The Ulster County Legislature race for newly created Districts 17 and 20 have certainly taken some twists and turns on the way to the ballot box. First there was a behind-closed-doors move to endorse local Democrat Tom Cotton instead of eight-year incumbent Hector Rodriguez by a small cabal of New Paltz Democratic Committee members: a move that resulted in a primary and had Rodriguez winning the District 20 Democratic primary by a margin of three to one. For the first time in years, the New Paltz Republicans put up a candidate for Ulster County legislator: Terence Ward, who will face Rodriguez for a seat at the county representing the Village of New Paltz. Then there was the delayed, discombobulated and controversial nomination by the majority of the New Paltz Democratic Committee to choose Ken Wishnick to replace longtime legislator Susan Zimet (D-New Paltz) on the ballot after she withdrew to run for the position of New Paltz Town Supervisor — a position that she held more than a decade-and-a-half ago.
At first the decision as to who would replace Zimet was in the hands of the three-member Ulster County Democratic Committee to fill vacancies; but when Zimet did not officially withdraw until after the primaries, that decision, according to New York State Elections law, fell back into the hands of the New Paltz Democratic Committee. Prior to that change in who was responsible for choosing the replacement, the Committee to Fill Vacancies had three candidates for the slot: New Paltz Central School District Board (NPCSD) member Dan Torres, Independent candidate Steve Greenfield, along with Ken Wishnick.
Some Democrats cried foul when the meeting to make the appointment was called in less than 24 hours, on the same night that the New Paltz Town Board was holding its public hearing on the controversial wetlands and watercourses law, prohibiting several members of the committee from attending the meeting. That said, Wishnick was the resounding choice of the committee. He will face Steve Greenfield — who secured the Working Families line and is also running on an independent line called Honest Service — as well as Republican Les Kalmus of Esopus for District 17, which encompasses a large portion of the Town of New Paltz as well as a portion of Esopus.
Moving forward, the New Paltz Times interviewed all five candidates for the two respective Districts. Rodriguez, who is seeking his fourth term of office, albeit in a newly created District, said that he decided to seek reelection because “My work is not yet done. During the Democratic majority in the Ulster County Legislature, we worked on protecting the environment, on bringing in green jobs, on keeping costs down, on creating a new form of government with equal branches,” said Rodriguez. “All of that came to a screeching halt when the Republicans took control after 2009. I feel that I have to finish the job I started to put our county on sure financial footing, while also working to make our lives better.”
Ward said that he decided to run for different reasons. “Our present legislators don’t know how to do their job, which is providing the checks and balances that we all learned about in our elementary government classes,” said Ward. “The reason we now have a county executive is because the legislature was lousy at oversight. Whose fault was it that the jail was so expensive? Our legislators. Who was responsible for supervising Dean Palen, the director of Public Health who used that department as his personal checkbook? Our legislators,” he charged.
Ward went on to say that in his estimation, “Now that we have a county executive, all our legislators do is whine and complain that Mike Hein has all the power and they can’t do anything. They didn’t have a clue how to exercise oversight four years ago, and they still don’t. They would rather deflect blame elsewhere and pretend that it’s not their fault, when it’s actually all their fault. I have yet to hear my opponent take responsibility for anything that’s gone wrong in this county. It’s always the other party, or another branch of county government, or another level of government…never anything he can fix. I ran because I am tired of partisan politics. I am tired of our legislators blaming anyone but themselves for the problems we face. They all need to realize that when you point a finger at someone else, there are four fingers pointing back at you.”
As for what their top priorities would be if elected, Rodriguez said that “first and foremost has to be economic development. Infrastructure is the foremost on my mind. For several years I have advocated for extending water and sewer in the South Putt Corners corridor. As the former chair of Economic Development, I spearheaded the effort for $1 million of county money to be used on water/sewer for the Kings Highway corridor. However, I need our town government to help us make this a reality. In addition, I believe we need additional areas to be identified for growth in town, and for a GEIS [Generic Environmental Impact Statement] to be done to make those parcels more ‘shovel-ready.’”
In addition, he said that he’d like to see what they could do to make Ulster County Area Transit (UCAT) greener. “We’ve talked about using biodiesel in the past. If the village government proceeds with a biodiesel facility, I think the county should be one of its first customers.” He added that he feels that the legislators have to get a “handle on the UCRRA [Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency]. We have an opportunity to potentially pursue a waste-to-energy facility in the Town of Ulster, which would provide energy and be more sustainable than the current system of merely landfilling garbage.”
Ward had more of a single focus in terms of his top priority if elected. “I’m going to find out where the hidden waste is in our county budget. During one of the worst winters in recent memory, our highway superintendent Mike Nielson came in 40 percent under his snow-removal budget, while other local towns all went over. All he did was measure how much material they used. He brought this idea to the County DPW [Department of Public Works], but they weren’t interested. I asked the DPW to tell me how much it cost per mile of county road to remove snow last winter, and they couldn’t tell me. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
He added that “The Nielson approach can be applied to all county departments. Instead of throwing up my hands and saying, ‘There’s nothing we can cut but Golden Hill and mental health,’ I will find out where the waste really is. This isn’t rocket science, but apparently it’s not something that a career politician knows how to do.”
Asked what separated him from his opponent, Rodriguez said, “experience and relationships. For eight years I’ve been serving this community. I know how to get things done for us in Kingston; whether it’s the New Paltz Loop Bus, or ensuring that New Paltz gets its fair share of county services, I take my role seriously and have been able to work with other levels of government, such as Congressman Hinchey [D-Hurley], Assemblyman Cahill [D-Kingston] or Senator Bonacic [R-Mount Hope] on projects that benefit our county.”
Ward had a more succinct answer: “I am not a ‘seasoned campaigner,’ which is what the Democratic Committee called Hector Rodriguez. I haven’t spent my life in politics. I don’t owe anyone political favors. I’m self-employed, so I won’t have to recuse myself from any votes on building projects, like Mr. Rodriguez just did in a vote on Golden Hill. I am a bona fide independent candidate who will scare the bejeezus out of the political class.”