Being an elected official is a delicate balancing act. One has to consider what is in the best interests of all constituents, while constantly working to win over voters and secure re-election.
Ideally, a politician will give more weight to the common good than to his own self-interest, as what will drum up quick votes isn’t always what’s best for constituents (or even the politician) in the long run.
State Sen. Elaine Phillips learned this lesson the hard way over the past year.
From the time she first began campaigning for her senate seat in 2016, she made blocking the Long Island Rail Road’s third track project her signature issue.
This was a calculated decision on Phillips’ part.
Although the LIRR services approximately 355,000 riders per weekday (a large percentage of whom utilize its Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay and Ronkonkoma branches), very few of those 355,000 riders were actively lobbying for an overhaul of the LIRR’s infrastructure in 2016.
Opponents of the third track project, however, were extremely vocal and lined up behind Phillips when she promised them the third track project would never be anything other than a proposal if she were elected.
This benefited Phillips in the short run. Although she won the election, it wasn’t by a large margin (2.52 percent or 3,409 votes).
If opponents of the third track project hadn’t eagerly lined up to vote for the woman that was promising them the world, her opponent may have won (or, at the very least, her margin of victory would have been razor thin).
Shortly after her successful run, however, the bottom fell out.
First, breakdowns and service disruptions in and around Penn Station became constant in early 2017, forcing Amtrak (the owner of Penn Station) to schedule disruptive emergency repairs.
This put Phillips in the unenviable position of advocating for emergency repairs at Penn Station, while simultaneously advocating against proactive, long-term improvements to the LIRR infrastructure within her own district.
Making matters worse for Phillips, the MTA added the third track project to its capital plan. If the plan were approved, the project would go forward, dissolving a fiercely loyal voting block.
It was, at this point, when Phillips abandoned any pretense that she was acting in any interests but her own.
Through state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Phillips pressured Sen. Martin Golden to veto the MTA’s entire capital plan to stop the project and keep its opponents from abandoning her at the voting booth.
Although this pressure caused a substantial delay in the approval of the project, in the end, Flanagan and Golden declined to block the project, and it was included in the approved capital plan. The MTA expects to break ground in 2018.
Of course, no one can predict how Phillips’ campaign for re-election will play out in 2018. However, it is clear Phillips is frantically trying to pick up the pieces after this failed gambit.
Since the MTA approved the third track project, Phillips has not mentioned the project or addressed its opponents.
She has, however, been pandering to LIRR riders, constantly reminding them that, decades ago, she rode the LIRR to work and that she cares deeply about their transportation needs.
Just last week, Phillips went into pandering overdrive on Facebook, reminding voters in two separate posts that she was the chairperson of the Senate’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee and that she understood “the importance of a safe and seamless transportation system.”
In one of those posts, she shared pictures of herself inspecting construction at the Hicksville LIRR station. In the same post, she claimed that she was “pleased to view the major platform upgrades and modernization of the main line station.”
This is, of course, rich coming from the same person who told Newsday as recently as June that “local concerns outweigh[ed] the regional benefit” of the third track project.
Phillips clearly sees LIRR commuters (many still angry about the infrastructure failures earlier this year) as a replacement for the voting block she almost certainly lost when the third track project was approved.
She hopes LIRR riders registered to vote in her district won’t remember that she spent months trying to stick a knife in their collective back and would have been happy to see them stuck without a reliable way to commute if it meant she got to stay in office.
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Sen. Phillips, but it will take more than posting photos of yourself in a hardhat or repeating focus-tested phrases to convince us that you have our best interests at heart.
Publicly admitting you were wrong to oppose the third track project would be a start.
New Hyde Park