It wasn’t Frazier versus Ali, but Assembly primary candidates Kevin Cahill and Susan Zimet did some impressive bobbing and weaving at their first meet-the-candidate face-off before the Ulster County Democratic Women in Kingston this Monday night. There were no clinches.
While Zimet, a four-term New Paltz town supervisor and former county legislator, played to the crowd — about 35 women among an audience of perhaps 50 — this was Cahill country. Or as one town committeeman from Ulster put it, “If Kevin can’t feel comfortable in this building [Democratic headquarters on John Street], there’s something seriously wrong.” That one town committeeman was Cahill’s brother Brian.
Cahill wasn’t yet in the house when the program started 10 minutes after the calling hour. “The Assembly is in session,” moderator Marcy Goulart of Saugerties announced to disappointed groans. Would the assemblyman actually blow off the first debate with his opponent?
Cahill bustled in a few minutes after Zimet had finished reading her prepared remarks. “In session,” he told a skeptical reporter. “We have to vote, you know.”
It was obvious from the get-go that the nine-term assemblyman considers Zimet something of a boil on his butt. While welcoming Zimet’s challenge in the democratic sense, Cahill told his audience “We should be focusing on other things,” like re-electing freshmen state senators Cecilia Tkaczyk, who represents three-quarters of Ulster County, and Terry Gipson from Dutchess. “That’s where our focus ought to be,” he said.
Zimet, ever ready to counter-punch, ran with that one. Primaries can “energize our base,” she argued. “People are talking about politics, they’re engaged.”
Zimet spoke to a good working relationship with powerful Republican state Sen. John Bonacic, whom she challenged in 2006, as an example of her willingness to reach across the aisle. Cahill pilloried the upper house as “the stumbling blocks to progress.”
The candidates were civil to each other. There were a few “corrections” back and forth, some rolling of the eyes, but nothing nasty. On the applause meter, Cahill was a clear two-to-one winner, but he did have home-court advantage, as his brother noted.
Zimet did attack Cahill’s stand on sales-tax policy, but on other issues, including school aid, women’s reproductive rights, ethics and legislative misfeasance, gay rights, local hospitals and campaign finance reform, there wasn’t much difference between these two liberal Democrats.
But it’s always about the incumbent. The feisty Zimet came to fight, and she got in a few good licks. But Cahill didn’t exactly play rope-a-dope, either. His litany of pork procurement, ranging from $47 million for the Kingston-Benedictine merger (which some see as largely wasted) to over $600,000 for the gay-rights advocacy center just down the street from the debate, drew knowing nods.
In boxing, the challenger has to knock the champ on his butt, boils and all. Zimet will need a few more rounds.
Just to make sure the Cahills don’t get too comfortable, there is this. Twenty years ago a cocky, perhaps overconfident Cahill, seeking an all-but-automatic second term, faced a political unknown named John Guerin. Guerin, running from the far right, took it to Cahill like Grant took Richmond, winning by about a percentage point.
Strange things can happen in politics.
For Pete’s sake
Zimet, who presents herself as someone who can bring people together — though she is also seen as divisive — claims that she’s now friendly with once-arch-enemy former Republican chairman Pete Savago of New Paltz. “Pete finally came to his senses [that New Paltz had gone almost entirely Democratic] so he looked around for the best Democrat. That was me,” she said.
Known as “the czar” during his long and autocratic reign as Republican boss, Savago was widely feared. “A lot of the urban legends about Pete are just not true,” Zimet brightly declared to her Democratic audience, some of whom had suffered under Savago’s rule.
Oh, yes, they are, I thought. The retired pol, now in his mid-80s, has mellowed somewhat with age, however.
The great divide
“Members, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the mayor of the City of Kingston.”
Back when the annual Kingston mayor’s message was an event, they may have been given to a certain grandiosity of pomp. But there was a respect for the office and the occasion that is lacking today.
Under a longstanding tradition that ended only recently, the Common Council would convene on New Year’s Day at City Hall and enact some routine business. Thereafter the alderman-at-large would announce that the council was organized and prepared to receive the mayor’s message. A delegation including the majority and minority leaders would leave the chamber, walk down a flight to the mayor’s office and escort the chief executive back to chambers for delivery of his annual address. At the Rondout city hall, the mayor’s office was a floor above council chambers.
That all changed when hard-partying mayor T.R. Gallo decided that even noon on New Year’s Day was unbearable. In years previous the council had convened at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. Gallo’s address would be delivered at the first regular January (evening) meeting of the council.
Things devolved during the Sottile administrating to where the mayor was delivering annual messages to the council in February or March, sometimes April. Current mayor Shayne Gallo set a new standard, holding off until May and then delivering a message at City Hall that was by historical standards not quite official. Gallo spoke not before a scheduled session of the council, but at a public meeting in council chambers. A majority of the nine aldermen were in attendance. One absentee later said he had better things to do that night than listen to a mayor’s message.
And so we come to the origin of the slang word “dis,” deriving from “disrespect” or perhaps “dismiss.” It would appear there’s a lot of that going on in government between the branches these days.
Former Dutchess County executive Bill Steinhaus, for instance, was wont to offer his state-of-the-county messages in his latter years not before the legislature but at chamber of commerce breakfasts. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein broke with tradition, or established a new one, by delivering his address in Rosendale two years ago and at Ulster County Community College this year.
Neither legislators nor aldermen made public protest. This curmudgeon thinks they should have.
Annual messages by chief executives, from federal to local, are a manifestation of both the separation of powers and the necessity of branches of government to cooperate with each other. The president, governor, executive or mayor deliver messages to the legislature in formal session because the participation of the legislature is required for executive initiatives. For an executive to bypass the legislature falls somewhere between indifference and contempt.
Of course, it can be argued that in this day and age such messages can be conveyed to the multitudes with a flick of a finger. In terms of mass communication, that is a good thing. But do we really want the sergeant at arms of the House of Representatives to introduce a future state of the union with “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you an e-mail from the president of the United States”? (As a matter of fact, early presidents did not appear before Congress in person. Instead their written assessments of the state of the union were read aloud by clerks.)