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Long Story Short: Let's dance


illustration by JP Thimot


When politicians collide

Two sets of Western New York leaders squared off this week in spirited verbal battles. Republican Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter of Amherst and Empire State Development CEO, Howard A. Zemsky, sparred over the performance of Zemsky’s brainchild, 43North. The other clash was between Democrat Congressman Brian Higgins of Buffalo and Republican Congressman Tom Reed of Corning—Higgins passionately opposes a tax plan championed by Reed. Sparks flew in each case.


The details:

At a legislative hearing Monday, Walter and Zemsky got into a near-shouting match, when Walter cited a report that upstate job growth has been “losing steam.” Walter challenged Governor Cuomo’s economic policies, including Zemsky’s 43North business startup competition—the biggest of its type in the world. Walter pointed out that most out-of-state winning firms leave Buffalo after a year, and, according to a detailed investigative report in The Public, this is accurate.  


Things got hot quick. Walter wanted to see “concrete proof 43North was benefiting the economy, “and I’m not convinced you can do that,” he said, “so if we could focus more on that than the platitudes…” Before he could finish, Zemsky parried with, “I don’t think anything I’m saying to be a tangent,’’ and lunged, “My job has been to be involved with Buffalo and the revitalization of Buffalo in a way that, Assemblyman, you could have never imagined, sitting in that seat for however long you’ve been in it,” said Zemsky, “You’ve been opposed to projects that we’ve done.” Walter deflected; “It’s not that I’m opposed…” But Zemsky lunged again; “You don’t know anything about the innovation economy.”


By now the two were going full throttle. “Do you know anything about what’s really going on?” Zemsky asked Walter at one point. After some loud overlapping banter, Walter went in for the kill, citing a recent report by the Tax Foundation stating that New York State ranks second-last in business tax climate. Zemsky replied that before Cuomo, Buffalo had experienced economic stagnation for “40 freakin’ years,” to which Walter again claimed that Zemsky is “hard-pressed” to show a correlation between Cuomo’s policies and Buffalo’s economic improvement.


Zempsky: “I couldn’t disagree more”

Walter: “Then I guess we’ll disagree.”

Zemsky: “I guess we will.”

End match.


The other (national) battle

Higgins and Reed are on opposite sides of the aisle, but they get along. That didn’t stop Higgins from coming out strong against the Republican tax plan (since passed) that Reed backs. What made this notable is that Higgins has always been the quiet sort. But at a recent House Ways and Means committee meeting, an impassioned Higgins let loose, blasting the tax-cut plan in a voice that nearly rose to the level of a shout.  He called the claim that corporate tax cuts would benefit the middle class “another boldfaced lie by this White House perpetrated against the American people.” At this, Chairman Kevin Brady banged his gavel, saying, “The gentleman will suspend; you’re over the guardrails on decorum in this committee.” But the Higgins fury-train kept chugging; “This benefits wealthy people and wealthy corporations at the expense of Middle America,” he added loudly. Later, Higgins reflected, “I think that shook them out of their comfort zone a little bit.”


Higgins recently reentered the powerful committee, and Democratic members voted to make him “vice ranking member,” giving him a platform from which to speak. The Congressman already sponsored an assortment of bills—some that would benefit high tax states like New York—which were voted down by the Republican majority. Higgins knew they would fail, but introduced them to “make a larger point.” 


Reed was already a six-year member of Ways and Means, and he played a significant role in promoting the tax plan. He also supported cutting the “SALT” deduction (which allows taxpayers to subtract state taxes before paying Federal taxes), though he worked toward a compromise to retain some deductions. Reed is also the guy who famously stood next to a two-foot tall pile of paper he claimed was the current tax code, while presenting the proposed revision that was only about an inch thick. “I am not going to live with this any longer,” he said, in an impressive act of political theater.


The takeaway:

Higgins and Reed both represent Western New York on one of the most influential committees in Congress. They believe strongly in what they do, but are able to work together. They each had their moment of civic drama in the spotlight, but neither raged against the other. If only all government officials behaved this way.  



Good news: Lake Ontario shoreline is a disaster

Earlier this week President Trump declared the New York shoreline of Lake Ontario a disaster area, due to summer flooding. This will make federal funds available for recovery efforts. But the politics don’t end there.


The details:

It may seem kind-of strange to root for your town to be declared a disaster, but that’s just what six area counties, including Niagara, did—successfully. That’s good news for Niagara County lakeshore residents, who sustained significant property damage, as did government roads, barriers, breakwaters, and parks. Now all are eligible to apply for assistance for recovery efforts. This is a rare instance where Chris Collins’ close relationship with President Trump paid off. The congressman pressed for the federal aid. Of course, he had to spoil it by using the occasion to call again, as he has before, for an end to a recently enacted water-management regulation called Plan 2014.


What’s Plan 2014?

For fifty years, humans regulated Great Lake water levels primarily for the benefit of hydroelectric power generation and shipping. The result was a significant shift in natural lake and river processes, and reduced habitat diversity. An International Joint Commission, along with the US and Canadian governments, formulated a new approach that benefits all interests. Plan 2014 was developed over the course of ten years with input from more than 180 stakeholder representatives, experts, government scientists, academia, non-governmental organizations, and industry in New York, Ontario, and Quebec.


Plan 2014 didn’t cause this summer’s flooding. The record high water levels were caused by a mind-boggling amount of rain. Buffalo had the wettest April on record, and the high-water levels weren’t limited to the Great Lakes. Silver Lake, for instance, is over an hour’s drive from anything included in Plan 2014, and it had similar flooding. The complete list of causes of record high water levels is long.


Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat, also pushed for the disaster declaration. Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, a Republican, blamed the damage on Plan 2014: “We desperately need those reimbursements of the enormous expenses incurred because of the man-made disaster caused by the International Joint Commission,” he said in a statement.


The takeaway:

Collins and Godfrey—both Republicans—favor the old water regulation plan that benefited industry, over Plan 2014, which helps the environment. Unfortunately, record-breaking rain and early snow melt handed them a catastrophic event they could blame on Plan 2014. Collins has President Trump’s ear. Trump, as we all know, is “business friendly,” and not prone to kindness toward the natural world. Stay tuned.     



Attack of the killer birds

As we’ve seen, sometimes saving the environment has drawbacks. Case in point, the double-crested cormorant. It’s a black, prehistoric-looking bird that used to be endangered, but thanks to Western New York ecological efforts, and the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it’s now way too plentiful.


The details:

The pros and cons list for cormorants is con-heavy. The black-covered fowl have been muscling in on the common tern’s turf, and terrorizing herons and egrets. Right now, a gang of cormorants is locked in a turf war with egrets and great blue heron for control of the Motor Island Wildlife Management Area. The bully-birds clear out rivers and lakes of smaller fish, impacting their ecological diversity. They float down the Niagara River, eating anything they can get down their gullets, leaving little for other birds or larger fish.


But that’s not even the worst of it. After they eat, they congregate in large numbers in trees along the Niagara Parkway, Strawberry Island, or Motor Island, and poop mass quantities of deadly acidic guano, defoliating the flora. This is messing with $13 million worth of habitat the New York Power Authority is now completing along the Niagara River, to make the area amenable once again to endangered species.


Ironically, pollutants like DDT used to keep the cormorant population in check. Clean-up efforts to make our waters great again paved the way for these avian hooligans. What we need is more bald eagles, which eat cormorants.


But the cormorant’s mob days might be numbered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently paved the way for a cormorant purge in thirty-seven states, including New York, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation is reviewing its options. First, it will try nonlethal methods of driving the birds out of town, noise-making and scarecrows for instance. If that fails—cormorants don’t seem like they scare easily—the DEC will go for their nests, and, yes, even shoot them.


But for the moment, such plans are on hold. The cormorants got themselves a lawyer with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and have won a lawsuit arguing that the purge violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reverted to an earlier policy requiring individual depredation permits to kill cormorants. It will oversee permit applications for killing the damn critters, stating that this will cause no significant environmental harm except, you know, to the cormorants.


The takeaway:

Don’t mess with egrets.



Going small for the seventies

Most people have heard about the World’s Largest Disco, that annual mega-fundraising event that happens again November 25, at the Buffalo Convention Center.  It’s that seventies dance party that attracts thousands of retro-disco-goers. There is, however, a much more exclusive event coinciding with the big one—The World’s Smallest Disco. Can you dig it?


The details:

Choose Yer Own Adven-Tours, comprising improvisational artists and performers, Ron Ehmke and Paula Watkins, is staging a highly condensed evening of partying for the self-selected few. They’re billing it as “the most exclusive nightspot in downtown Buffalo, New York—if not the entire planet.” Exclusive, yes, because it will be held in a black, 2016, Chrysler Town & Country van.


At 8 p.m., on the same evening as the World’s Biggest Disco, the van doors will swing open to welcome as many people as can crowd into the rear of the vehicle. Of course, their doorman/bouncer will exercise discretion as to how many the mobile club can hold at a time, but he will not look you over to determine whether you dress adequately funky; just dress warm. The organizers say the van—which should be easy to spot—will be parked as close to the entrance of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center as possible. The specific location of the pop-up venue will be announced via social networks on the afternoon of the event. The organizers plan to livecast portions of the proceedings via Facebook.


Here’s what the organizers have to say about the party conditions: “’Dancing’ may prove challenging for those lucky enough to make it past the velvet rope, as it is physically impossible for an adult human being to stand up on the ‘dance floor,’  let alone do the Hustle, but we are confident that generations of party people limbered up by years of yoga, Pilates, and bellying up to a crowded bar for an overpriced cocktail will be able to adjust to this minor limitation.”


Choose Yer Own Adven-Tours is calling the media-equipped van, a "’performance truck’ modeled on the current fashion for food trucks,” and they‘re planning a series of van-based projects around the city in the summer of 2018, for which the World's Smallest Disco is the inaugural project.


The World’s Smallest Disco is free, and open to the public. For more information, visit the World's Smallest Disco event page on Facebook.


The takeaway:

Don’t be a closet disco queen. Boogie down, Town and Country style.



Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime writer for Buffalo Spree.


Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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