According to the US Census Bureau, voters aged 65 and older had a 72 percent turnout during the last presidential election: the highest percentage of any age group. And with election season 2015 beginning to gear up, you can bet that the dynamic, engaged population of elders at Woodland Pond at New Paltz will be following the candidates and issues with avid interest — and not just by reading newspapers or watching TV news. Woodland Pond’s Political Affairs Committee (PAC) will see to that.
Almost from the very beginning of the continuing care retirement community, a group of politically aware and active seniors has been meeting regularly, organizing events to keep residents well-informed and making sure that they can get to the polls. “When Woodland Pond first opened in 2009, we were talking about a committee,” recalls the PAC’s chair, Dorothy Jessup, who was a professor of sociology at SUNY New Paltz before her retirement. “Max Finestone suggested we have a group to educate people about local politics…. We were pretty small. Max and I did most of the planning, and the group came up with ideas.”
Finestone, who had been a Democratic Party district leader in the Town of Rochester and, according to Jessup, “had lots of contacts” among Ulster County politicos, died in 2011, although his widow, Annette Finestone, now in her 90s, remains an active member of the PAC. Other members deeply involved in the group’s startup, including Mildred Huberman, Gerry Russo and Vivian Moskowitz, have since aged out, but, says Jessup, “As more people moved in, the committee expanded.”
Besides Jessup and Finestone, the core group currently includes former Village of New Paltz trustee Vici Danskin, Ann Gordon, Janet Kissinger, Renée Sachs, Virginia Cannon and Mary Lou Van Winkle. “We’re a lot of women,” Jessup observes. As this issue goes to press, they will be meeting to strategize ways to get Woodland Pond residents out to the upcoming New Paltz party caucuses.
Jessup notes that the preponderance of female members in the group is not just a matter of longer average lifespans; she says that men who join tend not to stay long. “The only time a man comes to a meeting, he comes with a complaint or an issue. Then he leaves when it gets resolved.”
Another challenge for the group is the fact that membership has historically skewed to the progressive side of the political spectrum. From the outset, says Jessup, “We knew it had to be nonpartisan. We have a lot of people registered in third parties, fourth parties, even fifth parties!” She recalls issue-oriented educational events like a screening of a documentary and subsequent discussion about climate change at which some “more conservative” residents felt outnumbered and walked out. “It’s so hard to get a group together and lead a discussion on something controversial,” she says. “We’ve been very successful at keeping this community very welcoming and friendly.”
One way of addressing this problem was to spin off a separate Current Events group, led by Carol Nectow, in which about 30 members meet biweekly. “People take turns presenting topics,” says Jessup. “They sit in a circle and pass around a microphone.”
When election time rolls around, the Political Affairs Committee invites candidates to come in person to Woodland Pond and present their platforms. At first they tried a League of Women Voters-style moderated debate format, but these events eventually reached an audience capacity crisis. The 2012 Democratic primary debate, when Joel Tyner challenged Julian Schreibman for nomination for the 19th Congressional District seat vacated by an ailing Maurice Hinchey, was “the peak of excitement here. People were clamoring to get in, and had to sign up in advance,” recollects Jessup.
Since residents were permitted to invite outside guests, inevitably some were unable to get into the auditorium for the debate on account of fire code restrictions. “We got picketed. People said it was unfair,” says Jessup. “So for the Congressional election, we decided we’d invite each candidate separately,” and such events are no longer open to the general public.
Candidates in local races are also invited by the committee to make presentations at Woodland Pond. “Anybody running for supervisor, we have them speak…. We always have a moderator — often someone from the Chamber of Commerce.” The PAC meets beforehand to brainstorm a list of questions for the candidates: “What do we want to know from these people?” After the prepared questions, “We let the audience ask follow-up questions.”
Information sessions on hot-button issues have also been organized by the group, since its early days when talk of consolidation of the town and village governments was much in the air. “The big thing that we did this year was the school bond issue. We had people from the superintendent’s office come to speak.” Efforts were also made to find spokespersons for the opposition to the New Paltz Central School District capital project, but organizers found themselves stymied by the fact that opponents didn’t identify themselves by name on the anti-bond flyers being circulated. So the moderators played devil’s advocate and “posed their accusations to the speakers,” Jessup explains.
Other speakers are brought in by the PAC for lectures and presentations on a variety of subjects related to politics. In the group’s first year, party leaders gave a talk on the process by which candidates are nominated. Former mayor Thomas Nyquist spoke about “the history of why we have a town and a village” in New Paltz. Gerald Benjamin has lectured on New York State history. And Bob Griss, who works at a think tank in Washington, DC and is the son of Woodland Pond resident Doris Griss, gave a presentation explaining the Affordable Care Act, according to Jessup.
But practical matters related to keeping seniors engaged in the political process, even when they become mobility-impaired, are the PAC’s top priority. At a recent workshop on how to apply to become a permanent absentee voter, a representative from the Ulster County Board of Elections assisted residents with completing the appropriate form correctly. Making sure that new Woodland Pond residents move their voter registration to their new address and arranging transportation to the polls or to campaign debates, political speeches and lectures at other venues are all high on the group’s agenda.
“It is amazing to see firsthand how many passionate voters and advocates we have at Woodland Pond and what positive changes they have helped implement,” says Michelle Gramoglia, executive director of Woodland Pond at New Paltz. “Our residents and team members are encouraged by the Political Affairs group to educate themselves on what’s happening in the political sphere and to make informed decisions when voting. I am really proud of this committee’s work.”
Candidates for political office, listen up: You ignore these activist elders at your peril! They’re informed, they’re impassioned — and they vote.