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Posted at 5:07 PM ET, 11/24/2010

In praise of a party warhorse

By E.J. Dionne

We're a funny country because we may be as polarized as we have ever been across partisan lines, yet we don't give much respect to the hard-working loyalists in either party, the people who are dedicated to politics when politics is fashionable and when it's not. They show up at the meetings no one else wants to attend, do the work no one else wants to do, stay engaged when everyone else drops out of sight. They actually are the lifeblood of our electoral democracy.

These thoughts come to mind because I am saddened by the death of one such party warhorse who hails from the part of the world where I grew up. Sylvester Sylvia (wonderful name, isn't it?) passed away on Monday at the age of 87. I loved Sylvester because he never lost a bit of his energy for politics, his passion for old-fashioned Kennedy liberalism, or his deeply intelligent engagement with everything that was going on around him, both locally and nationally. Every year, I looked forward to exchanging ideas and pure political gossip with him at my sister's party after Christmas. It wasn't just a liberal lovefest, by the way. The conservative side was faithfully represented by another friend, Navy Capt. Pete Hewett, who retired after 28 years of service to his country. I don't think Pete ever agreed with Sylvester on anything (or with me, either), but he enjoyed Sylvester as much I did.

I respected Sylvester as someone who kept at it, whether he won or lost. He ran for Mayor of New Bedford, Mass. three times, all of his efforts unsuccessful. But he eventually won election to the Bristol County Commission, where he served for 14 years. In the meantime, he served governors and mayors in a variety of jobs, all the while staying active in state and local Democratic committees -- and taking real joy in all of it. Happy Warrior may be an overused phrase (it is one of my personal favorites), but it definitely applied to Sylvester.

I regret I never gave Sylvester a copy of the political philosopher Nancy L. Rosenblum's great book, "On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Politics." He did not have to read it to know, as Rosenblum noted, that "partisanship is the political identity of American democracy." He would have agreed with her that the parties' "positive contributions to regulating political conflict, governing, exciting political participation and deliberating go mostly unacknowledged." He didn't require the ratification of a distinguished Harvard professor for how he had chosen to dedicate his energies. But he'd have gotten a kick out of the fact that there was one who saw things just as he did from the wards of New Bedford.

And here is a lovely thing: This loyalist contributed to his party's cause right to the end of his life. When Rep. Barney Frank found himself engaged in his first tough race for reelection in decades, he enlisted Sylvester to star in one of his television ads -- if you look at it, Sylvester is the guy chatting with Barney at the diner. Frank won in the end, and I'll now always think of his reelection as Sylvester's last victory.

By E.J. Dionne  | November 24, 2010; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Comments

That is a glorious legacy to have contributed to the re election of Barney Frank? May he rest in peace as a decent and honorable human being who meant well even when he was misguided.

Posted by: bowspray | November 24, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

E J - nice tribute. This harkens back to the time when politics was public service, not a blood sport.

Posted by: raydsg | November 25, 2010 7:25 AM | Report abuse

We had guys like this in Chicago. They were called block captains. They got out the vote, but they also helped the neighbors get new garbage cans, got the street light fixed, got food to a needy family, helped an out of work guy find a job. Like your friend, they found joy in what they did.

Posted by: jpawlik1 | November 25, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Proud to have gotten Barney Frank elected? This man is a major player in the economic demise of this country. A complete disaster to the United States and you think this is a good thing?

Posted by: Pilot1 | November 25, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I lived in Chicago, too. Block captains also get traffic tickets "fixed" for their residents, among other things, like watching the polls to see how one voted so they could get their $5. (this was some years back) Block captains were part of the Chicago corruption.

No one should boast about getting Barney elected. He is a blathering idiot.

Posted by: annnort | November 25, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

In response to all the Barney Frank-bashers on here, I for one am glad that he got re-elected. I've heard him interviewed many times, I've read his recent op-ed with Ron Paul on ways to balance the federal budget, and I think he is a very smart and serious politician. I know that lucid, erudite, informed political figures don't appeal to everyone out there, which is why some people love Sarah Palin and W. But I like politicians who not only know and care about matters of public policy and national need, but actually pose serious solutions as well. Democrats like Barney Frank, Bernie Sanders, Barbara Boxer, Barack Obama, these people make mistakes sure, but by and large they are real public servants. Republicans on the other hand would like to farm the job of governing this country and dealing with national needs out to 10,000 corporations. And given the great number of challenges that we face as Americans, as an entire country (environmental degradation, terrorism, inadequate health care, poverty, economic decline, etc.), that just does not seem like a good idea to me.

Posted by: Scubergmu | November 25, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect to Mr. Sylvia, New Bedford was, and still is, as mess as is Massachusetts.

Posted by: Crmudgeon | November 25, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Dionne has taken the time to write a tribute to a long-time friend who has recently died, and some people can't wait to begin the snarky comments. Perhaps bowspray, Pilot 1, annort and crmudgeon should have learned the lessons from their parents that I learned from mine: "Do not speak ill of the dead," and "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Life was much nicer when people were civil and when they didn't think that it was their duty to criticize and be negative.

Thanks, Mr. Dionne, for sharing your experiences with a man who acted out his patriotism and served his country by being involved in the political scene.

Posted by: marmac5 | November 27, 2010 3:33 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Dionne has taken the time to write a tribute to a long-time friend who has recently died, and some people can't wait to begin the snarky comments. Perhaps bowspray, Pilot 1, annort and crmudgeon should have learned the lessons from their parents that I learned from mine: "Do not speak ill of the dead," and "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Life was much nicer when people were civil and when they didn't think that it was their duty to criticize and be negative.

Thanks, Mr. Dionne, for sharing your experiences with a man who acted out his patriotism and served his country by being involved in the political scene.

Posted by: marmac5 | November 27, 2010 3:33 AM
========================================
"We owe respect to the living: to the dead we owe nothing but the truth" - Voltaire.

When the emperor demands that I admire his new clothes it is my sacred duty to tell him he is naked and it is not a good look for him.

And Barney Frank really did play a pivotal role in the economic melt down of America.

Posted by: krankyman | November 28, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

I didn't even care enough about what you say to read your column, as always.
I just thought I'd ring in, and re-affirm the fact that you are a sputtering fool, as evidenced by your performance on Meet The Press.
Thank God for Dish DVR. Your awkward bluster gave me a good chuckle.
You're a clown.

Spitefully yours,
MrMeaner

Posted by: MrMeaner | November 28, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

To Mr.Meaner's reply that he didn't even read EJ's column yet chooses to call him a sputtering fool, I say those who don't listen to those they disagree with shut themselves out from reality. I do my best to listen to those in the "opposing camp," so to speak, so I can learn more. We are all brothers and sisters in this democracy and neither side has all the answers. Working together, however, which includes listening, gives us the chance to create solutions that honor everyone's voice and opinion. Shutting out those we disagree with severely limits our chances to be informed citizens and a country that cares about each other.

Posted by: tribebuilder | November 29, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

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