The jury won’t be in for less than three weeks, but I have found the highly touted single-member system of electing Ulster County legislators at best disappointing.
Recall the heady days of 2005-06, when the Democrats, who hadn’t elected a majority in the county legislature in almost 30 years under the Republican-controlled multi-member at-large system in effect since 1967, were touting single-member elections as the end-all and be-all to curing the ills (read, jail debacle) of county government.
Good-government groups like the League of Women Voters and the county Charter Commission followed like so many lemmings. Of course this had to be the answer! (Actually, it was one of two alternatives considered, weighted voting for a board of supervisors being the other.)
With single-member, as opposed to herds of faceless wannabes running in tandem, voters would know who they were voting for, or against. County issues would be raised and debated one-on-one. Candidates would have to take positions. Entrenched incumbents would be challenged on their records.
So far, it hasn’t happened. There of course have been mitigating circumstances. In politics there are always mitigating circumstances.
For one, the legislature was downsized from 33 members to 23 under the 2010 reapportionment plan. Here, less would seem to be more. But the net effect was to suppress voter turnout in new districts stocked with unfamiliar candidates. Turnout was abysmal. County legislators were getting elected with, on average, 1,110 votes in contested districts that contained four times as many eligible voters. The disparity between the top vote-getters and the successful bottom-feeders, which reapportionment was supposed to assuage, was striking.
The four leading winners in 2011 — the three Paretes and Don Gregorius of Woodstock — totaled just over 7,000 votes, or about 1,760 each. At the bottom, Kevin Roberts, Mary Beth Maio and Ken Wishnick, also successful, collectively polled 2,331 votes, an average of 777 each. To me, this difference in turnout makes a mockery of the one-person, one-vote concept, at least as it pertains to actual voter turnout.
Under the at-large system, which ended in 2009, the four winners in the first legislative district (Wawarsing-Rochester) averaged 3,400 votes each. There were also 5,500 blanks from people who entered the voting booth but didn’t cast the four votes allowed.
The junior partner
It should be obvious to anyone with a passing interest that the legislature is very much the junior partner under the new county-executive system. Political leaders bemoan the difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates for county legislature, ignoring the fundamental truth that people are motivated for public office to make a difference. Those opportunities are rare in an executive-dominated county legislature.
As we approach the second single-member election, things do not seem to be improving. There were six uncontested seats in 2011. There will be 10 this time, evenly divided between the major parties. That almost half the legislature is running unopposed should be troubling for anyone with a stake in participatory government.
Maybe they should get back to basics, which is to say the old board-of-supervisors system. I know it’s cumbersome, and weighted voting can be confusing. But at least every town has a voice. And if the town supervisor has to run in his or her backyard for legislator, he or she had better be on their toes.
Of late, the county association of supervisors and mayors has taken an increasing interest in county affairs, re: Safety Net, sales tax, etc., perhaps with the suspicion that the legislators we elected under the single-member system are really not all that representative.
Fortunately, we have at least seven years to mull these issues, until the 2020 census figures are certified and with it, reapportionment.
It’s possible that as many as 10 of the 13 contested seats in the legislature could go either way. Not that holding the majority means much in the larger scheme of county affairs, but already veteran legislators are jockeying for chairman and other leadership positions next year. With Republicans clinging to a 12-11 majority and low voter turnout, almost anything can happen. Some Democrats believe they can pick up as many as five seats — a veto-proof legislature — while Republicans would be grateful to maintain the status quo. Countywide, Democrats have a more than 9000-voter advantage in enrollment.
The Republican dilemma is exacerbated by the fact they are defending three first-termers, typically vulnerable to challenge, and may be losing a sure seat with the retirement of Wayne Harris of Clintondale.
In Saugerties, freshman Republican Mary Wawro is being challenged by Democrat activist Beth Murphy. With only 22 months to establish herself against the media-savvy Democrat, the Republican could be in trouble.
Elsewhere in Saugerties, Democrat Chris Allen’s head-on assault against the man he calls “no-show,” veteran Republican Bob Aiello, could backfire if Aiello’s base takes umbrage. Aiello, 65, takes offense at the slightest slight, but can dis with the worst when aroused. His referring to the 45-year-old Allen as “kid” and “dude” could well energize the newcomer’s base.
In New Paltz, freshman Democrat Ken Wishnick faces former town Republican chairman Leon “Butch” Dener on the Conservative and Independence lines. Wishnick, smart and studious and with a keen eye for arcane detail, has become something of a player in his first term. Dener, ever the rebel, really believes he can knock off an incumbent Democrat in a heavily Democratic district with only the blessing of two minor party endorsements.
Meanwhile, Hector Rodriguez, who probably dabbles in political intrigue more than he should, gets a free pass this time.
In Lloyd-Marlborough, Democrat school teacher Gerald Lyons gets another shot at first-term banker Mary Beth Maio, who narrowly won their last match in embarrassingly low voting. One gets the sense from afar that neither candidate turned the electorate on in 2011, but this is a new day. The “re-elect” stickers on Maio’s campaign literature might just attract incumbent-friendly voters.