As long as there are politicians who will say and do almost anything to get elected, there will be a need for the Westchester Fair Campaign Practices Committee (FCPC).
The nonpartisan, all-volunteer committee has been in the integrity business for more than three decades, a remarkable achievement of community service deserving of recognition, especially during the hurly burly of the election season when local candidates for public office inevitably trade in — dare I say it? — alternative facts.
It began with an idea hatched in a 1990 Gannett newspaper editorial by Milt Hoffman, the fabled Westchester journalist and human encyclopedia of all things political. Noting the bitter disputes between candidates, he wrote:
“It happens during every election season in Westchester, and it is happening now in the final days of the campaigns…Someone asks, ‘Why doesn’t Westchester have a fair-election-campaign practices committee.’
“Indeed, why not?”
The League of Women Voters picked up on the idea and the FCPC was created the following year.
Simply put, the FCPC fields grievances from candidates who allege that their opponents either misled voters or outright lied in their campaign advertising.
Typically, the complaints center on mass mailings — you know, the kind that include insulting photos of adversaries made to look like serial killers. A hearing is held in which both sides are invited to state their case, followed by deliberations and a ruling of “fair,” “unfair,” or “no finding.” The decisions, which are released to the press and posted on the FCPC website, are purposely terse and void of flashy censorious prose, e.g. “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
No editorializing here. Just the facts, ma’am.
Nevertheless, voter apathy is a problem and it hardly helps that the local media has shrunk to the point of having little or no influence.
Think of the committee as a traffic cop standing at the crossroads of democracy. According to Jennifer Mebes Flagg, who, as FCPC coordinator serves as the head crossing guard, the committee has held about 500 hearings since its inception.
Lee Kinnally, who served as mayor of Hastings-on-Hudson for 16 years and is a long-time member of the FCPC, knew and admired Hoffman, who died in 2015. When Kinnally hears a complaint, he asks himself, What would Milt do with this situation?
“He believed in the right to redress for certain grievances and to make sure that everybody plays fair on a level playing field,” Kinnally says.
Beyond the public release of its findings, the FCPC has no enforcement power. “But we rely on the media to publish all our findings,” Flagg says. “And if it’s in their favor, the candidates are very quick to post [the result] on social media and make a big deal about it.”
Nevertheless, voter apathy is a problem and it hardly helps that the local media has shrunk to the point of having little or no influence. When Hoffman wrote that groundbreaking editorial 33 years ago, the newspaper was a vibrant part of the Westchester community — and Hoffman aggressively ushered the committee findings into print.
Today, there isn’t even an editorial board. Getting the newspaper to print the findings is more of a hit or miss proposition. Flagg says the FCPC must increasingly rely on its own “robust” website to do the job.
In these polarizing times it should come as no surprise that the FCPC has its critics. But a nuanced view is taken by Jeffrey M. Binder, an attorney and managing member of the White Plains-based Strategic Political Group, a campaign consulting firm.
After attending more than a dozen FCPC hearings over the past 20 years, Binder has detected a few inherent weaknesses in the process — one of them centering on free speech protections.
“It’s a very difficult assignment for a committee member because the First Amendment really protects political speech — even lies, as we are seeing from the fallout from Donald Trump’s behavior,” Binder says. “Then you get into a very murky area of what is ‘misleading’… I found it was so difficult to agree on a standard of what was misleading and to whom.”
Nevertheless, he said the FCPC’s mission deserves respect and gives the group credit for trying to prevent lies from metastasizing, which is harder than ever, thanks to the weaponizing of Facebook, Instagram, and other lightning-fast vessels of propaganda.
Flagg is aware that by the very nature of politics, the mission is Sisyphean.
“Ideally, we don’t want to see complaints,” she says, laughing softly. “Because we’d like everyone to be honest, open, and not misleading.”