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The first Democratic presidential debate provided some notable revelations. Hillary Clinton’s unexpectedly strong performance was celebrated not only for its competence but for its humanity as well, and even the opposition remarked on the overall air of civility and the substantive exchanges that defined the evening.

But perhaps most remarkable was the energetic presence of Vermont’s Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. His refreshing consistency and focus on economic inequality brought vitality to the event and reminded many Democrats of their party’s fundamental values.

For the Vermont senator, it was a sober and intentional choice to run as a Democrat. Sanders believes there is a pathway to the presidency, and despite his history of political independence, that path is not with a third party.

Bernie’s decision to compete and his success on the Democratic stage has been a blessing to the party and to the political process. If Sanders had chosen to remain independent or align with a fringe party, it is unlikely he could have generated the kind of attention he has gotten or the heightened level of interest from new and disenchanted voters — citizens whose enthusiasm is essential if we are to revive our stagnating democracy. For better or for worse, the major political parties provide the only path to victory at the presidential level for the foreseeable future.

Yet for all the crippling polarization in Washington, Democrats and Republicans in northern New York provide a visible reminder of how citizens can come together on issues such as economic development, infrastructure and the environment — even if we disagree on other things.

Here in the North Country, party politics is working in ways that it has failed in other places. We have among the highest levels in the nation of voters who cross party boundaries to choose a mix of candidates. And groups such as the Common Ground Alliance in the Adirondacks continue to present a counterexample to the scorched-earth politics in our nation’s capital.

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As the relative parity between the major parties in our area improves, we strengthen the local dialogue even more. We need strong and opposing voices in our politics and the kind of common ground that big-tent inclusiveness in these parties can bring. And even on the eve of the 2015 local elections, it’s not too early to work for an expanded voter turnout in 2016.

Matt Funiciello’s 2014 Green Party candidacy in the NY 21st, like that of Bernie Sanders’ current run, generated attention and participation, and now Funiciello has the chance to follow Sanders’ example and bring that energy to a more prominent stage — one with the real possibility of advancement — by seeking the 2016 Democratic line as well.

All candidates for the post, and the political process itself, will benefit.

Aaron Woolf was the 2014 Democratic nominee for Congress in New York’s 21st District.


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