Hugh Reynolds: Scramble for the open seat

Zephyr Teachout during a visit to Kingston in 2014. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Zephyr Teachout during a visit to Kingston in 2014. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Say what you will about Republican Chris Gibson. By announcing he wasn’t running for a fourth term a year ago, he gave us what could be one of the few wide-open congressional races in the state. Only a handful of seats are in play every two years.

So why, some might ask, are the Democrats still struggling, pondering and plotting to produce a credible, electable Democratic candidate? We should look at that question.

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Republicans, to the contrary, have at least two eager beavers pounding each other — Mr. Inside, former assemblyman John Faso, and Mr. Outside, Millbrook businessman Andrew Heaney. A few other “names” are floating about, but unless they can raise a million bucks like Faso and Heaney can, it’s just chatter. Declared candidates will meet at primary on June 28.

Democratic Party county chairs from the 11-county 19th Congressional District met in Hudson last Saturday to hear from interested parties. This was the same bunch that prematurely backed Mike Hein for Congress last month, only to be left at the altar.

One widely conjured possibility, three-term Assemblywoman Didi Barrett of Dutchess, dropped out shortly before delegates met Saturday. Like Hein, who withdrew a few weeks ago, Barrett said she loves her current job too much to seek a higher one.

Typical of these kinds of in-house gatherings, details on the Hudson conclave were sketchy. Ulster Chair Frank Cardinale, contacted early Monday, would only say a press release was being issued later that day by Dutchess Chair Elisa Sumner. (Details had already been published in that morning’s editions of the Onteora Star.)

Sumner’s carefully worded press release spoke to a “consensus” of chairs (not unanimous), impressed with all four (unnamed) candidates. The Dems would be proud to have any of them in Washington, and voted to “support” (but not endorse) Zephyr Teachout as their candidate for Congress. Plenty of wiggle room there. Teachout told the Times Herald-Record she was “incredibly honored” and would announce a decision within a week.

Sumner, unlike hometown chairman Cardinale, who has a horse in this race, was willing to share more. The four candidates who appeared for interview by the chairs in a meeting room above a popular Hudson restaurant were Teachout, former congressional candidate Julian Schreibman of Stone Ridge, Columbia County farmer Will Yandik and Margo Miller of LaGrange in Dutchess County.

Ulster Comptroller Elliott Auerbach sent regrets, citing family issues. The family issue may well be they don’t want their patriarch campaigning around the vast 19th for the next ten months.

Sumner, who has been in her post since 2010, described Teachout as enthusiastic and eager. “They all were,” she said. “It was an embarrassment of riches. They were all wonderful, all-Ivy League [sounds like a basketball team], smart, eager and interested.”

Ten of 11 chairs were represented, eight were present, she said, with only the Schoharie chair absent and unaccounted for. Teachout’s “consensus” would require at least six chairs.

Sumner pointed out that the show of support for Teachout was “just the chairs uniting behind one candidate.” Party conventions will be held in March for unofficial endorsement. Formal nomination comes via the petition process, which will probably start in April.

A fluid situation

There are two schools of thought on the Democrats’ current dilemma. One says they go with the best available candidate now and get the ball rolling. The other advises waiting until somebody else, yet unknown, pops up, hopefully in the next month or so. Maybe some weekender from New York who moved into a bungalow in Sullivan County last month will take the plunge, but right now it looks like it’s Teachout’s for the taking. Haven’t we heard that before?

Excitement is building for Teachout, the “progressive woman” Democrats are always drooling over. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Teachout carried every county in the district against an unpopular Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 primary. She’s tanned. She’s rested. But is she ready to take on a Republican in a general election?

Auerbach suffers from creature comforts. Safely ensconced in a six-figure job, the three-term comptroller loves the game, but is he ready for war? Might he not forsake birds in the bush for chickens on the roost? Given changes in the county legislature, he might face a most interesting year here in Ulster.

I don’t know much about Yanik or Miller other than to say farmers tend to be conservative, which doesn’t play well among rank-and-file Democrats. Miller has been out of the country for years.  If Republicans find Heaney a carpetbagger after his having lived for only two years in Millbrook, they might wonder whether Miller has even unpacked her luggage.

I like homies, but Schreibman I’m annoyed with. He works right across the street from our office and hasn’t recently said boo to anybody. In any event, nobody’s mentioned the former county Democratic chairman since he lost against Gibson in 2012. His was not an impressive run, falling to a freshman Republican in a new district in a presidential year where Obama carried the environs by four points. Unlike his rivals, Schreibman has been there, done that. But being four years away from the fray puts him on a par with newcomers.

While time is now short, it’s not yet of the essence. Modern communications, the web, etc., can render a complete unknown a household name in weeks, if not months. Huge amounts of outside money can be poured in from both sides for staffing, polling, advertising and the like.

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Saturday’s summit in might have been the beginning for Democrats, or, as in the Hein debacle, an exercise in futility. We’ll see.

In your face

Any Democrat seriously considering a run for Congress in the 19th has to expect bare knuckles, blackjacks and maybe knee-capping from those nasty Republicans. A recent exchange between GOP candidates should suffice as fair warning.

Heaney, a full-time Millbrook resident for only two years, has made the political rounds. He announced last week that he will bypass the party-convention process and take his message “to the people” via direct petition. In plain English, this means he knows he can’t secure the nomination via the insider party process, since John Faso, the career politician, has already locked up most of those delegates.

In one of their more subdued barrages, Faso forces blasted Heaney with: “Seeing that he is likely to lose the GOP nomination among grassroots Republicans, Mr. Heaney, after having agreed to this nomination process, is taking his bat and ball and leaving the field with another negative attack. His arrogant actions tell grassroots GOP activists all they need to know about Mr. Heaney’s character and temperament for office.”

Not to feed tag lines to an already hyper-imaginative hit squad, but if left-leaning Teachout becomes the Democratic nominee, can “Zephyr Far Out” be far behind?

Meanwhile, Delaware County farmer Bob Bishop hopes to make hay should Heaney and Faso cancel out.

Chasing bucks

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill didn’t tell us much about the governor’s $145 billion proposed budget, other than the process has started, which we knew. But you can bet he’ll be tapping those coffers over the coming months. This is an election year, after all, and nothing attracts voters like hometown bacon.

All he’ll say about local asks is, “We have some new people in office with perhaps different priorities and needs.”

That doesn’t mean ongoing projects like the old Wurts Street Bridge and the nearby Irish Cultural Center and God-knows-what for SUNY Ulster and New Paltz and the county’s school districts won’t be given priority. State funding, divided between ongoing support and capital spending, is usually a case of one step forward, one step back. Sometimes the next step is long delayed.