Independence Party: Saugerties king-maker?

Chairman Len Bernardo

The “rise of the Independence Party,” so called, has been a topic among practicing politicians since the November elections where “Indy” endorsed candidates won office from county executive and district attorney to Kingston mayor and Saugerties town supervisor and Town Board. Its influence is clear. What’s not so clear is how it makes its decisions or what its politics are. (Other than what Chairman Len Bernardo  says.

Party enrollment, while increasing, is still less than 5,200, about five percent of registered county voters. The more established Conservative Party, with half the enrollment, drew about eight per cent more votes in legislative races this year. The Independence line was not decisive in any district.

And yet, there is no denying its influence.

Legislature Chairwoman-designate Terry Bernardo is the wife of party chairman Len Bernardo. Party leaders and majority Republicans are considering naming Langdon Chapman’s Orange County law firm to represent them next year. Chapman, Sen. John Bonacic’s chief of staff, is a former member of the state Independence Party executive committee and represents several towns in Orange and Greene counties. Ulster Independence vice chairwoman Fawn Tantillo, a former legislator, is being considered as confidential secretary to the chairwoman. Ellen DiFalco, a former legislative clerk who ran another unsuccessful campaign for county legislature from Kingston this year, is being considered for a legislative staff position. Her husband, Joe DiFalco, was named Kingston Indy chairman earlier this year.


Republican chairman Roger Rascoe says he isn’t bothered by reports of machinations. “It’s not my job as chairman to interfere with the decisions made by elected leaders,” he said. “I trust their judgment.”

Democratic Party chairman Julian Schreibman asserts the Independence Party “stands for nothing” other than increasing its influence.

“They’re not even a legitimate party,” he says. “There’s no party or organization. It’s a small clique of people who happen to control a ballot line, a little insider group. The most important thing for them is backing winners,” he added, allowing that they do it pretty well. “They’re either king-makers or very good procrastinators.”

Schreibman thinks Indies lean toward Republicans, he calls them “Republican-Lite” — but Rascoe says they “bring balance to the extremes.” Rascoe thinks more Republicans tend to vote conservative, especially in difficult economic times.


Picking winners

Less heard from in the discussion over minor party influence is the union-backed Working Families Party, which polled fewer than 1,900 votes for its legislative candidates this year. The party usually endorses pro-labor Democrats.

That his party is seen as amorphous gets little argument from Bernardo. “We’re the party of goodness. We support candidates who will work for the good of the people,” he said. “We don’t take sides on social issues. All points of view are welcome in our party.”

Rascoe says the minor parties have become necessary to elect major party candidates. “No one party can win it alone,” he said. “Those other parties are going to be influential in deciding elections. It is in the best interests of any candidates to seek out and obtain that endorsement.” Schreibman says he’s not so sure about that.

Rascoe sees the Independence Party as a viable political organization. “There is some strong leadership which is politically active,” he said. “They’re very good at using that influence to endorse candidates they believe will win.” Nineteen winning legislators carried the Independence Party banner this year.

Bernardo says his goals aren’t about winning and patronage. “We look for good people we can support, like Kelly Myers of Saugerties or Shayne Gallo of Kingston,” he said.

Bernardo said he met Myers, a village trustee, earlier this year where they discussed some town of Saugerties issues. “She didn’t know who I was, but I was impressed with her knowledge of and her passion for issues important to Saugerties,” he said. The party wound up endorsing Republican Myers against Democratically endorsed incumbent supervisor Greg Helsmoortel, a race the challenger won by 58 percent of the vote. The Indy endorsement, which went to Helsmoortel two years ago, was not decisive.


Chairwoman is ‘on her own’

Bernardo said his early endorsement of Democrat county executive Mike Hein for reelection was in part the result of Republicans failing to bring forward a candidate. Bernardo ran against Hein on the Republican ticket in 2008. “We felt he was doing a good job and that endorsing him would give us a seat at the table,” he said.

Has it? he was asked following Hein’s unopposed reelection.

“Let’s just say we got a stool, but we haven’t used it yet,” Bernardo said with a laugh.

Bernardo does not find amusing comments that he is some kind of Svengali to his wife, even though Shreibman contents “the whole Indy movement was about making Terry chairman.”

“Yes, I’m her husband,” Bernardo says, “but politically, she’s on her own. If she asks me about something, I’ll talk to her, absolutely, but at the end of the day, she’s going to do her own thing”

“Besides,” he added, “she’s much smarter than me and I’m not a dopey guy.”

Bernardo, who took over as Independence chairman in March of 2009, tends to hedge his bets with major parties, equally endorsing Republicans and Democrats.

That policy did not endear him with former Republican Chairman Mario Catalano. After he and Bernardo engineered a cross-endorsement to assure Terry Bernardo her first election as legislator in 2009, Bernardo split his endorsements between Republican and Democratic candidates.

Bernardo, often accused of kitchen table politics — the party has no nominating conventions and relies on major party candidates it endorses to carry its petitions — says he’s moving toward a more standard party structure. “We named Joe DiFalco chairman in Kingston and asked him to recruit 30 people. We named Fawn Tantillo in New Paltz and asked her to recruit 20 people. We’re moving in that direction,” he said.

“He’s been saying that for years,” said Schriebman. “He never seems to get there.”