His first indoctrination into the fine (and some may say, black) art of politics was administered in the form of defeat at the hands of then-incumbent state assemblyman H. Clark Bell.
But sitting in an Uptown Kingston coffee house, three blocks from his office of 20 years that he’s now vacated, the 74-year-old Saugerties resident, just retired, takes obvious pleasure in remembering. “Of course, I lost — no Democrat had won that seat since 1912 — but the situation was surprising because I didn’t lose so badly. So I ran again for the next term and this time, in l974, Bell had to stand aside.”
He would never again lose a race for office, totaling 19 wins in a row.
Just out of Saugerties High School, young Maurice Jr. joined the Navy and shipped out of San Diego aboard the USS Marshall, and he saw a bit of the world. Upon his discharge he returned to Ulster County, enrolled at SUNY New Paltz where he majored in political science, and took a job collecting tolls for state Thruway on the graveyard shift. Around dawn he’d catch a few hours of sleep before heading off to class.
Maurice became the first in his Catholic working-class family to complete college. Like his father before him, he worked at a cement plant north of town — and also like Maurice Sr. he became an active Democrat in Saugerties, and was eventually elevated to head the then not-so-vibrant party committee for the township.
In 1978, after winning a second term, Hinchey was tapped by Assembly Majority Leader Stanley Fink to chair the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, perhaps the post from which his most significant accomplishments sprung. “I think Stanley offered me the job,” Maurice remembers, “because he knew I wouldn’t roll over for big business. And it wouldn’t be too long before we had a situation which justified that … ”
That situation was Love Canal in Niagara Falls, when the young lawmaker brought national attention to a toxic cover-up of hither-to unheard proportions.
Soon after, Pete Seeger’s seemingly quixotic efforts to clean-up a profoundly polluted Hudson River were given real hope when Hinchey’s team identified General Electric plants as the source of decades of PCB contamination —1.3 million pounds of it, in all. Hinchey stood up to GE’s ferocious, well-funded attempts to delay and narrow the cleanup process, until finally, decades later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held the company fully responsible. The dredging is still a work in progress.
Around the same time, Hinchey proposed the first legislation in the nation to recognize and fight the causes of “acid rain,” which had begun to decimate lakes in the Adirondack region.
And in 1982, the assemblyman began a 10-year crusade investigating organized crime’s control of the waste-hauling industry. This eventually prompted a visit to his Albany office, Maurice recalls, from an individual offering him $200,000 to “look someplace else.” Hinchey didn’t take the money or the hint. By this time his organization had located landfills in Orange County where pollutants originating in New York City were being dumped. At some point, the most important source of information concerning such illegal hauling suddenly went silent. Told this individual had “moved to Florida,” Hinchey ordered the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation to bring in heavy machinery to search the landfill in question. The BCI complied but found nothing. Hinchey’s response: “Dig deeper.” As a result the body of the informant was found and more than 20 organized crime figures served prison sentences — one of them for murder. And it was around this time state troopers urged Hinchey to apply for a license to carry a handgun. He did so and carried a piece for many years afterwards, once getting into trouble by forgetting to leave it home before seeking to board a plane in Washington D.C.
His Assembly years, 1974-1992, were also marked by development of the statewide system of Urban Cultural Parks, including those in Kingston and Binghamton and authored legislation creating the Hudson River Valley Greenway.
But politics is a waiting game. Despite Hinchey’s growing reputation, the incumbent Democrat in the district in the U.S. House of Representatives, Matthew McHugh, seemed solidly entrenched, until 1992, when, handed a no-win post investigating fellow House members in a postal scandal, he bowed out of the race. McHugh didn’t endorse Hinchey until the assemblyman had won a pitched primary battle against better-funded, better-organized Juanita Crabb, mayor of Binghamton. At the time, feminist Gloria Steinem “forgave” Maurice his gender and campaigned for him against Crabb, citing Hinchey as “better on women’s rights.”