Hugh Reynolds: Tuesday night heartbreakers

It happens only every generation or so, that stunning upset they talk about for years and years. Recall Maurice Hinchey beating Clark Bell in 1974, Art Gray upending Dick Schermerhorn in 1988, Cecilia Tkaczyk taking George Amedore to the wire and perhaps beyond in 2012.

To be honest, I only picked one of them. I was pulling for upstart Democrat Hinchey against the arrogant Republican Bell for Assembly in that Watergate year. The new guy was young, aggressive, and seemingly right on all the important issues. Bell was Bell, though he’s mellowed with time to the point where he joyfully endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Yes he did! (Bell has since suffered buyer’s remorse.)

Schermerhorn, a five-term Republican senator from Newburgh, was under federal indictment for various crimes of corruption, courtesy of U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, but still managed to get almost 45 percent of the vote against Port Jervis undertaker Art Gray.

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At least known entities were involved in the prior upsets. Hinchey had run against Bellin 1972; Gray was popular in his section of Orange County. For Ulsterites, Tkaczyk and Amedore came out of the blue, products, at least in Amedore’s case, of a secret, self-serving reapportionment process designed to retain the thin Republican majority in the state Senate.

The new Kingston-to-Montgomery Senate district was created by Republicans for Republicans. Nobody put up a “Democrats need not apply” sign, but that’s pretty much how Republicans saw it going in.

These smug assumptions quickly turned to dismay on election night. I doubt, however, that waiters at Amedore headquarters in Rotterdam were singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” as the anticipated landslide deteriorated into a nail-biter.

Evident in the Senate leadership’s can’t-lose mindset was the handpicking of three-term assemblyman Amedore as the party nominee in the five-county district shortly after reapportionment was finalized last winter. Nobody publicly objected to the man considered Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ personal choice, though there was a good deal of grousing in Republican circles.

Democrats seemed to sense something in the wind. Three candidates competed for the party’s nomination last summer, which Tkaczyk firmly secured in a September primary. At that point, hers was considered a hollow victory, what with Amedore blitzing the district with Senate-paid advertising.

Even Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo seemed spooked. Approached by fellow Democrats to join a rally for Tkaczyk in October, Gallo demurred. Republican Amedore, he told party leaders, was a sure winner and he’d have to deal with him in January. Maybe not.

But Tkaczyk, after a slow start — a first-time candidate, she was painfully shy at one-on-one public gatherings, but something else at the podium — kept at it. There was no quit in this farmer’s daughter. Of course a huge $500,000 cash infusion from so-called public campaign finance advocates three weeks before the election didn’t hurt, but by then the Democrat had laid the groundwork.

On election night, Tkaczyk held an unofficial 139-vote advantage, out of almost 116,000 cast. In the immortal words of the late Kingston broadcaster Jim Thompson, it doesn’t get much thinner than that. According to several sources, there are some 8,000 absentee ballots to be counted, the bulk divided almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. About 1,750 were received from non-affiliated voters. By court order, the counting will not begin until Nov. 27.

Traditionally, absentee ballots go the way of machine votes, which suggests Tkaczyk may hold the fort. If not, Democrats will be revisiting the Kingston vote, where the endorsement of a popular first-term Democratic mayor might have made a difference.

Win or lose, and the odds are on the former, Tkaczyk can hold her head high. And she will.

“Nobody created a Senate district for me,” she said election night. “Nobody knew me. But I think I appealed to people as a citizen who was trying to make a difference.”

It doesn’t happen very often, about every generation or so, but perhaps the lesson to be taken from this election is that the big-money boys in the back rooms don’t always prevail.

Life goes on

What with presidential, federal and state elections taking the fore, we tend to ignore the fact that locals are still out there plotting against each other. It’s what they do, after all.

Case in point and a rather odd one on the surface, is the brouhaha that has broken out between County Executive Mike Hein and Comptroller Elliott Auerbach over staffing in Auerbach’s office, much if it played out behind the scenes during the recent unpleasantness.

Judging from what has surfaced — to wit, Auerbach’s unprecedented pre-emptive launch on Hein at last week’s legislative informational briefing on Hein’s 2013 budget — somebody considered themselves thoroughly screwed.

According to Auerbach, he and Hein had an understanding that the comptroller’s three auditors would be retained in his office rather than being transferred to the commissioner of finance’s office, which is under Hein’s direct control. In fact, Hein, by charter, designated Finance Commissioner Burt Golnick as the official successor last spring, should a vacancy occur.

But that’s not Auerbach’s point. He claims, and it’s hard to disagree, that the charter specifically gives the comptroller auditing authority, which is quite a different thing than accounting responsibility, which is what the finance commissioner does. It speaks to the necessary independence of his office, he told legislators.

Moreover, Auerbach told legislators, he didn’t much appreciate the way Hein handled negotiations. He thought they had an agreement on the three staffers — Auerbach had given up a chunk of departmental cash to budget-cutters in order to keep his peeps.

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