Jerry Kremer

Do Democrats need a charismatic presidential candidate?

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Five decades ago, New York City had a charismatic mayor named John V. Lindsay. He had movie-star appeal, but made more than his share of mistakes, including not plowing the snow in the entire borough of Queens and not solving a crippling sanitation strike quickly enough. After switching from the Republican to the Liberal Party, he was challenged briefly in 1973 by then Congressman Edward I. Koch.

Koch had none of Lindsay’s sex appeal, and eventually gave up his first bid for the mayoralty. But Lindsay’s successor, Abraham Beame, was a captive of back-room politics, and Koch was back in the mayoral campaign in 1977. “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse,” he would say of Lindsay and Beame, “why not try competence?” Koch was elected in 1977, and went on to become one of the city’s greatest mayors.

Looking back, even though Koch had a great sense of humor and was sometimes outspoken in his comments, he was considered a little bland. In today’s political world we tend to gravitate toward candidates that look like Robert Redford in his prime and others who are equally telegenic. Voters sometimes prefer good-looking candidates even if, deep down, they bring no substance to the campaign. Today’s media give politicians great exposure, and looks don’t hurt.

The 2020 national election may be a contest between an outspoken real estate baron (if Donald Trump is still a candidate) who is saddled with multiple investigations and a few scandals, and a Democratic candidate who may look much different from a movie version of past presidents. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush weren’t sex symbols, but they captured the attention of the voters and got elected to the nation’s highest office. Carter was book-smart, and Bush had name recognition. In both cases the public wanted something different, and wasn’t looking for Hollywood qualities.

Even though we’re just starting 2019, speculation has already begun over whom the Democratic Party will nominate next year. A few of the potential candidates, who are on the brink of running, seem to be carbon copies when it comes to the issues of the day. Who isn’t for health care for all? Don’t we all want safer highways and bridges? Shouldn’t voting be made easier for all Americans? Who doesn’t want secure borders? In what ways do Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren differ?

So maybe, in 2020, voters would like to vote for a Democrat who can be a little bland but is competent, and gives the impression that he or she is up to the task. That category might include Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. There are many others who fit into that mold, so I don’t mean to deliberately omit them from the discussion.

Regardless of what party you’re affiliated with, today’s voters are suffering from Trump fatigue. Even many of the most diehard Republicans will be quick to confess that they wish the president would stop tweeting and stop playing fast and loose with the facts. Military veterans are getting turned off by his constant attacks on members of his cabinet who held high ranks and won numerous honors from the services. Attacking Generals Jim Mattis, John Kelly and Stanley McChrystal isn’t the way to win votes in 2020.

Some political analysts are suggesting that the Democrats need a candidate who will go toe to toe with Trump, but that may not be a winning formula, either. A case in point is the new governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, who defeated Gov. Scott Walker. Since 2009, Evers has served as the state’s superintendent of public instruction. In 2013 he won that position with 70 percent of the vote. His low-key campaign was all about bringing competence to the office. You can check him out on the internet, but he was a far cry from a Robert Redford type.

So, after two years of insults and personal attacks, it may be the right time for someone who isn’t photogenic but is honest, smart, earnest and worldly to be the Democratic standard-bearer in 2020.

Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.