Democrats in four of the city’s nine wards will go to the polls next week to cull Common Council candidates from a crowded and colorful collection. Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans in every ward and citywide have recently eclipsed non-enrolled voters as Kingston’s most populous political class. Republicans, meanwhile, will not field candidates in four ward races. Thus, the Sept. 10 ballot is likely to determine the face of next year’s council.
In some wards, the council races are viewed by some political insiders as a referendum of sorts midway through Mayor Shayne Gallo’s first term in office. In wards 4 and 8 candidates recruited or backed by Gallo will face off at the polls with hopefuls running with the support of the Kingston Democratic Committee. Gallo, himself a Democrat who won in 2011 in defiance of the committee’s anointed candidate, has long accused the committee of serving entrenched political interests and trying to undermine his administration. The intra-party showdown in a year with no presidential, statewide or even mayoral contest at the top of the ballot is likely to be decided by a relatively small slice of city Democrats.
“This is an off, off-year election so I expect the numbers are going to be very low,” said Common Council Minority Leader Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2) who is not running for re-election. “It’s going to come down to personal connections, candidates friends and family in the Ward and how good a job they do getting them to the polls.”
No race illustrates the mayor-party fissure better than the three-way contest for the Democratic Party line in the Fourth Ward. (Incumbent Shirley Whitlock is not seeking re-election.) Town of Ulster Supervisor Nicky Woerner is competing with Nina Dawson and Ismail Shabazz. Woerner, who holds the Democratic Committee nomination, has spent much of the campaign blasting Gallo on a number of issues, including his plan to install a police station in a former bank building on Broadway. Gallo has called Woerner, who moved into the ward earlier this summer, a carpetbagger with a dismal record as a town supervisor and no knowledge of the issues facing Midtown. Dawson, a longtime resident of the ward, has connections with the Gallo family going back to the 1990s when she worked on the late T.R. Gallo’s campaign. Shayne Gallo said he urged Dawson to run for the council seat after the Democratic Committee, to his surprise and chagrin, nominated Woerner for the post. Gallo has said that he believes Woerner is merely using the council race as a springboard for a 2015 mayoral run and a forum to attack his administration.
“Nicky doesn’t seem to understand that he’s not running against me,” said Gallo. “He’s running to represent the people of the Fourth Ward.”
Shabazz, a grass-roots activist with no prior political experience, came late to the race. He has also been a vocal critic of city policy in Midtown and Gallo in particular. Dawson meanwhile has expressed strong support for Gallo’s Midtown revitalization plan. The winner of the primary will face Republican Candidate Steve Ladin in November.
In other wards …
Uptown Kingston’s Third Ward features another three-way Democratic primary between Richard Kelder, Brad Will and Andrew Champ-Doran. Champ-Doran is a registered Democrat, but he first entered the race to replace outgoing Republican Alderman Nate Horowitz on the Republican Party line. If he wins the primary, he will hold both major party lines and, depending on the on the outcome of an “opportunity to ballot” challenge on the Independence Party lines, could shut out the competition entirely. Champ-Doran, who works as a technology specialist at Bard College, helped initiate meetings between Gallo and college president Leon Botstein that led to the school’s participation in a new educational and arts initiative for Midtown Kingston.
Kelder is the director of SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Teaching and Learning and an adjunct professor of linguistics at the school. Will is an architect who worked on the redesign of Uptown Kingston’s Pike Plan canopy. All three candidates noted that stormwater and other infrastructure issues — notably a sinkhole that has thus far resisted more than $3 million worth of efforts to find a long-term fix — are the most pressing problems in the largely residential ward. All three also agreed that in a three-way race, getting small groups of supporters to the polls on Election Day would be key to victory.
“I plan to be active right up to Election Day,” said Will. “There’s not even a mayoral contest this year so you have to remind people two or three times just to get them to remember to vote.”
In Ward 9 where Gallo has expressed warm feelings — though not an outright endorsement — of incumbent Republican Deborah Brown, party nominee Lynn Johnson faces a primary challenge from Jeremy Blaber. Blaber, a political operative and sometime blogger gained notoriety this spring when he made public a recording of Gallo cursing and threatening him during a meeting in which he was dismissed from his job as a part-time parking enforcement officer. Since his public break with his onetime patron, Blaber has sought to downplay the controversy. He has said that the race should focus on ward issues, namely the proposed conversion of Sophie Finn Elementary School in to a satellite campus of SUNY Ulster and the fate of the Kingston Hospital campus. Gallo has declined to speak about Blaber’s candidacy except to say that he believes he “lacks the qualifications” for the post.
Johnson, meanwhile, said she would, like Blaber, focus on nuts-and-bolts ward issues including dealing with the likely increase in traffic once the new SUNY Ulster facility opens in the neighborhood. Johnson, an IT specialist with Capital Region BOCES, said that she also wants to bring a calmer, less acrimonious tenor to city politics.
“I feel like the tone needs to change,” said Johnson. “We need less confrontation and name calling and more discussion of the issues.”
Schabot vs. Bruck
In Ward 8, Lisa Bruck and Steven L. Schabot will compete for the Democratic Party line. Longtime incumbent Bob Senor is not seeking re-election.
Bruck, a registered Democrat, already holds the Republican Party line as well as the Independence nomination. She also beat out Schabot in the close vote for the Democratic Party endorsement at the party’s nominating convention in May. Bruck also enjoys the backing of her aunt, County Legislator Jeanette Provenzano (D-Kingston), while Schabot is running with support from Gallo and has the Working Families Party line. Bruck said that she would focus on the Rondout’s continuing recovery from Superstorm Sandy and making improvements to the ward’s parks. Bruck, a legal assistant who once worked as an administrator at Kingston’s Senate House historic site, said she also wanted to do more to promote tourism in the neighborhood by opening the Kingston Point lighthouse to the public. Schabot, a volunteer with the city’s Parks & Recreation Department since the ’70s currently chairs the city’s Recreation Commission. He also serves on a flood control task force appointed by Gallo. Schabot said the biggest complaints he’s heard from residents involved the condition of city streets — notably the long-delayed completion of a project to improve Abeel Street. Schabot said that his years of work on parks and recreation issues had left him with an understanding of the budget process and how it affects city services.
“For years I had to go in and talk to (the council’s Finance Committee) about our budget,” said Schabot. “Now, hopefully I can be on the front end of that process.”
Primary polls open at noon Tuesday, Sept. 10 and close at 9 p.m.