Column: All Politics is Local

By Dan FitzPatrick

Tip O’Neil’s famous saying contains more than a grain of truth to it.  Perhaps it’s worth remembering that as we head into another local election season.

On Tuesday, November 5, the Town of Greenwich will select its local government leaders.  Ours is a wonderful town, blessed with natural beauty, extraordinary schools, unequaled recreational opportunities, and close proximity to the economic and cultural advantages of New York City.  Our municipal services and facilities are so amazing, I’ve even written previously in praise of our town dump!  Just being out and about his past weekend was enough to showcase how lucky we are to live in this very special place.

Yes, we have our issues and challenges, but they are well within our ability to address by ourselves.  For years we have eschewed taking federal or state funds to solve our problems; if anything, our resources have been tapped repeatedly by Hartford to deal with issues not of our making.  Our potential tax base is grossly disproportionate in scale to our representation in both Hartford and Washington, which has made us a sort of Golden Goose to politicians more willing to tax us than listen to our concerns and wishes.

The last election in which we chose our local government and state representatives was dominated by national issues and unprecedented division regarding the result of a national election.  It has been alleged that significant funding from sources outside our town and state were employed to influence our local elections.  I find all this curious, because the hard truth is that we in Greenwich have no material voice in or impact on politics at the national level. 

How can I say such a thing?

The State of Connecticut is a reliably “Blue” state, and has been for quite some time.  That is neither a good nor a bad thing, it is simply a fact.  As a result, when either national political party is planning its campaign to gather enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency, Connecticut can simply be taken for granted.  Ever wonder why presidential candidates visit our state only sporadically and then only to raise money?  The simple, hard truth is that it makes no sense for them to spend precious time and organizational energy on a foregone conclusion.  No one at the national level is fighting for our vote.  We are considered “in the bag.”  Our role is to show up and open our wallets.

We have a bit more influence on our state government, but the issues there are even more daunting.  Mismanagement by politicians of both parties has made a fiscal joke of our state and driven our standing in polls of all sorts from essentially “first to worst.”  Our state finances are a ticking time bomb and it appears no one in Hartford has the political courage to take the steps necessary to deal honestly with the root cause of the issue:  we are spending, and have committed to spend, much more than we take in.  It’s a bit like the old joke: “I don’t understand how our checking account can be overdrawn; we still have some checks left.”

I’ve spent the bulk of my professional career advising individuals and families of wealth.  In recent years, the principal topic of discussion is the fate of our state and the increasing attraction of relocating to states with little or no income tax burden.  (Some readers may not know or recall that for many years Connecticut had no state earned income tax until 1991 when it was introduced to solve a temporary budgetary shortfall problem.  That year, the state’s budget was $7.6BN; twenty-five years later it had risen to $19.8BN with the state enduring multiple budgetary crises in the meantime, and continuing to do so to this day.)

I love this town and this state, but it would be malpractice not to admit that there are very powerful reasons to pick up roots and depart for states like Texas and Florida which have no state income tax.  The stark fact is that people are leaving in droves.  The impact of this exodus goes far beyond the precipitous declines in state and local tax revenue.  For example, in order to evidence a change in domicile, it is often necessary to cut all ties with the previous home state, including closing local bank and investment accounts, re-registering automobiles, replacing longstanding professional advisors (attorneys, accountants, investment managers) and selling real estate. 

These actions all have the effect of depressing the local economy.  If you don’t believe this is a really pressing concern, just ask a local realtor or observe how many vehicles on our roads and streets now carry Florida license plates.

But back to the topic of our upcoming local election, the one where we individually can make a difference.

I personally would like to see us avoid another electoral process where the focus is on national issues, including rehashing the last presidential election or preparing for the next.  There is a proper time and opportunity to have those discussions and debates.  We need focused and spirited debate and discussion now on the very real issues that face our town today, and that will require the considerable talent, energy and involvement of our citizenry to address.  Let’s keep it all local.

May I suggest a new slogan? 

Greenwich:  Love it, don’t leave it!