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Guest Column: Cooperstown’s Mayor on Obama’s Visit (and That Anti-Fracking Protest) | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

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Guest Column: Cooperstown’s Mayor on Obama’s Visit (and That Anti-Fracking Protest)

A drilling rig in Houston, Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in Houston, Pennsylvania (AP/Keith Srakocic)

Last Sunday I visited Cooperstown, New York, a few hours north from my home, for a screening of the film I co-produced, Following the Ninth, on the amazing influence of Beethoven’s final symphony, at a benefit for the local food pantry. It turned into an amazing community gathering, with 300 attending (a huge number in this village of 1,600) and three dozen singers and musicians performing the “Ode to Joy,” plus a fund-raising party at a local distillery. Then I spoke to three high school classes the following day.

One of the highlights, however, was lunch with Cooperstown’s mayor.

Jeff Katz, who won his second term unopposed, is an unusual figure in this town—as a Jew from Chicago and as one of the first Democrats to serve as mayor in this conservative region. But he’s got the baseball fanaticism down, in this home for the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame. Katz even has a book coming out next spring from Thomas Dunne Books on the epic major league baseball players’ strike in 1981, titled Split Season. Even more impressively, I learned that not long ago he had taken his two sons to another hallowed place I’ve visited more than once—Big Pink, near Woodstock, New York, where so much fantastic music from The Band and Bob Dylan was born in 1967.

Like most others in town, Katz was also buzzing about the rather shocking news that President Obama would be coming to town in a few days, and not just as a tourist but to deliver a policy speech at the Hall of Fame. He said he’d been asked directly by the White House to start preparing, but oddly had received no word if he would greet or even meet the president. I joked that the White House probably assumed he was a Republican, forgetting his name is Katz. On the eve of the visit, Katz via e-mail said he was still uncertain that he’d get that presidential handshake.

There was also this intriguing context: Cooperstown has served as a hotbed of anti-fracking activism in the fight to get Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban the practice throughout the state. The activists, I learned, planned some sort of respectful protest during the Obama visit (Cuomo would also be there). One of the village’s residents, a retired former top executive at Mobil, Lou Allstadt, has spoken out widely and powerfully against fracking and its link to climate change, and recently appeared on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show. In fact, Lou and his wife Melinda Hardin graciously hosted my wife and I as overnight guests at their home on Main Street.

So yesterday afternoon I watched the twenty-minute Obama speech live at the Hall. He joked that he was just checking out the place for Frank Thomas of his beloved White Sox, who will be inducted this summer. He revealed that his wife had tossed out the “Mom jeans” he was caught wearing in a famous photo when he threw out the first pitch at a ball game. And… well, I’ll let Jeff Katz tell the rest of the story…

* * *

by Jeff Katz

Last Thursday I met and chatted with the great Tom Morello before a Springsteen show in Albany. There was no doubt that this would be my biggest brush with fame for quite some time. By the next night the Cooperstown chief of police had informed me that the president was coming to village, where I’m mayor, to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and talk about the importance of tourism.

After the public release of the news on Saturday, mentioned as a snippet in the president’s weekly address, local anti-fracking activists were debating via e-mail and online chatter how to deal with Obama, in many ways their hero, who’d caused anguish with his pro-natural gas policies. In April of 2011, the Village of Cooperstown became the first municipality in the area to officially oppose fracking. Our towns, Middlefield and Otsego, would soon follow.

Clearly there would be protesters on Main Street to greet the president. I wasn’t going to start the week of preparations saying, in effect, “President Obama, welcome to Cooperstown and, by the way, we oppose your energy policy.” It would be inappropriate. That being said, it is, as they say, a free country, and wherever people wanted to express their opinion on public space, well, no one needed my permission.

Yesterday started with last-minute prep and cleanup and, between 6-6:45 am, four live TV interviews for me. (I left options trading in Chicago so I wouldn’t have to wake up at 5 am anymore, but, in service to the village, I was happy to oblige the morning shows.) Much of the information on the president’s visit was still locked down—time of arrival, motorcade route, etc.,—for security reasons. Cooperstown is so small, any house was as likely as any other for potential viewing, so I told people to sit on their porches and hope for the best.

The anti-fracking protesters were out in good numbers, well over 100. Pro-frackers and anti-SAFE Act protesters were on site in much smaller numbers. Though I wasn’t out to make waves, the Village had made it clear that fracking was bad for us, bad for tourism and incompatible with our way of life and I made that position clear to interviewers as the day progressed.

I don’t consider fracking a political issue per se. Sometimes it tends to line up as Republicans pro- and Democrats anti-, but it’s not that clear-cut. There are Home Rule issues, private property issues, the ability of local governments to decide what it wants for its communities despite what bigger government wants. The widespread view in Cooperstown was that President Obama’s visit was something special. During the course of the week I spoke to the most Republican of Republicans and the most Democratic of Democrats, and all agreed this was a colossally good thing for us. The last time a sitting President visited Cooperstown was in 1839, when Martin Van Buren stopped by.

Cooperstown’s tourism scene stretches well beyond our anchor, the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the village’s edge are the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum; further outside the village but very much a part of the Cooperstown scene are Brewery Ommegang and the Glimmerglass Festival opera company. All are world-class institutions. Then there’s beautiful Lake Otsego. You could come to Cooperstown for the weekend and do twenty-five things and never have to repeat. Today was my day to talk about it, and President Obama’s presence gave me the opportunity.

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All invited guests to the speech were escorted into the Hall early in the afternoon and a little later a few of us got to meet the president. He and I are about the same height, 6'1", but, man, there’s a palpable presidential aura. I felt teeny. We shook hands, talked about Cooperstown (“You’ve got a beautiful place here,” he observed), talked about Chicago, and I was done, whisked politely away. The speech would take place in the Plaque Gallery, the president’s podium on the edge of the atrium where the faces of the first class from 1936—the ghosts of Mathewson, Wagner, Ruth, Johnson and Cobb—could look on. (What must that ol’ racist spectral Tyrus Cobb think of this president?).

The president talked for almost twenty minutes on the positive economic impact of tourism in America, a real job creator (that’s a photo by my wife, Karen Katz, above). I have to say, when he said “I want to thank your mayor, Jeff Katz, for having me, and his great hospitality,” it was hard to process. Perhaps it’s our similar age, our Chicago background or the sense that the Obama family is not so unlike the Katz’s, that makes me feel a real kinship with this president.

The speech ended with (how’s this for perfect closure?) Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.” As I exited to sunny Main Street, some of the anti-frackers were still out, wondering how it went inside. They swooned at the photos I produced and expressed a genuine affection for Barack Obama. The sense that, even in intense disagreement over the major issue of fracking, there was a core connection between the people and their president, that they could be opposed but still together, gave truth to the words of the (other) Boss.

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