Primaries in New York State are carried out on the public’s dime, the implicit rationale being that supporting the two-party system (an arrangement not envisioned by the Founders, by the way) is in the public interest. “Party business” — the phrase coined locally by former Ulster County GOP Chairman Peter Savago — is also public business.
The jury remains out on this quaint custom, but it’s an established fact that most of the jury doesn’t get itself out to vote. Of those enrolled in parties, only somewhere between 15 and 20 percent are likely to vote in Tuesday’s primary. The bottom line is that a small fraction of the electorate will in many cases decide who will run for public office.
There are, according to Ulster County’s Board of Elections, just under 110,000 registered voters in the county, of which 38,031 are Democrats, 28,289 are Republicans and 33,930 are not enrolled in any political party. Of the 5,637 members of the Independence Party, many don’t think that they’re enrolled in a political party, either.
Under a system that allows only enrolled party members to vote in primaries — with complex and onerous exceptions — almost 34,000 registered voters are denied a voice. Might we be better off, and save taxpayers considerable sums, if we instead reinstituted the town-caucus method?
There will be primaries all over the map next Tuesday. Let’s look at the picture in Woodstock, Saugerties and Rochester, and then move on to the spirited races in the City of Kingston.
In Woodstock where biennial primaries pass for blood sport, incumbent Supervisor Jeremy Wilber is being challenged by fellow Democrats Lorin Rose and Terrie Rosenblum. Should Wilber prevail — likely, given a split in the vote between his opponents — he will, if re-elected, become the longest-serving town supervisor in modern times.
Republicans, outnumbered 2,638 to 630 in the town, will pick over the bones at caucus two days after the primary in hopes that a losing Democrat can beat the Democratic nominee. It’s happened before.
In Saugerties, freshman Supervisor Kelly Myers has mounted an Opportunity to Ballot (OTB) campaign against former supervisor Greg Helsmoortel for the Independence Party line. Myers had that line when she trounced Helsmoortel two years ago, but this time party Chairman Len Bernardo gave it to the former six-term supervisor. Why? Because he can, that’s why. The Indy line could decide the general election.
The edge here goes to the party nominee since supporters of Myers will have to write in her name. That they forced an OTB suggests strength, however, perhaps revulsion with Bernardo’s flip-flop.
Legislators Mary Wawro and Bob Aiello are also being challenged via Independence Party OTBs. Legislator-for-life Aiello will probably prevail. Wawro, a first-termer, faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Beth Murphy.
In Rochester, county legislature Chairwoman Terry Bernardo (spouse of the aforementioned Len) is defending her seat in a Republican primary against newcomer Jack Dawson, a local contractor. For a legislature chair to be challenged is fairly common. They earn their wings every year. For a chair to be challenged in her own home district is almost unprecedented and I would think embarrassing.
So far, Bernardo and Dawson have split. He prevailed at the town committee level last spring by about a dozen votes. She romped in the petition signature battle in July. This spirited contest has been mostly focused on, of all things, a burned-out diner in Kerhonkson. Though the Rainbow Diner on Route 209 went up in smoke more than a year ago, the rubble, due to asbestos issues, has yet to be removed. State officials estimate removal costs at well over $100,000, money the under-insured diner owners say they don’t have.
Bernardo, as county legislature chair, has been working diligently on the problem, to no avail. An aide said the file on the overcooked former eatery runs to more than 40 pages. Dawson and his people, most prominently town Republican Chairman Dave O’Halloran, have been attempting to make political hay from rubble. A large sign in the middle of the debris, only recently removed, read, “What? Another two-year term for Bernardo? Really?”
Even if she survives the primary, Bernardo’s future prospects as chair are chancy. Republicans hold the slimmest of majorities in the legislature at 12-11, and the Democrats, who outnumber their rivals countywide by almost 10,000 votes, are bullish on their chances for the majority.
Ready for redemption
In Kingston, two controversial outlanders are running for open seats in the Democratic primary. In many ways, these candidates, not unlike some scandal-tainted characters running for high office in New York City primaries, are about redemption and renewal.
The adventures of Jeremy Blaber with his former boss, Mayor Shayne (sometimes profane) Gallo have been amply documented, as has the checkered record of Nicky Woerner as a former two-term Ulster town supervisor.
For Woerner, still only 29, running for alderman in the Fourth Ward (again: he moved over from the adjacent ward for this race) represents a step backward in order to move up. It is no secret that the ambitious Woerner hopes to parlay a term in the Common Council to challenge Gallo in two years. If elected alderman, he could be Gallo’s worst nightmare.
Woerner, who is white, faces two African-American challengers in Nina Dawson and Ismail Shabazz. Dawson is acceptable enough, but if I lived in that crime-infested shooting gallery, I’d want a fist-shaking Shabazz banging on the doors of City Hall.
Popular opinion suggests Dawson and Shabazz could split the African-American vote, allowing newcomer Woerner to squeeze in. The larger question might be, is there any vote in that severely depressed ward at all? Recent elections have shown about a third of the ward’s more than 1,600 registered voters turning out.
I’m predicting somebody will win this primary with fewer than 50 votes and that somebody could be the new guy with the “Ulster” license plates.
In the Ninth Ward, Blaber touts himself as a practicing politician, something that wouldn’t sell at my house.
With plenty of time on his hands, the 25-year-old former meterman has walked the ward at least twice. Promising would-be constituents anything they want, he seems to have made a positive impression. On the negative side, Blaber has been running a “where’s Waldo? campaign, against first-term incumbent Deb Brown and his primary opponent. Not smart.
Party nominee Lynn Johnson, 65, worked in next-door neighbor Hayes Clement‘s 2009 and 2011 campaigns (alderman and mayor) so she’s up to speed. She’s smart, personable and mature, but seems to be running something of a Rose Garden campaign. Working out of Albany limits her door knocking, but she says she’ll be hitting the bricks in the waning days of the primary. She has called for civility, something almost entirely lacking in our politics these days.
Again, anything can happen in a primary where only a fraction of voters turn out. In the 9th ward, 65 votes (out of 602 enrollees) might do it. And, shoe leather could be the deciding factor, which leads to a horrifying possibility. Blaber and Woerner could both be on the Common Council next year!
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the American philosopher George Santayana once wrote.
One of the things that struck me about the impressive ongoing series of lectures on Kingston’s Hidden Treasures — the 14th will be presented on Sept. 20 — has been the almost total lack of attendance by city officials. This is after all their city.
Only aldermen Tom Hoffay and Deb Brown — Hoffay has attended every one and gave the most recent lecture this month, with Brown attending for the first time — have shown up at all. We’re talking here about a pool of elected officials, including nine aldermen, the mayor, alderman-at-large, city judge and three county legislators from Kingston. For shame, I say.
Given this lack of interest, and assuming elected officials reflect their constituents, is it any wonder that their predecessors in the late 1960s and early 1970s were able to abandon the old city hall for more than 25 years with virtual impunity?