The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

September 8, 2009

My Turn: I can't run for office, but what have I done?


This week's "My turn" column is by Gary Herzig, chief operating officer of Opportunities for Otsego.

Each year, when our election season approaches, I am painfully reminded that I am not eligible to run for political office.

Because of things that I have done in the past, and continue to do, Congress has prohibited me from running in any political election. I am prohibited from representing my neighbors on the Oneonta Common Council or on the Otsego County Board of Representatives.

What, you may ask, have I done to deserve this? I will tell you _ I earn my living by helping poor people.

As the chief operating officer for Opportunities for Otsego, I am proud to be part of a team of hard-working, dedicated and caring staff that helps our county's most vulnerable residents overcome crises and develop long-term plans to achieve increased levels of self-sufficiency.

Our staff includes Head Start teachers and bus drivers, shelter associates, employment counselors, crime-victim advocates, family support workers, food-bank coordinators and others.

Most of them, like me, have been prohibited from running for any political office by The Hatch Act of 1939.

Officially known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, the Hatch Act of 1939 was a reaction to widespread allegations of misuse of Works Progress Administration funds during the congressional elections of 1938.

Among other things, this act prohibited federal employees from membership in any political organization that advocated the overthrow of our constitutional form of government and from engaging in partisan political activity.

Modifications to the Hatch Act, over time, have permitted some federal employees to have greater participation in the political process without being permitted to run for office.

The intent of Congress, I do not believe, was to disenfranchise groups of people such as pre-school teachers and school bus drivers by prohibiting their full participation in the political process.

In 1964, as part of President Johnson's war on poverty, the Head Start and Community Action initiatives were implemented in an effort to help some of our country's poorest families to build skills that could lead them to greater self-sufficiency.

These programs are generally administered by staff working in private, not-for-profit organizations for whom the Hatch Act was never intended to apply; however, specific language in these programs' original legislation refers to them as government agencies and, therefore, triggers its application.

The result of all of this is that some of our most community-minded citizens are banned from running for local government offices because they work for a not-for-profit that is helping their neighbors overcome the effects of poverty.

Two recent events in Indiana have drawn attention to the Hatch Act. In 2008, Steve Melcher was elected to the position of Vanderburgh County Commissioner.

After the election, the candidate he had defeated sued to invalidate the election because Melcher had been a facilities manager at a not-for-profit organization that operated a Head Start program.

Similarly in 2007, Duke Bennet defeated the incumbent mayor of Terre Haute in the city election. The defeated incumbent sued to invalidate the election because Bennet was employed as an operations manager of a not-for- profit that operated a Head Start program. Both of these cases and their elections remain tied up in the courts.

At a time when our electoral process is overly dependent on big money and special-interest groups, do we really need our federal government to be worried about local maintenance workers, bus drivers and pre-school teachers abusing their influence?

There must be a better way to separate federal employees with policy-making authority from workers at local not-for-profits.

Much has changed since 1939, but the Hatch Act has not kept pace. Legislators have proposed changes, and I remain hopeful that, someday, common sense will prevail and Congress will move to modify the Hatch Act so as not to block some of our most capable and involved community members from seeking public office.

To reach Herzig, e-mail gherzig@ofoinc.org. To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at tshalor@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.