Apparently legislature minority leader Dave Donaldson didn’t get the memo that last week’s Ulster County organizational meeting was for the purpose of swearing in legislators, not swearing at them. Not that firebrand Donaldson used bad language. He didn’t have to.
Donaldson, in an anti-Republican rant against GOP chairman Terry Bernardo, shocked some legislators, amazed others, and maybe even disgusted a few. Mostly, they looked uncomfortable. And the coolest part was that nobody except the man once called Dancin’ Dave knew it was coming.
Donaldson said he told no one in his Democratic caucus — held just before the full legislature convened — of his plans to pound Bernardo chapter and verse. Nor did he feel any obligation to do so. On this one, Dancin’ Dave was dancing solo. Usually, that’s sensible strategy in the murky world of politics where a leaked detail here or there can spoil the best-laid plans, but this guy was his party’s spokesman speaking on its behalf.
In that context, it could have been worse, Donaldson told me the next day that if he had been speaking as an individual legislator, “I really would have unloaded on her.”
It should be made clear those Democrats as a body did not necessarily dispute their spokesman. In caucus, they agreed they should offer opposition (Donaldson) to Bernardo’s reelection, which at that point was a foregone conclusion. All twelve Republicans were backing their leader; Democrats had only eight of eleven legislators at caucus. Bernardo was elected 13-8 with Democrat John Parete of Olive joining the dozen Republicans.
It really wasn’t what Donaldson said — a four-page brief on Bernardo’s allegedly autocratic, incompetent, cronyesque rule her first year in office. It was as much in the way he said it, his voice dripping with the kind of sarcasm and contempt rarely heard on the floor of the county legislature. Besides being redundant — Donaldson as minority leader had leveled similar accusations as Bernardo’s agenda unfolded last year — it was terrible timing. The legislature’s first-of-the-year organizational meeting is mostly for ceremonial purposes. Families attend, freshly scrubbed children and grandchildren abound, and photos of beaming legislators are taken. It’s the feel-good start of the legislative calendar.
Donaldson insisted he “only told the truth,” and there is some truth to that. Bernardo, a legislator for only two years when she took the helm a year ago, has admitted to some “freshman jitters” as an excuse for policy missteps.
One of Bernardo’s singular misjudgments was appointing a retired army sergeant with no certifiable financial experience as the legislature’s financial advisor. Donaldson and Democrats howled over that one, and Bernardo transferred the individual to a clerical position. Donaldson called the guy (sitting not 20 feet away) a “secretary,” allowing that he was doing a pretty good job as a secretary.
(Donaldson can be a nice guy on occasion. This wasn’t one of the occasions.)
Bernardo, who may have learned something about dogs and fleas during her tumultuous first year in office, refused to engage her critic. She said a number of Democrats had approached her before Donaldson’s speech to apologize, something rather implausible since the minority leader hadn’t told his caucus what he planned to say. Donaldson, ever a slave to hyperbole, called her assertion “a bald-faced lie.” Whatever.
Also less than plausible was Donaldson’s assertion that his attack on the chairman had nothing to do with Independence Party politics two years ago. Recall, Len Bernardo, party chairman and Terry’s husband, denied Donaldson party endorsement (which Len Bernardo controls) in favor of former Democrat legislator Mike Madsen. “I don’t want the Independence nomination and I wouldn’t take it if offered,” Donaldson said. He needn’t have any worries on that account.
One result of Donaldson’s attack — which might have been calculated — was to render Bernardo’s acceptance speech, where she outlined her legislative agenda for the coming year, pretty much forgettable. In a nutshell, her agenda comes to steering the legislature toward policy decisions by assigning special committees to work on issues in various areas such as solid waste and the sale of the county nursing home.
In any event, policy may not matter all that much where the rubber hits the road. Or as Republican county chairman Roger Rascoe noted in his address to the GOP caucus, “what we’re looking at here is 23 popularity contests.”
Pity Donaldson and Bernardo don’t hail from the same district.