‘King Cotton band marches on’

by John T. Sullivan Jr. (via e-mail)

The more things change, the more they stay the same! Who said that? It must have been someone from Oswego, because Oswego always provides ample evidence for the verity of this vernacular conundrum. Particularly when it comes to politics.

Forty-one years ago, I was elected a member of the newly formed Oswego County Legislature (formerly known as the Board of Supervisors). I was a Democrat in a Republican sea and I was quickly made aware of that fact when I asked to see copies of the resolutions we had to vote on.

“What?” exclaimed then County Attorney Charlie Sauers. “Do you know how much making Xerox copies would cost?”

Undaunted, I persisted in my quest to be able to read what I was about to vote on. It took a few months, but the Republican majority finally relented and cranked up the copy machine!

In those days, Ray Cotton, who was the sheriff and the chairman of the Republican Party would stand in the back of the chambers, and when it came time to vote, the roll call would start with the Town of Albion, whose Legislator at the time, Kenny Wheeler, would look back at Sheriff Cotton, who would literally give either a thumbs up or thumbs down signal, and Ken would vote accordingly.

The rest of the majority members then followed suit. That was just the way things were done, way back then.

I criticized the county government for acting like the “Toonerville Trolley,” puffing and snorting its way into the 20th century. I know, I know,  Trolleys don’t puff and snort, they run on electricity, but believe me, this one did, and anyone who dared to rise up to challenge the status quo, as I most often did, was rebuffed, rebuked, and reviled for having the temerity to challenge the powers who be.

Well, fast forward 41 years, and the Oswego County Legislature is back at it again — with a vengeance.

They have re-drawn legislative district lines without paying much heed to existing town lines, but lots of heed to whatever will further solidify their political hegemony.

They have appointed their chairman, Fred Beardsley, who by all accounts is unqualified for the post, as county treasurer. Why? Because they can. It is a perfect example of the arrogance of power that comes from unfettered one party rule.

But to add insult to injury, the coalition of Democrats,  Conservatives and disgruntled Republicans who have finally said enough is enough, have had to take to the courts to challenge this majority exercise in raw partisan redistricting power, only to find that the Judge hearing the case, who should be an impartial arbiter, is himself a former chairman of the local Republican party.

In addition, his brother-in-law, H. Douglas Barclay, is the respected and venerable former state senator from the area, and the power of all the powers that be in Oswego County.

Indeed, Doug’s law firm was paid to give an opinion to the majority Republican legislature that what they were doing, apportionment wise, was perfectly legal.

Under normal circumstances, Seiter is seen as a fair and impartial jurist, but when it comes to political cases, it will be hard for him not to see things from the Republican side of the aisle.

It is where his bread has been buttered all of his life and they are the team that brought him to the seat of power he now occupies.

A fair and impartial judiciary is critical to the administration of justice, and in this situation, fairness and impartiality may fall victim to partisanship, even if unwittingly.

It seems to me that the most sensible thing for Judge Norm Seiter to do would be to recuse himself from this case, and that way, avoid even the appearance and/or mere hint of impropriety.

He is unlikely to do that, however, so justice ill served may be justice denied. To quote an old friend of mine, the late Harry O’Brien of Fulton, “John Phillip Sousa may be dead, but his King Cotton band marches on in Oswego County.”

It is as true today as it was back then. Only the names have been changed to protect the less than innocent.

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