Reynolds: All hail Hugh Carey

Not many people know this, but I was named after Hugh Carey. But not Hugh L. Carey of Brooklyn, the two-term governor who died at 92 last Sunday. Hugh D. Carey of Poughkeepsie, my uncle.

Hugh L. and Hugh D. were born a year apart in New York City. Both enlisted in the Army in World War II. Hugh L. rose to the rank of colonel, Hugh D. to staff sergeant. Hugh L. took a law degree from St. John’s University after the war. He was elected to the first of seven congressional terms in 1960. He was on the influential Ways and Means Committee.

Our next door neighbors in Kingston knew the Hugh L. Carey family in Brooklyn, former neighbors they described as “the congressman down the street with all the kids.”

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Hugh L. and Helen Carey had 13 children in all. Two boys died in an auto accident in 1969, another of cancer in 2001. Helen died of breast cancer in 1974, the year Carey was elected to his first term as governor. My uncle lost his wife to cancer and a daughter barely in kindergarten.

My uncle, Hugh D., didn’t care much for politicians. We had an alderman in the family once, but nobody talked about it. But my uncle liked to follow the career of the man he called “my namesake.”

It was probably at a family picnic in the late ’70s that I mentioned that the governor was coming to Kingston, and that I had been assigned to cover him. My uncle, a notorious namedropper, gave a knowing nod.

“Do you think you could get me an autograph from the governor?” he asked in that wide-eyed innocent way of his.

I advised my favorite uncle that “good journalists never, ever ask their subjects for favors, much less autographs.” I cringed at what my colleagues would say less than five years after Watergate.

“Aw, come on,” he said. “What’s the big deal?”

At the testimonial dinner put on for the governor by local Democrats, I perused the program with his picture on the front. I wasn’t really nervous about asking for an interview — he had a reputation for being approachable — but an autograph? In my head I could hear my uncle’s voice.

It’s amazing how lax security was in those days. Anybody could walk up a dignitary and shake hands.

Carey, gnawing on chicken at the head table, must have had a pretty good idea of what the stranger with a program in his hand wanted.

Being a political writer, I went political. Make a connection!

“Governor,” I said, “”I’m named after my uncle Hugh Carey, same as you.”

His eyes lit up. “Hugh L. Carey?” he said.

“No,” I said, afraid I wouldn’t get the autograph, “Hugh Dennis.”

Carey grabbed the program from my hand, a broad grin on his face.

“From Hugh L. Carey to Hugh D. Carey,” he wrote. “It’s a grand old name.”

My uncle had it framed, right next to his velvet Elvis. I was his favorite nephew from then until he died three years ago.

 

Reminiscences

Hugh L. Carey came along at a time when New York really needed somebody like him. A tough, back-slapping pol, he had a love for his native New York City and a unique appreciation of the financial quagmire it had spent itself into.

When Gov. Carey appealed to President Ford for federal assistance, his former Republican congressional colleague basically told him to shove it. The Daily News headline said it all: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The city, with the governor and the legislature imposing some tough measures, eventually worked its own way out.

Given the financial crisis in the city, Carey didn’t spend much time upstate his first few years as governor. One of the first things he did, however, was to authorize $500,000 in matching funds to restore Kingston’s City Hall. A (1975) freshman assemblyman by the name of Maurice Hinchey got the grant, but Kingston residents refused to provide their share. Twenty-five years later they paid $7 million for the City Hall restoration job.

Usually a hale fellow well met, Carey could be a mean drunk, as I learned via the state trooper grapevine. One blowsy morning at about a quarter to three, Carey stumbled into P.J Clarke’s in Manhattan with his trooper bodyguard, demanding a drink. The bartender refused on the sensible (and legal) grounds that the state’s chief executive was already well-oiled.

“I’m the efen governor of this efen state and I want an efen drink!” bellowed Hizzoner.

“And I’m the efen bartender and you’re not getting an efen drink,” the bartender shot back. Exit the governor.

He had serious hair issues during his eight year tenure, going from gray to brown to black and in between, to orange. At times it was downright ghastly. The Albany Times-Union ran a front-page spread of Carey’s various dye jobs. He boycotted the paper for months.

Then there was the time in early 1982 when he endorsed New York City mayor Ed Koch for governor to succeed him over his lieutenant governor, Mario Cuomo, without ever mentioning it to Cuomo.

Cuomo, whose office was right down the hall, charged into Carey’s office and gave him what-for on what was a betrayal of the worst kind. Carey, rising from his desk, went into his efen governor routine.

“Don’t get out of that chair, Hughie, if you know what’s good for you,” my sources said a furious Cuomo warned. The former Army combat veteran sat down.

Carey, then 63, did not seek a third term, retiring to a white-shoe law firm in New York City. He married a thrice-married Chicago real estate mogul named Evangeline in 1981. At least one of her exes was alive, or not. She wasn’t sure. The marriage was ugly — the worst mistake he ever made, Carey said.

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It’s going on a long time ago, but Hugh L. Carey is remembered as a man who took charge in a time of extreme crisis, formed working coalitions, and acted decisively. Not to go iconic here, but we could use more like him.

 

Around the horn

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody listens, does it make a sound? I’ll have to ask Ulster Comptroller Elliott Auerbach that one.

Last month, Auerbach issued a none-too-sexy report on county reconciliation of its 56- bank accounts. As somebody who prays to be within 10 bucks of my actual bank balance, I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm. But Auerbach was talking about some huge numbers. Millions, maybe. The lack of response from the people who keep those books was deafening, like when a tree falls in a deserted forest.

Is there smoke there? I’d say so, when the books of accounts worth millions aren’t balanced for months on end. No comment from the executive wing, where the buck supposedly stops. Gosh, it’s good to run unopposed.

As for Auerbach’s latest report, if the comptroller hopes to establish himself as an independent watchdog as dictated by the charter, he needs to inject a good deal more bite into these periodic reports on county government.

Andi Turco-Levin for Kingston mayor and Joe Marchetti for alderman-at-large is being touted as something of a dream team in some quarters, but to paraphrase a memorable scene in the movie Pulp Fiction, they shouldn’t start counting those chickens just yet.

Obviously, having a running mate with considerable name recognition and zealous energy is a bonus for Turco, but at the same time two-term incumbent Jim Noble isn’t about to roll over and play dead.

Short-term, having Marchetti in her train can only boost Turco’s chances against three determined opponents in the Republican primary for mayor on September 13.

In usually sleepy Hurley, Republicans are bracing for a yet-unscheduled caucus to choose two candidates for town justice. Owing to this year’s resignation of Town Justice Liz Corrado for professional reasons, two judges will be on the ballot in November. Mike Jordan was named by the town board to fill Corrado’s term. It is expected that 24-year veteran John Parker will get the nod from the town GOP committee, with boss Phil Sinagra, chairman for life, pulling the strings.

Rattling this apple cart is former Kingston alderman Chris Burns, with the Independence Party endorsement in tow. Burns does a morning sports show for WKNY-Kingston. Ironically, Corrado is a Democrat. Now Republicans are fighting tooth-and-nail over her gavel.