop up the economy with deficit spending to give it time to continue its recovery. The reaction of some on the right was based on the new winter of 2011 conversation. I suppose I'd expect Sean Hannity to use the word "cowardly" to describe the proposed budget, because he has to constantly raise the rhetorical stakes in order to keep his audience engaged. I thought ex-Reagan budget director David Stockman, who had been pretty quiet for a quarter-century, might do better than using that word, though.

It's always a good idea for anyone and anything, including government, to try to spend only what you take in. Government, however, isn't allowed to save up much for a rainy day, and the political climate rules out attempts to raise more revenue no matter what the circumstances are. That doesn't leave much wiggle room.

We need to get together and figure out roughly what we absolutely need to do and how to pay for it, with any option on the table. I'm not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Wisconsin

It's time to give a little credit where credit is due.

Wisconsin Democrats recently scored big points when it came to political theater.

For those who haven't been paying attention, the state of Wisconsin has been in the not-so-exclusive club lately of states who are having big trouble balancing a budget. It's a hangover from the economic woes of 2008, which still haven't disappeared, particularly on the employment front.

There's general agreement out there that some belt-tightening is definitely necessary. When it comes to state workers, that can mean not filling vacancies, reducing pay raises, and increasing worker contributions to their medical and pension benefits.

That's fine; it's all part of the game. But Governor Scott Walker led a proposal through the state legislature to take away the public employee unions' right to collectively bargain. (Walker was staring at a nine-figure budget deficit, just after he gave businesses more than $120 million in tax breaks.) That struck a lot of people -- obviously the workers, but a lot more -- as changing the rules of the game without warning. Protesters turned out in large numbers in Madison.

This might have been a minor footnote to the news, but this is where the stagecraft came in. Democrats knew that Republicans were ready to pass the bill, so they simply left the state -- leaving the legislature short of a quorum and unable to pass anything. That gave their side of the argument even more time to build momentum. That has happened.

And the workers' side certainly has had the better of the television pictures. There have been plenty of shots of them carrying signs and filling the state capital, asking simply to maintaining the bargaining rights that they have held for decades. We had almost three weeks of pictures of protesters in Egypt on our televisions. While the situation obviously was much more complex and important there, it was easy to make a mild connection.

These are obviously difficult times for public workers, who don't have a great public image for a variety of reasons. But taking away their right to negotiate is going to strike practically everyone but the far right as changing the rules of the game while the game is still taking place.

Walker may have started something in Wisconsin, but not what he intended to start by overreaching past common sense. This is one battle that is going to spread to other states which try the same techniques. I sense we are in for a bumpy ride.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The downside

It's popular these days to encourage people with a business background to run for office these days. The theory, at least, is that they are used to running a business efficiently and can bring some fiscal discipline to government.

I'm starting to think there's a downside to this theory, though.

And the discussion starts, naturally, with ex-Congressman Chris Lee of Western New York.

Here's a fine way for a sophomore representative to gain attention -- take part in the fastest scandal in Congressional history.

At 3 o'clock or so, gawker.com published an e-mail exchange between Lee and, um, a potential new lady friend. He made several mistakes along the way -- sending a shirtless photo to the woman (at least he was in good shape), using his own e-mail address, and lying about his marital status, age and occupation. The e-mails were traced to Washington, D.C. Busted.

A friend posted the story on Facebook, and I noticed it a little after 4 p.m. I printed it out and left it for my wife, who was suitably stocked when she saw it at 5 p.m. Then at 6 p.m., we tuned into the local television news to see what had happened. Within the first few minutes of the program, Lee had resigned and was headed back to Buffalo from Washington. Within a day, there was a story out that he had been warned in the past about risky behavior by Republican leadership.

I particularly liked an interview with a psychologist who tried to explain Lee's risky behavior. She spouted a series of "mumbo-jumbo" (a word I don't use often enough)phrases that merely came off as excuses somewhat justifying his actions. That's instead of calling him a bum, which he seems to be by the evidence at hand.

Reviewing here, Lee was a Congressman when he finished lunch, and his reputation was in tatters before dinner. Pretty impressive.

Yes, Lee didn't do anything illegal by trolling on the Internet for dates; that's a subject for his family to handle. But he showed an amazing lack of judgment in this episode, and we do expect our public officials to have that quality as they make important decisions involving our lives. Lee's warnings to his constituents about the dangers of the Internet became hypocritical in an afternoon. Republicans always have trouble when this sort of matter comes out because some have spoken about the sanctity of marriage in the whole gay rights issue.

It all might raise a bigger issue, though. In the last several months, other politicians have suffered from a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease. The most obvious name is candidate for governor Carl Paladino -- do a search for him and "gaffes" and you'll find a long list of results on Google.

I don't want to imply that all businessmen-turned-politicians can't hold their tongue or their urges here, because that wouldn't be fair. But businessmen are often used to having things completely their own way in the private sector. I used to work for a few. Anyone who thinks the public sector can't live without them, and is willing to spend lots of their own money toward that goal (see Donald Trump's current Presidential aspirations), is clearly not ego-deprived. You have to raise your standards a bit and give up some privacy when you leave One Corporate Drive, a lesson that a few may not have learned.

It would be interesting to know if this is a trend, or just a few isolated cases. We'll be watching.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Abdul Rahman Trophy

Here's a story that was about 38 years in the making, and eventually leads to the Super Bowl that was completed on Sunday and climaxed when my high school pal Mark Murphy, the president of the Packers but much better known as my lab partner in advanced biology, was handed the Lombardi Trophy:

Way back in 1972, early in my senior year, I was put in charge of the weekly student newspaper at Clarence Central High School. It was a great vehicle for someone interested in journalism who was bursting with energy when it came to investigating non-academic aspects of the school. In other words, it sure beat worrying about my sinking calculus grade. In no time at all, I developed a literary "voice," met a lot of different people, and sometimes made them laugh.

Anxious to try out practically any stunt to call attention to the newspaper, I remembered something from programs from Buffalo Sabres games. The first star of a home game, if it were a Sabre, got three points in a season-long competition. The second star earned two points, and the third got one. The Sabres kept track of the point totals in the program, and at the end of the season awarded a "Star of Stars" Trophy. Since I was going to basketball games, home and away, anyway, I could pick the stars for all the games and create a contest.

I couldn't name the award "Star of Stars," of course. That would be cheating. And there was only one name at the time in Buffalo for such a basketball award.

Walt Hazzard had been an All-American while at UCLA, and he was a starter for the next several years in the NBA. In 1970, his Atlanta Hawks' team drafted Pete Maravich, and it took a season for the Hawks to realize that they had one too many point guards. And they weren't paying Maravich a relative fortune to be a benchwarmer. The Braves swooped in during the summer of 1971. They traded Don May, a 6-foot-4 small forward who was a little too small and slow to repeat the year that he had in 1970-71, and Herm Gilliam to the Hawks for Hazzard.

In the fall of 1971, Hazzard called a news conference. He announced to the media that he was changing his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, although for some reason he was only known as Abdul Rahman. Hazzard had a good year in 1971-72 at 15.8 points per game. The next season, he seemed to age by about 12 years for no apparent reason. The Braves waived him nine games into his season.

For smart-aleck fans of basketball in Clarence, like me, it -- the name change, the sudden drop-off, the odd exit -- was quite strange and provided fodder for jokes. Remember, when you are 17, everything is fodder for jokes. So, the Abdul Rahman Trophy was born.

The competition went on through the season, and Mark won the title. I took a picture of Rahman out of an old Braves' program, typed out some sort of appropriate script, and put it together in a $2 frame bought at Woolworth's at Eastern Hills Mall. We had the "presentation" after a home game in late February (I looked it up). Jim Feldman, photographer for the school newspaper, took the picture you see here. As we lined up for the shot, I can still picture classmate Kris McClellan also taking a picture of us; maybe I was just surprised that someone else thought this was a history-making occasion. Kris showed me her version of this picture at a 2005 reunion.

It was all pretty light-hearted, although I was happy to discover when I visited Mark at home that the Abdul Rahman Trophy was on a shelf in his room, next to the other trophies he piled up over the years. Maybe he figured that it would be the first and last Abdul Rahman Trophy, which it was.

The years went by, and Mark put on quite a campaign to get last-minute votes for "most likely to succeed in the Clarence Class of '73." He played in the NFL for several years, won a Super Bowl ring with the Redskins as a player, worked for the Department of Justice, became athletics director at Colgate and Northwestern, and a few years ago became president of the Packers. I think we can declare a winner in the class election.

When the Packers reached the Super Bowl this season, three of Mark's classmates headed to Dallas for the Super Bowl. And they were all thrilled when he took the stage after the game to accept the Lombardi Trophy on behalf of the organization. The owner usually has that job, but the Packers are publicly owned (meaning Mark is one of the poorest men ever to be handed that trophy) and thus Mark had the honor.

After the game, the classmates were chatting with Mark about winning the Lombardi Trophy. One of them, Bill Irr, said to Mark out of absolutely nowhere, "I bet winning this game feels almost as good as winning the Abdul Rahman Trophy."

They laughed the laugh that only 40 years of friendship can produce. Then Bill asked Mark if he still had the Rahman Trophy, and Mark said, "Yeah ... somewhere."

Some people will be asking Mark for a look at his Super Bowl ring down the road, but they really should be asking about the Abdul Rahman Trophy. It's much more rare; he'd better go find it.

Congratulations, Mark. Let us know when you're ready to come home and turn the Bills around.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The gorilla in the room

The about-to-be-completed sale of the Buffalo Sabres brings to mind one of the true quirks of the sports business.

Sports teams are in a very odd business situation. They are something of a cultural draw, considered good for the quality of life in a particular community. In the case of Buffalo, the Sabres offer a chance to Buffalo to compete on relatively equal footing with cities such as New York, Toronto and Boston on the sports playing field. As a result, these businesses receive government funding, mostly in the form of subsidies for stadiums and surrounding infrastructure. Theaters and art galleries also receive those subsidies in certain circumstances for the same reason.

Yet, the Sabres are a business. As we saw a few years ago, if they are badly run they can come close to folding or moving. But, they can make money too -- maybe not much from year to year, but sometimes on the back end of an ownership era. This isn't a non-profit organization, like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. When Sabres owner Tom Golisano agreed to sell the team, his profit was relatively close to nine figures. (In fairness, when the Knox family cashed out of the hockey business, its return was very, very small -- so there are no guarantees.)

And it's a very odd business in terms of its relationship with the public. All fans make an emotional connection to the team, which usually means they have strong opinions on how the franchise should be run. Rule number one is: win at any cost. The ideal owner plows millions into the franchise in pursuit of a championship, keeping ticket prices artificially low in the process. After all, the reasoning goes, the owner is a rich guy and can afford it. Is there any other business that judges success by something other than profit and loss in that manner?

That brings us to the gorilla mentioned in the title. Any discussion between a team and its town starts with one basic, sometimes forgotten fact. The owner of a pro sports franchise puts up large amounts of money to acquire the team. It could easily go into more profitable places. The fans, at least in the case of the smart ones, remember that. They know Ralph Wilson could sell the Bills to Los Angeles interests for one billion dollars right now, which would earn him $250 million more than he could receive for a team in Buffalo. But he doesn't. They heard that Golisano could have sold the Sabres for $70 million more than he received for them if he was willing to let the team move somewhere -- we assume Hamilton. Instead he found an owner that would keep the team here.

We accept all that, appreciate that, and feel a sense of debt.

The outgoing management team of the Sabres held a news conference on Thursday to discuss their status. The session was a lot of different things, but the one word that would never be associated with it would be "gracious."

Golisano and Larry Quinn spent many of those 60 minutes reviewing their accomplishments during their time running the team. They made the Sabres financially viable again, which without doubt is impressive and important. And they are about to be rewarded for it from new owner Terry Pegula. OK, that's business.

Golisano and Quinn also seemed to remember every slight thrown at them during the course of their tenure, as they brought up some of them during the course of the news conference. As exits go, it wasn't going to make anyone nostalgic for their presence.

Remember when their tenure started? Golisano was considered a rich gadfly who had spent millions in a relatively hopeless quest to become the Governor of New York. I believe he once said he had entered the hockey business in honor of a late friend, and ended up enjoying the sport immensely. Golisano's public appearances were few and far between, which seems like a mistake in hiindsight. But no one believes that it was bad for Golisano to wind up with the team instead of Mark Hamister, the other bidder for the franchise when the Rigas empire crumbled who was clearly in over his head. Golisano's time with the Sabres did wonders for his public image, too, which could have some value as he apparently gets ready to return to the political arena.

Quinn, meanwhile, made an amazing comeback. He left the Sabres with a legacy of the John Muckler/Ted Nolan era, spoiling his reputation in the process. Everyone was surprised when he came back into the picture, but -- give him credit -- he learned some things from the first time around. Still, Quinn was combative to the end, never learning the old lesson that while "it's nice to be smart, in the long run it's smarter to be nice."

Golisano and Quinn move into hockey's sunset now, exiting the sport's pages for good. Their contribution to Western New York's sports history won't be forgotten. But they sure made it difficult for fans to feel warm and fuzzy about them, particularly when they said goodbye.