While national and state politics are bitterly partisan, local government is usually more pragmatic. This tends to be the case in Saugerties, where campaigns are hard-fought but after the election, the winners roll up their sleeves and get to work.
But due in part to bad behavior by national politicians and torrents of negative ad campaigns, more Saugerties voters are opting not to join any party. Unenrolled voters now make up the largest share of the electorate, and growing. What’s does this mean for the future of the local parties?
Mike Harkavy, Democrat Party chair, says, “on a town level it’s really not that important,” while Joe Roberti Jr., Republican chair, believes party identity still plays a strong role locally. Both chairs admit enrollment and participation is down, and both say they’re struggling to maintain membership.
Harkavy said his party is open to candidates of different persuasions for Saugerties office. To illustrate his point, he notes that on the town level, the party has endorsed two Independence Party members (Greg Helsmoortel for supervisor and incumbent Bruce Leighton for town council); three Republicans (Doug Myer, though he is switching to Democrat, for highway superintendent, incumbent Lisa Stanley for town clerk and Suzi Filak for collector of taxes), and only two Democrats, Marjorie Block, for town council and Lanny Walter for town justice. From the county up, all the endorsements are going to Democrats.
“On the town level, it’s really about community service,” he said. “If an office holder is doing their job correctly, then politics doesn’t come into it.”
Harkavy said traditionally, Democrats have had a tough time.
“Most of the people in Saugerties have grown up here as Republicans,” Harkavy said. “When they turn 18, they ask their dad what party they should join.”
However, in the past seven or eight years there has been a sea change. For the first time, registered Democrats exceeded Republicans (though not Republicans and Conservatives together). In the leadership roles, former Republicans have left the party to become members of the Independence Party or Democrats.
Harkavy attributes most of the switches to people dissatisfied with heavy-handed tactics of Republican Party leaders, who have been accused of pressuring incumbent Republicans to toe the party line or lose the nomination in the next election.
Roberti acknowledges that this might have happened in the past, such as when council members Fred Costello, Leeanne Thornton, Bruce Leighton and then-supervisor Greg Helsmoortel deserted the GOP in the mid-2000s.
“But that was before I took over as party chair,” Roberti said.
Commenting on Doug Myer’s recent switch, Roberti said he believes it’s because Republicans supported fellow Republican Ray Mayone for town highway superintendent rather than him.
Harkavy said Democrats have heard the complaints from former Republicans but said, “all we do is our best to educate them about their office, and tell them it’s their job to represent all the people.”
Another traditional role of parties is raise money and get the word out about candidates.
“We raise enough, but we tell candidates that they need to create a fundraising committee, and then ask their friends for money,” said Harkavy. “We also help them with fundraisers, and we pay for one full mailing at election time, and we do some things with the full slate of candidates.”
Roberti says the GOP has a tough time raising money as well. “It’s always hard to raise money,” he said. “Especially in Saugerties, with all the economic problems. But we do fundraisers and support our candidates.”
He says the party is aware of the trend of voters not wanting to enroll, but is working to change that. He says there are reasons to be hopeful.
“We are going through a transformation right now,” he said. “There is a new generation coming into the party, with a lot of energy. [It’s] becoming part of the community.”
And unlike the Democrats, the GOP only endorses members for elected office.
“On the local level, being a member plays an important role; if a person is affiliated with a party, they are more likely to go out and vote,” Roberti said.
Both men agree that there is potentially a large voting bloc in Saugerties that has yet to be tapped—Hispanics. According to the 2010 census, about 900 of the 24,000 Saugerties residents are Hispanic.
Several years ago, Harkavy met with a community activist to try and recruit Hispanics into the Democrat Party. “But it didn’t work out. We never heard back from them after those meetings.”
He said the community can be hard to reach because many residents spend their time in Kingston among the city’s larger Hispanic community.
Roberti said the GOP has been trying to reach out to the community but so far has had little luck.
“Demographics in Saugerties are changing, and we need to change with it,” Roberti said. “The strength of our community is its diversity, and we must be mindful to always be inclusive.”
And while it’s important to attract more minorities into the party, Harkavy says the Democrats are also reaching out to young folks. But it’s a challenge.
“Whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, there are fewer families with young children joining political parties,” Harkavy said. “These young families are so involved in trying to make a living here, it’s difficult to have time to join a party.”
He said younger people are shying away from parties because politics have become toxic.
“They are remaining more flexible in their views and rather than becoming a Democrat or Republican they are becoming unaffiliated voters, and we need to better reach out to them and show them what we have to offer,” he said.