On the Democratic side, the presidential primary has set the region’s robust grassroots progressive base backing Bernie Sanders against establishment figures and Hillary Clinton partisans like County Executive Mike Hein and Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale, making for an unusually bitter intra-party brawl.
The grassroots vs. establishment split is evident in a Google search of the two Democratic contenders’ names and “Ulster County.” For Sanders, the search brings up links to fundraisers, meetups and volunteer opportunities hosted by groups that include “Southern Ulster County New York for Bernie Sanders” “Ulster County Volunteers for Bernie” and “Kingston NY for Bernie.” The “Ulster County Hillary Clinton” search pulls up links to newspaper articles on her high-powered New York Leadership Team and an event held in Kingston Sunday featuring the national Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards, Hein, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and a who’s who of the county’s Democratic Party establishment.
Democrats on both sides of the primary fight point to the region’s progressive populist tradition as a factor in Sanders’ favor. Ulster County voters sent ultra-liberal Maurice Hinchey to Congress ten times between 1992 and his retirement in 2012. More recently, the populist progressive Zephyr Teachout performed well and garnered a dedicated local following in her 2014 insurgent primary campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Teachout is back on the campaign trail, running for the Democratic nomination in the 19th District congressional race; she’s endorsed Sanders and Sanders is helping her with fundraising e-mail solicitations.)
“I think it’s going to be a tight race,” said Dan Torres, a Democratic committeeman, New Paltz Town Board member and, at 25, the youngest Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention. “People in Ulster County, especially progressives, tend to galvanize around populist candidates. I think Hillary will win New York State, but Bernie will perform well in the Hudson Valley.”
Clinton, meanwhile stands to benefit from New York’s closed primary system which restricts voting to enrolled party members; Sanders draws much of his support from independent voters who will be left out of Tuesday’s polling. Much of Sanders’ organizing efforts last year focused on enrolling independents and young first-time voters as Democrats.
Mira Liane Bowin, an artist and Sanders delegate from Hurley is a Democrat who previously worked on Teachout’s bid for the Governor’s Mansion. Bowin said that she was part of a wave of progressives, including third party and unaffiliated voters, who found renewed enthusiasm for the Democratic Party after years of disillusionment with the centrist policies embodied by Clinton.
“People are coming back to the party with a renewed hope that with Bernie Sanders we can change the tenor of a party that has really left behind progressives,” said Bowin.
Clinton supporters describe their candidate as a “pragmatic progressive” who shares much of Sanders’ agenda, but also comes with a record of accomplishment, an impressive résumé and an awareness of the importance of compromise.
“The question is, can Bernie do what he’s proposing to do if he’s elected President?” asked Cardinale. “Hillary shares a lot of his positions, but she’s a little more pragmatic. No one goes to Washington, waves a magic wand and does everything they were elected to do.”
Cardinale said he’s concerned that Sanders candidacy, and the animosity directed by some of his supporters towards party stalwarts like Clinton, could signal the emergence of the Democrats own “Tea Party” movement. Like their Republican counterparts, Cardinale said, a Sanders-inspired super-progressive movement would value ideological purity over electability and would threaten the Democratic Party’s “big tent” tradition of accommodating a wide range of viewpoints.
“I think both parties are being driven to some degree by extremists on the left and right,” said Cardinale. “It’s almost like the tail wagging the dog.”
While party insiders, perhaps wary of offending the progressive base, have largely framed the race as one between Clinton’s pragmatism and Sanders well-meaning idealism, Sanders supporters have launched a sustained assault on Clinton’s record and character. They point to her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Iraq war and harsh anti-drug laws as evidence that she shares little of their progressive agenda.
Bowin, for example, is one of many self-described “Bernie or Bust” supporters who say they will not support Clinton if she emerges as the Democratic standard-bearer. “I don’t see her as just a shade different from Sanders,” said Bowin. “I see her as coming from a totally different political world.”
Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach said those kinds of sentiments set apart the 2016 Democratic Primary from previous intra-party feuds. Auerbach ascribed some of that animosity towards Clinton to Republicans, saying that the GOP had spent years demonizing Clinton under the assumption that they would one day have to contend with her as a presidential candidate. That animosity, he said, was spilling over into the primary race, especially among Sanders supporters without deep roots in the Democratic Party.
“It’s unfortunate because once the dust settles, we’re all still going to be here hoisting a beer at Santa Fe or catching a burger at The Anchor,” said Auerbach of the tenor of the primary battle. “That vitriol and animus rising to surface scares me, I’ve never seen that before.”