The Eagle’s View: Why Helsmoortel won Saugerties GOP nod

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Photos by Garrett Colburn

THE CAUCUS RESULT— Town Republicans attending their Aug. 6 caucus have virtually assured the re-election of two of the three candidates running for policy-making offices.

Democratic Party-endorsed Greg Helsmoortel (I) bested Gaetana Ciarlante (C) 134-105 at the caucus to gain the Republican line for supervisor. Having the two major party lines makes Helsmoortel the obvious winner in November.

After the supervisor vote, presumed Republican candidate and current town Republican Chairman Joe Roberti Jr. didn’t allow his name to be put in the mix for a Town Board seat. Roberti previously received the endorsement of the Conservative Party caucus along with assumed running-mate Allyson Barbaria (R).


Democratic-endorsed Town Board candidates Leeanne Thornton (I) and Fred Costello Jr. (I) were nominated at the Republican caucus along with Barbaria. Costello and Barbaria prevailed, with Thornton running closely behind. With Costello’s name appearing on the two major party lines in November, he’ll be the leading vote-getter for a Town Board seat.

Conservative Party Chairman George Heidcamp’s recent statement that the November election was going to be about the “radical left-wing liberal” agenda, claiming Democratic Chairman Lanny Walter’s has undue influence on his candidates, was debunked. Republicans don’t run lefties on their line.


STRIKE ONE— Two years ago Gaetana Ciarlante lost at the Republican caucus when then-Supervisor Kelly Myers (R) won on a second ballot 132-107. Ciarlante then defeated Myers for the Conservative nod; her victory helped along by the year-long antagonism shown by Conservative Chairman Heidcamp against Myers.

Ciarlante, urged on by Conservative Party Secretary Dan Ellsworth, naively thought she could win with having her name on only the minor party line against major party candidates Helsmoortel and Myers.

The most recent candidate to pull off a victory against major party candidates in Saugerties was the late Mike Schovel. In 1973, the year Secretariat won the Triple Crown, Schovel scored a win while his name only appeared on an Independent line against the Republican and Democratic candidates for supervisor.

It takes three conditions for minor party candidates to have a chance at winning a local election on their line.

Firstly, they have to be extremely popular in their own right. Secondly, they have to be running against separate Republican and Democratic opponents. Thirdly, the two major party candidates need to have significant political weaknesses.

In Schovel’s case all three of the conditions were true, and he won. In 2013 Ciarlante’s case, she ran against two major party opponents, but the other two conditions weren’t met. She lost big.

Republican Myers lost her 2013 re-election bid when Ciarlante wound up being a spoiler. Ciarlante found herself far behind in third place in November and pulled votes on the Conservative line that would normally have gone to the Republican candidate, costing Myers re-election.

There were Republicans at last Thursday’s caucus that remember how Ciarlante hurt their chances in 2013. They say elephants never forget. Many Republicans didn’t and were ready to cast their vote for anybody but Ciarlante.


STRIKE TWO— Another factor that hurt Ciarlante was the maneuver by Conservative Party Chairman George Heidcamp to purposely hold his caucus before Republicans held theirs.

Heidcamp wanted to nominate his candidates first, thereby hoping to force Republican caucus attendees to follow suit; a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Elder statesmen and influential long-time Republicans would have none of that. As former chairman Michael Catalinotto told me after he nominated Helsmoortel at the caucus, a minor party dictating to a major party didn’t happen when he ran the Saugerties Republican Committee years ago.


STRIKE THREE— No one that I spoke to that offered a negative opinion of Ciarlante wanted to speak on the record of what they thought of some of her ideas. But associating “bizarre” to them would have been a kinder term than those actually used. That’s not to say her detractors don’t think she’s intelligent and articulate.


STRIKE FOUR— This isn’t baseball, so Ciarlante suffered a fourth and fifth strike.

While some caucus attendees received a letter in the mail from Helsmoortel, asking for Republican caucus support for himself as a supervisor candidate and Fred Costello and Leanne Thornton for the Town Board, Ciarlante used robocalls, those modern-day annoying pre-recorded telephone messages.

Those automated calls by Ciarlante didn’t go over well. Some received a call from Vernon Benjamin on Helsmoortel’s behalf. People said they like to be personally contacted and being asked for their support.



STRIKE FIVE— It wasn’t a secret Helsmoortel was going to see the GOP nod. I mentioned it in my column the week before the caucus. But those Republicans who supported Helsmoortel over Ciarlante worked under the radar, not wanting to make the extent of their efforts known to the Ciarlante camp. They hoped to avoid Ciarlante making a bigger push herself to get supporters out at the last minute if she learned the other side was working hard for Helsmoortel. Helsmoortel supporters remaining low-key may have helped their cause.


FALLOUTThere could be plenty of short- and long-term fallout from the caucus.

George Heidcamp has recently suffered mightily. First, in May, he lost three School Board seats. Winning just one of them would have meant retaining his president of the School Board position. Now, his apparent deal to give Joe Roberti Jr. a Conservative Town Board endorsement in exchange for Gaetana Ciarlante getting the Republican supervisor endorsement ran afoul. If it’s true Heidcamp has notions of becoming the county’s Conservative Party chairman — he just took two huge hits that won’t endear him to county Conservatives.

With Fred Costello running on the Democrat and Republican lines this fall, his election is assured. That sets up Republican Allyson Barbaria and Democratic candidate Leeanne Thornton in a head-to-head matchup for the remaining Town Board seat.

For Barbaria, seen as the challenger in this race, it’s going to be tough coming up with issues against Thornton. That’s because technically, Costello is Barbaria’s running mate on the Republican line and her supervisor candidate is Helsmoortel, both of whom have similar voting records and priorities as Thornton. “Team Saugerties” – remember? It’s going to be hard for Barbaria to knock Thornton when Helsmoortel and Costello may have seen issues the same way.

November is probably going to see one of the lowest Saugerties voter turnouts in an off-year election in memory.

That’s because of a lack of competitive races.

There’s not a highway superintendent contest, with Doug Myer having received the Democratic, Republican and Conservative party endorsements.

There’s not really going to be a supervisor race with Ciarlante just having the Conservative line and Helsmoortel having the two major party lines. That’s assuming Ciarlante stays in the race.

One of the two Town Board seats have been decided, since Costello received the backing of Republicans and Democrats.

One of the three districts in Saugerties won’t have a competitive race for the County Legislature, with Mary Wawro not having an opponent.

There is a county-wide race for county executive, which will generate interest. But there’s not a race for district attorney or family court judge.

What’s left is Barbaria vs. Thornton, and that race isn’t likely to generate enough voter interest to bring the usual turnout to the polls.

Whichever party works harder to get their base vote out to the polls has a better chance of winning the second Town Board seat.

How nice will Republicans and Conservatives play together in the sandbox going forward? For the interest of their political parties it’s to their advantage to not throw sand in each other’s faces down the road.

Heidcamp doesn’t like to be challenged. He has his detractors, but supporters too, especially in leadership positions in his party. But those that may have any influence on him aren’t likely to ask him to reevaluate his ways. His typical reaction to losing is to figure out a way to once again gain an upper hand, not compromise.

Barbaria is hurt in her election bid by Republicans not having their own supervisor candidate or a registered Republican candidate as Town Board running mate.

If Gaetana or Roberti bow out as Conservative Party candidates that means less registered Conservatives may turn out on Election Day. That hurts Barbaria.

Thornton is aided by having the Independence line, offsetting Barbaria’s Conservative line.

It will be interesting to see if there is going to be any negative reaction from Democrats, especially those in leadership positions, to Helsmoortel, Costello, and Thornton going to the Republican caucus. In past elections, Democrats have been willing to cross-endorse Republicans, even when they had Conservative Party endorsements, but only for non-policy-making offices.

For policy-making offices, there’s been talk of an unwritten rule that Democratic candidates can’t also run on the Conservative line because of ideological differences between the political parties.

However, Democrats last month cross-endorsed Republican/Conservative Dean Fabiano for the County Legislature since that move might yield a political advantage for Democrats..


ROBERTI’S DISAPPEARING ACT— Prior to the caucus Roberti was already running hard for the Town Board, with a Facebook page, letters-to-the-editor and a website.

After Ciarlante was denied the Republican supervisor line, Roberti didn’t let his name be put in nomination at the caucus for Town Board.


Since a majority of Republican caucus attendees went with Helsmoortel and not Ciarlante — did he feel he couldn’t in good conscience accept the Conservative endorsement since the Conservative candidate didn’t get the supervisor nod ?

Did he not want to be on a ticket that had at the top Greg Helsmoortel’s name?

Did he feel as the Republican chairman and having put together the Ciarlante-Roberti-Barbaria ticket that his power was usurped?

Maybe his intention was to create a gateway for Ciarlante to replace him for the Town Board seat?


THE ORATOR’S SPEECH DENIED- Michael Catalinotto knew how to energize the Republican base in Saugerties elections long before Karl Rove successfully did so in national elections.

Republican County Election Commissioner Tom Turco served as caucus chairman. Turco ran a fair caucus, although there was confusion how the nominating speeches would work. Some thought, as Turco seemed to imply, that when a candidate was nominated for office, that was the proper time for an up-to-two-minute speech from the candidate.

Catalinotto thought speeches on behalf of nominated candidates would be given just before the vote.

Catalinotto and Turco briefly debated the point. Catalinotto was denied his nominating speech on behalf of Greg Helsmoortel. That’s too bad. His speeches are always to the points and it would have been interesting hearing him make those points.

After Helsmoortel’s caucus win, I jokingly said to Catalinotto that “Helsmoortel won because he [Catalinotto] didn’t give Helsmoortel’s nominating speech.” He laughed. I was obviously joking. Catalinotto is the best political orator Saugerties Republicans have had in generations.


HISTORY- Democrats were talking to Helsmoortel in the summer of 1999 about being one of their Town Board candidates. But Helsmoortel wanted the supervisor position, having gotten a taste for the office when he ran for the spot in the 1980s on the Democratic line. His Saugerties Dutchman at the time made him a popular figure, but not popular enough to win election.

Democrats ran Gary Bischoff for supervisor in 1999. Republicans, along with Conservatives, obliged Helsmoortel, running him on their line for supervisor.

In the November election, Democrats were surprised and disheartened when Bischoff, who had never lost an election to that point, fell 370 votes short against Helsmoortel.

By 2005, Helsmoortel started being the Democratic Party supervisor candidate after Helsmoortel had a falling out with some members of the Saugerties Republican Committee.

Costello and Thornton were first elected as Republicans in 2003 and after their own problems with certain members of the Republican Committee, followed Helsmoortel and became the Democratic candidates in successive elections.

For Greg Helsmoortel and Fred Costello, it probably felt like a “Welcome Home” party last Thursday evening at the Republican caucus.