“I knew I was going into a hostile thing,” Ulster County Legislature Chairman John Parete said of his scheduled face-off with the Ulster Democratic executive committee at party headquarters on John Street in Kingston last week. Parete emerged the next day from the session bruised but, he said, triumphant.
“I didn’t take one step backward,” Parete reported. “You circle a little bit, but you don’t step back.”
“Like a crouching tiger?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Like that.”
I wasn’t in attendance to see the tiger in action, having been tossed by party Chairman Frank Cardinale shortly before Parete arrived at the narrow storefront the Democrats call party headquarters. Parete said he thought the meeting would be open.
“Meetings were open when I was chairman,” he said. That was then.
Five minutes before the scheduled start, nobody seemed sure whether Parete would show up, least of all Cardinale. “I haven’t gotten an e-mail from him,” Cardinale told me. “I don’t know if he’s coming or not. By the way, you know this meeting is private, don’t you?”
“And you know I’m going to get the story anyway, only it’ll be secondhand,” I replied.
Cardinale shrugged. I left. The next day, Cardinale didn’t respond to a request for comment.
As Parete had predicted, and as was confirmed by several moles in the room, the proceedings got ugly. “Yelling was the main mode of communication,” one source reported.
“They accused me of thwarting or preventing a Democratic agenda,” Parete said. “Three times I asked Frankie [Cardinale] what the party agenda was. He mumbled something. They know my agenda. I outlined it in my state-of-the-county address two days before.”
According to one attendee, Parete, not one to mince words, called Cardinale a liar several times.
What Parete calls “the six or seven angry Democrats” in the legislature or alternatively the “Hein Democrats” (of a majority of 13) are still stewing, it seems, over his decision in January to remove several legislators from their favorite committees.
“Why did you take so and so off a committee, why did you do this?” he said he was repeatedly asked. The short answer is, because he could.
“The first time [Parete’s rookie year as chairman in 2014] these folks got everything they wanted. After some successes, they just said no. Votes have consequences,” Parete said.
Indeed. Twice now Parete has recruited the 10-member Republican minority to join the so-called “Parete Democrats” to elect him chairman.
“This was the only time in legislative history that a chairman was rejected by a majority of his own caucus,” groused retiring Majority Leader Don Gregorius, Parete’s most outspoken critic in the legislature, a few days previously.
Going on 25 years ago, there was a variation on that theme. Incumbent Republican chairman Dan Alfonso, after failing to secure a majority from his caucus, went to minority Democrats, who gave him the votes to defeat caucus nominee Phil Sinagra. At the time, Democrats considered that smart politics. They take a dimmer view of Parete’s maneuver.
Things are in a state of flux, if not turmoil, which for Democrats is pretty much normal. Will Rogers was famously asked if he was a member of an organized political party, to which he replied, “No. I’m a Democrat.”
As Parete said, votes have consequences. There’s an election in about six months. Democrats are bitterly divided, while Republicans appear united. How that plays out in the 23 legislative districts, only a few of which are in play, remains to be seen.
Like many a pol, Parete doesn’t always line up his apples and oranges. Witness his rationale for removing Legislator Manna Jo Greene (and chairwoman Tracey Bartels) from the environmental oversight committee in January. He said Greene was a lobbyist.
Not so, says Manna Jo, who in fact is one of the area’s leading environmentalists. For the past 15 years Greene has been director of environmental education for sloop Clearwater. Her salary, she said, is about $57,000 a year.