I found a book at the Friends of the San Mateo Library bookstore last week for $2 which turned out to be one of the best reads on early American history. It’s “The Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis. If you want to know how political leaders with diametrically opposed views can compromise for the common good, then this is the book for you. I would especially recommend it to those politicians and their followers who refuse to compromise, prefer stalemate and their own self-serving principles over the common good and consider themselves disciples of the Founding Fathers.
In a chapter called “The Dinner,” Thomas Jefferson invites Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to his home. He hopes the two will agree to Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to relieve the states of the revolutionary war debt which Madison and southern leaders oppose because it might strengthen the federal government. Jefferson, a Virginian, also shares these concerns but is more worried about the dissolution of the still fragile union if this measure doesn’t pass. He knows Madison’s main concern is also preservation of the neophyte government. Madison agrees to step down from leading the fight against the assumption bill. He will vote against it but his low-key posture will allow the controversial bill to pass. In return, the southerners get one of their highest priorities — establishing the new Capitol on the Potomac in Washington, D.C., not in Philadelphia or New York. The compromise is worked out in private. It would not have been possible in a public forum.
Unfortunately, the spirit of cooperation did not last long. After George Washington completed his second term and refused another, John Adams, a Federalist, became president and his former friend, Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, became his vice president. It was soon discovered that having a vice president and a president of different parties might not be such a good idea. Adams was accused of conspiring with England while Jefferson was accused (with good reason) of conspiring with France. While Adams welcomed Jefferson into his Cabinet after their election, Jefferson refused the offer. His main role was to be leader of the Republican party. The spirit of collaboration fostered by the revolution and the writing of the Constitution evaporated when Washington left town.
Washington had rejected the offer to become the American Caesar and denounced the entire scheme as treason to the cause for which they had fought.” When King George III heard about this, he observed, “If Washington does that he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington was “the man who unites all hearts.” This was essential for the leader of the new country during turbulent times. There has not been a president since who enjoyed the confidence and admiration of so many on both sides of the aisle.
Last week the Daily Journal’s main headline was “Ferry frustration mounts” about the South San Francisco ferry system not living up to promise. It’s not meeting its passenger fare recovery goals. Since the service began in 2012, its fare recover has risen to 17 percent, far below the 40 percent required. The commuter service operates seven trips each weekday between Oakland and Oyster Point. The service is not cheap. Fares are $7 one way. It operates with a $3 million annual subsidy from bridge tolls and funds from San Mateo County’s transportation sales tax. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission also provided the capital funds for the ferries and port improvements.
This is not a surprise. About 10 years ago, MTC presented a study on ferry services in the Bay Area. Some of the existing private services performed OK. But the study found that expanding the service was not cost effective — too expensive for too few riders. MTC left ferry service out of its regional transportation plan, critical for federal and state subsidies. Then Sacramento exerted pressure. The Water Transportation Authority had powerful backers. Soon MTC included ferries and a proposed South San Francisco and Redwood City service in the regional plan. The Redwood City ferry is not yet operational. Its supporters are worried by the bad publicity and disappointing results in South San Francisco. We need to get people of their cars. And ferries are fun. But for most commuters, they cost too much and take too long.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.