After nearly four decades of government service in Albany and Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey announced last week that he would not seek another term in Congress. The longtime lawmaker’s departure is likely to have major implications both in Washington, where Hinchey was a reliable mainstay of a dwindling corps of progressive liberal Democrats, as well as locally where Hinchey’s status as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee helped funnel billions of dollars in federal earmarks to the regional economy.
As late as Dec. 30, Hinchey, who is 73 and has undergone two operations for colon cancer, was denying reports that he would not seek an 11th term in Congress. But on the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 18, the Washington-based political news website Politico, citing unnamed sources, reported that Hinchey would step down at the end of 2012. Hours later, members of Hinchey’s staff confirmed the story. The next day, inside the elegant Vanderlyn Room of Uptown Kingston’s Senate House historic site, media from across the sprawling 22nd Congressional District and dozens of Hinchey’s famously enthusiastic supporters packed themselves into the space to hear the announcement.
Pausing at times to wipe away tears during the emotional press conference, Hinchey called his almost 40 years of service in Congress and the state Assembly “the greatest privilege of my life.”
Hinchey’s announcement comes as his former colleagues in Albany prepare to redraw the state’s Congressional district lines. In accordance with new census data, New York will lose two seats in the House. Hinchey acknowledged that the redistricting debate influenced his decision to announce his retirement with nearly a year left in his term.
“It is very hard to leave a job you truly love, but I know in my heart of hearts that now is the right time to move on,” said Hinchey. “I do feel that it is fair for (redistricting) decisions to be made with my future plans publicly known.”
Hinchey’s departure from Congress, and the potential dissolution of the 22nd Congressional District, is likely to have wide-ranging effects on the political and economic landscape of Ulster County. Upon his ascension to Congress from the Assembly in 1992, Hinchey sought and won a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee. The position paid off in the form of billions of dollars in federal investment in road projects and other infrastructure improvements. In Ulster County, federal money secured by Hinchey played a key role in the development of the Walkway Over the Hudson, beautification of the Rondout Creek waterfront in Kingston and improvements to the Kings Highway industrial corridor in Saugerties. He also spearheaded the creation of a solar energy research consortium to draw jobs and investment to the region.
The influx of federal money, observers say, helped cushion the blow at a time when the Upstate economy was reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs and the withdrawal of IBM from its sprawling facility in the Town of Ulster.
“There are many, many projects that would not have happened except for Maurice Hinchey,” said Steve Finkle who retired last month as head of Kingston’s economic development office. “He was a man of vision and he brought the resources to make that vision a reality.”
Hinchey also brought his strong political instincts to bear on local politics. State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) began working with Hinchey as a student intern in 1975 and would go on to succeed him in the Assembly’s 101st District. According to Cahill, Hinchey was able to leverage his vocal and very active base of progressive Democratic activists to buoy local candidates and influence elections.
“He was part and parcel of local campaigns,” said Cahill. “He never wanted to be a political boss, he never portrayed himself as a political boss, but he was always a presence.”
Lion of the left
Hinchey also played an influential, if low-key, role in keeping old-fashioned progressive liberal politics in play in Washington, routinely scoring rock-bottom grades from the American Conservative Union. In the Assembly, Hinchey helped put in place the state’s environmental protection laws and in Congress he carried on his fight to force General Electric to clean up tons of its toxic PCBs from the Hudson River. He was an early and vocal opponent of the Iraq war. As war fever took hold in Washington in winter of 2002-2003 Hinchey earned scorn from members of both parties for warning that the impending conflict would be “a massacre.” Cahill said that with the departure of Hinchey and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, the left wing of the Democratic party is losing strong voices in Congress.
“That progressive liberal vanguard is thinning out,” said Cahill. “The likes of Maurice Hinchey and Barney Frank really defined what the left was.”
Will Ulster ever have it this good again?
As Ulster County Democrats begin looking ahead to a post-Hinchey era, the biggest question remains whether the 22nd Congressional District will survive as an intact entity, or its constituents divided among surrounding districts. State lawmakers are currently at work drawing up new district lines; what emerges from those sessions could have major ramifications for the Hudson Valley’s political scene. Redrawn in 2002, the 22nd is a Democrat-friendly district centered in Ulster County and encompassing Southern Tier college towns of Ithaca and Binghamton, as well as democratic strongholds in Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and Kingston. State lawmakers are expected to eliminate one “Democratic” and one “Republican” Congressional district in the reapportionment. Hinchey himself suggested that the 22nd “would have to expand in a number of ways” to remain viable. If the district is dismembered, the days of Ulster County residents and officials having the resources of Congress literally around the corner could be gone for good.
“You could walk down the street and meet your congressman and talk to him” said Tom Hoffay, a Kingston alderman and former County Democratic Committee chairman. “Now, we could end up as a suburb of Albany, or a suburb of Lake George. We could be the tip of the tail of the dog.” ++