Two of Ulster County’s iconic political figures, Congressman Maurice Hinchey and Judge Mike Kavanagh, will retire next month, between them ending almost three-quarters of a century on the public stage.
By chance and durability, I was around to cover both. A few hundred words won’t do either justice. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill said more in his introduction of the next speaker at Hinchey’s last big testimonial in Saugerties in October. But we’ll try.
At the end of the road, even hard-bitten reporters wax nostalgic about their subjects, even if the paths traveled together weren’t all that smooth.
Hinchey, 74 and Kavanagh, 69, were both transplants; the future assemblyman and congressman from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, Kavanagh from the wilds of Long Island. Hinchey arrived as a boy with his family in Saugerties, Kavanagh as a highly regarded New York City junior prosecutor under the legendary Frank Hogan.
Hinchey first ran for Assembly in 1972. He lost, but rode Watergate revulsion in 1974 to a string of 20 straight victories. Kavanagh, narrowly elected district attorney in 1977, served four terms before promotion to the judiciary in the 1990s. He won every race, except for a misguided take-one-for-the-party run for lieutenant governor in 1986 and, of course, the last one — last month for Supreme Court judge.
While their paths seldom crossed politically, the duo provided plenty of grist, wiped out forests of trees with headlines and made reputations that will not soon be forgotten.
As a prosecuting attorney, Kavanagh made his bones on the Tony Provenzano murder case. Local lawyers would routinely forgo their lunches to catch a Kavanagh summation at a juicy murder trial. “Theatric,” a trait he shared with Hinchey, does not begin to describe it. For courthouse denizens, Kavanagh’s elevation to Supreme Court and then appellate judge was a mixed blessing.
As judge, Kavanagh was a quick learner — Supreme Court is mostly about civil law — and a no-nonsense figure, the latter quality he no doubt learned from mentor Frank Vogt. Quick to ire, he was as quick to apologize when wrong.
Hinchey, in his own mind, was rarely wrong, something of a strength but also for me an annoyance. In debate or argument, he would literally point to his head as proof of his position. Hinchey was an energetic, pro-active, creative legislator. Before Hinchey became chairman, the Assembly Environmental Committee was more or less a rubber-stamp for the Department of Environmental Conservation agenda. Hinchey’s era as chairman produced some of the most stringent and far-reaching environmental legislation in generations. For better or worse — and I think on balance for the better — we live under environmental laws promulgated by Hinchey. He was also a visionary in protecting the Hudson River and bringing national recognition to the Hudson Valley.
Like any lucky politician Hinchey was the beneficiary of timing, first with Watergate in 1974 and then the presidential year in 1992, when he won his first congressional term. As a congressman, Hinchey continued his environmental activism but branched out into seemingly every area of national and/or international interest. His early opposition to George Bush’s war in Iraq was widely heralded, less so his early support for Bill Clinton’s war in Bosnia. He was one of the most frequent congressional flyers, for which he made no apologies. A legendary pork-barrel politician, he found a home on the House Appropriations Committee, from which he lavished on his district well-publicized grants and loans.
Hinchey, a born Democrat, remained a party man his entire career. Kavanagh went with the flow from New York City Democrat to Ulster Republican, the latter undoubtedly a condition of local employment.
Like a lot of people (but of course not newspaper columnists), Hinchey got crustier with age. In the last years, he’d tell critics flat out to go vote for somebody else if they didn’t like the way he was voting. Media-wise, and I speak only for myself, Hinchey was a machine, a manipulator, a major influence. To a remarkable degree, he shaped his own public image. At the same time, he was unusually accessible, candid and forthcoming. Every now and then he’d get peeved about something and freeze us out for a few months, but this is not uncommon among politicians.
Kavanagh did his talking in the courtroom or from the bench, but as DA was available 24/7. I think he had to learn to be less forthright as a judge.
Like Kavanagh, Hinchey was a showman on stage, “like a struttin’ bantam rooster,” one of his ill-fated congressional opponents lamented. Both were highly effective. Kavanagh sent the guilty to jail, Hinchey sent pretenders to oblivion.
Both were far more savvy about local politics than their public pronouncements might indicate. Hinchey made his peace early on with Republicans, as did Kavanagh with Democrats. Neither wasted time with petty parochial issues, though Hinchey, more aggressive in that area, would set up the occasional straw man. Remember his chasing former RRA director Charlie Shaw and his “criminal conspiracy?” Hinchey never laid a glove on him.
Neither man has to work again if he so chooses, though it’s hard to imagine either sitting in a rocker. Hinchey’s congressional pension pays him full salary, about $175,000 a year, with benefits only Congress could vote itself. Kavanagh, as a retired appellate judge, will have to scrape by on about $110,000 a year.
Health-wise, Kavanagh is a few years younger and obviously more fit, but wife Marilyn suffers from a debilitating illness, and her doting husband is seldom an arm’s length away. Some may have doubted tightwad Mike’s devotion to Marilyn when he bought her a $26 dress — from campaign funds! — for appearance’s sake during his one statewide run in ’86. Nobody doubts his devotion now.
I won’t go into Hinchey’s domestic situation.
Hinchey has been through major operations for colon cancer and says he’s improving every day. I certainly hope so. I wish for long, healthy, productive retirements for this unique pair of public servants.
But the beat goes on. Four years ago, I had no idea either one of these guys, both column staples for decades, would be passing from the political scene. Thank God Mike Hein came along.
Given the excessive secrecy surrounding the preparation of county budgets, one hazards opinions at one’s own peril. However, it seems safe to conclude that the 2013 executive budget is swimming in cash.