Turnover brings tossup

In the biggest shake up in the 44-year history of the Ulster County Legislature, twelve incumbents will not be running this year while another eleven have entered primaries to keep their seats.

Key to all this turmoil was the 2006 decision by voters to downsize the legislature from 33 to 23 members. Rather than running in at-large districts ranging from two to five legislators, candidates will have to compete one-on-one in single-member districts. Sponsors of the downsizing, which included local good government groups, the Ulster County Charter Commission and editorialists, believed single-member districts would render individual legislators more visible and therefore more accountable to voters. It would also appear to have made them more vulnerable to primaries, something rare when legislators ran in herds in their respective districts. Winners may find history repeating itself in two years.

While primaries are merely foreplay to the main event on November 8, who emerges from them could well determine the make-up of a legislature which observers on both sides predict will be almost evenly divided.

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“I can see us taking the majority with 13, maybe 14 seats,” Democratic county chairman Julian Schreibman predicted. Republicans currently hold an 18-15 majority, but two members, Jack Hayes in Gardiner and Mike Sweeney in Saugerties, are Conservatives. Sweeney is not seeking reelection.

GOP chairman Roger Rascoe has made similar predictions in his keep-the-majority rallying cry. The GOP faces challenging numbers. In Ulster County, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 8275 registrants. Enrollment is not evenly spread among the 23 districts, of course. Democrats hold commanding majorities in Kingston, Esopus, Rosendale, Woodstock and New Paltz; Republicans dominate in Shawangunk, Plattekill and Marlborough. Non-affiliated voters account for almost one-third of the electorate.

As it will take 16 legislative votes to override a veto by county executive Mike Hein, neither party will have that power. In any case, Hein, a Democrat running unopposed for a four-year term, has exercised his veto only once since January 2009, and that on a procedural issue.

With Republicans holding a projected 11-10 edge (on paper), District 16 (Gardiner and small parts of Shawangunk) could determine the new majority. With a slight Democratic enrollment edge, incumbent Jack Hayes faces a stiff challenge from former three-term Democratic legislator Tracy Bartels. Bartels has the Independence line but faces a challenge from Hayes. In that district, the extra endorsement could make the difference.

One could posit that with the ascendancy of the county executive it doesn’t really matter which party has the majority. But it could. The majority, if it holds together, will elect a chairman, and that chairman will appoint standing committees. Whether the new chairman is an activist or a seat-warmer, a challenger (to executive authority) or a chump, one who views the legislature and the executive as co-equal, remains to be seen.

 

The individual races

 

Meanwhile, some primary snapshots.

One of the more interesting legislative races is in Saugerties District 2 (including the village) where eight-term incumbent Bob Aiello faces workaholic freshman Walter Frey. Both men have health issues — Frey misses almost as many meetings as Aiello — but the old-timer seems to have regained his mojo. Frey brings considerable resources to the table, but what some see as stalling tactics on his part over the infirmary issue could hurt. Edge: Aiello.

Newcomers Terry Valk and Mary Wawro in the Saugerties District 1 GOP primary, both are unknown qualities. For Wawro, it may take something more than “who’s my daddy?” (former legislator Bill Geick). It may be predictive that Democrats have put up town chairman Mike Harkavy as their candidate. Nothing against Harkavy as a candidate, but conventional wisdom suggests that if the town chair can’t find anybody to run, which is his or her primary job, the ticket is in trouble.

In New Paltz, four-term occasionally irritating incumbent Democrat Hector Rodriguez must have done something to piss off the town Democratic committee, which opted for newcomer Tom Cotton. Here, I suspect the fine hand of Susan Zimet, legislator running for supervisor this year. Currently riding high among Democrats, Zimet has made no secret of her antipathy toward Rodriguez. Dabbling in village politics could cost him in the primary. Edge: Cotton.

In Esopus, first-term Republican Carl Belfiglio needs to pay attention to on-again-off-again former running mate Laura Petit in their contest for the Conservative and Independence lines, if he hopes to survive past November. Waiting in the wings, licking his chops, no doubt, is former legislator Roscoe Pecora, once a force in Esopus politics. Petit’s mindless rigidity in voting against any and all spending — including bond issues for road and bridge projects — may appeal to die-hard Conservatives, less so to more independent-minded Indies. In either case, Belfiglio needs both lines to be competitive against Democrat Pecora.

In Kingston, freshman Mike Madsen is seen as something of an interloper by some in challenging eight-term incumbent Dave Donaldson in the District 6 Democratic primary. But hey, it’s a free country. Donaldson doesn’t own the seat. Just to make things more interesting, former alderman Len Walker threw his hat in the ring. If Donaldson splits the vote, he survives. Madsen hasn’t done much as a freshman in a freshman class of some accomplishment, but his relentless door-to-door campaigning could be a factor.

 

About September 11

 

I don’t think anything I’m going to say about 9/11 is going to add much to ten years of debate. For most of us, some much more than others, it’s a very personal experience.

I was in the Freeman newsroom when the first plane hit. I called my then-23-year-old son in Park Slope in Brooklyn. He lived in a in a tiny efficiency five flights up with a magnificent view of lower Manhattan. I kept him on the line, describing the scene. “Holy crap, daddy,” he yelled. “Another plane just hit the World Trade Center!” He had been scheduled for a job interview in one of those buildings that day.

Around noon, a friend called to tell me he was almost certain an Ulster County native, Mike Finnegan, formerly of the town of Ulster, had been killed in one of the towers. I knew the Finnegans. Did this shocked, grieving family really need a phone call from the paper that day trying to confirm the news? We did it the next day.

A few years later, as George W. Bush was rallying the nation to invade Iraq, I ran into Mike’s mother at a chamber of commerce breakfast at the Holiday Inn. If my son had been killed by terrorists like that, I thought, I’d want to nuke the bastards. Not Mrs. Finnegan. “I just wish there were no more wars,” she said.

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