It’s difficult for a state legislator to sum up in 15 minutes or less what’s going on in Albany, even in front of a business audience typically more tuned in than your average bear. So it’s not entirely fair to say either that local Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and state Sen. Cecelia Tkaczyk, two Democrats, bombed last month before the county chamber of commerce breakfast in April or that state senators John Bonacic and Jim Seward, both Republicans, put half the same audience to sleep at a similar event this week.
For me, the highlight of the Cahill-Tkaczyk snoozefest was the freshman senator holding the mike for some 12 minutes while the assemblyman stood mute by her side. No one has ever seen that before.
Bonacic, having represented UlsterCounty since 1999, this Tuesday morning brought newbie Seward along for a show-and-tell. Bonacic as usual sent mixed signals, this time on casino gambling. While the legislature has the authority to authorize a referendum, he said, it was the governor “who’s driving the bus.” Bonacic said the driver needs to be more forthcoming on his specific plans before the legislature can vote (for the second time) on a referendum.
Seward said the legislature wanted definitive answers from Gov. Andrew Cuomo by August 1, many weeks after the legislature’s June 20 adjournment date. Go figure.
Members of the audience were eager to hear Bonacic’s position on a gambling casino at the former Nevele Hotel in Ellenville. What they got was an explanation of the options with mixed signals. Ellenville needs the jobs, he said, but Monticello “has $200 million in the ground.” Decisions on siting, he said, will be based on the “deepest pockets.”
Ellenville Mayor Jeff Klein offered a telling statistic on the plight of his depressed community in recent years. “We’ve lost 3,000 manufacturing jobs while you and I were in office,” he told Bonacic, who nodded. And these two guys are still in office?
Seward, a stemwinder of talent — if he wasn’t giving a campaign speech, I’ve never heard one — displayed a sense of humor. “My job,” he said, “is to filibuster until 9 o’clock,” that hour being the drop-dead quitting time for the event. He almost made it, rambling on until 8:52, after which the solons fielded a few questions from the floor.
For the record, nobody had the temerity to ask about corruption in the state Senate. The senators didn’t volunteer.
I know some of my colleagues roll their eyes at the prospect of covering a chamber breakfast when legislators are on the menu. To be fair, some news from Albany is probably better than none at all. But not by much.
It appears all but one incumbent among 23 county legislators will run for re-election in November, the exception being the well-tanned Republican Wayne Harris of Clintondale. “I guess I’m the only legislator who believes in term limits,” said Harris, a 12-year veteran.
For several years now, Harris, a retired school administrator, has been spending most of the winter in Florida. Why, the legislature even had to pass a special law to allow the video participation of faraway legislators at session in Kingston. Harris’s departure could swing the precarious Republican 12-11 majority in this November’s election toward the Democrats.
Normally, even incompetent incumbents can reasonably expect to win re-election at least nine out of 10 times. Voters don’t pay much attention, and most prefer “experience” — good, bad or indifferent — in their public officials. Re-election rates in Washington and Albany typically run comfortably north of 90 percent. It is unusual for an alderman or a town board member to be turned out of office. Town supervisors are more vulnerable.
Ulster’s legislature will have a somewhat different dynamic going on this year. Elected as the first single-member downsized legislature in 2011, members will have to defend their records one-on-one against challengers. The good news for bunkered-down incumbents is that most don’t have a discernible record to defend except for a handful of votes. Name recognition will weigh heavily.
There is also the curious fact that voters stayed away in droves two years ago despite all the hype about single-member districts being more representative. If that experience is repeated, it would be another advantage for incumbents.