Except at St. Patrick’s breakfasts where celebrants guzzle green orange juice and await the session-ending coronation of Irish-person-of-the-year in goofy green hat, Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce breakfasts rarely draw more than 225 people. To my amazement, last week’s session featuring retiring Congressman Chris Gibson drew an official count of 290 to the crowded the main banquet hall at the Best Western Hotel in Kingston.
“What’s the count, 250 or so?” I asked chamber President Ward Todd. The answer: “Two-ninety. Twenty-nine tables at 10 each.”
“Really?” “That’s what I paid for,” he responded.
After only two elections in Ulster, (he was first elected in 2010 from a district north of here) Gibson has been a palpable hit. “The only Republican I’ve ever voted for,” gushed one attendee, gazing fondly at the guest speaker working an appreciative reception line after his address, which earned a standing ovation.
That Gibson’s final lap will be a sprint toward an Albany finish line was evident from his remarks. This was not a thanks-for-the-memories, look-at-my-record swan song, but one focused forward on the problems of New York State.
Inquiring about Gibson’s plans from the audience during the brief question-and-answer session following his remarks, Kingston insuranceman Kevin Ryan could draw only hints about the congressman’s future. One of the more outgoing figures on the current scene and rarely one to dodge a question, Gibson, like most, keeps his own counsel on his personal and political plans.
He spoke of being tugged in one direction — academia: he’s a Ph.D. in history — but committed to public service, which usually means elected office.
He offered more than a hint with his mention of “corruption, term limits and no public pensions for felons,” drawing cheers from the audience. “We need to restore faith in our ability to be self-governing,” he said. That’s probably not the last time we’ll be hearing that line. My take is that he’s already running for governor while maintaining a brutal schedule as a congressman. It must be hell on whoever schedules his time.
Wrap it up
I’m not about to tell Ward Todd how to run his monthly breakfasts — he’s pretty good at it — but it appears the audience-popular question-and-answer portion of the program is in trouble. Under former chamber president Len Cane, the popular toastmaster who died last year after a decade-long retirement, the 15-minute Q&A session was clearly understood by speakers, strictly enforced, and for the most part complied with. Even former congressman Maurice Hinchey, at the peak of his power, understood the routine. “Uh-oh, here comes Len. I’m done,” he once said, feigning fear as Cane stood up at 8:45 a.m.
Under Todd, who succeeded Cane, a few speakers have run through the Q&A time and beyond. Some of the speakers aren’t eager to face questions, even from the usually friendly chamber crowd.
“I tell them about the format,” said Todd. “What am I supposed to do, give them the hook?” Not a bad idea, but totally out of character for the former legislature chairman.
There are ways, tried and tested. At League of Women Voter-sponsored candidate debates, a member holds up time cards. Red means wrap it up in 30 seconds. Most do. The late radio editorialist Harry Thayer, when moderating such events, used to blow a whistle at deadline. A stern look from long-time LWV moderator the late Elizabeth Askue was usually enough.
The chamber and other such organizations provide a unique public service in bringing prominent speakers to the fore. The Q&A ensures that attendees get the chance to direct at least a few questions to the guests of honor. Given the canned hash too many speakers bring to these events, those 15 minutes of face time are often the best part of the program.
Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s withdrawal from the congressional race this week was not unexpected, given the logistics, grass-roots loyalty and Zephyr Teachout’s long shadow. Teachout might be the Dems’ brightest light in a limited pool of talents, but she may not yet have earned an anointment. Teachout’s progressive politics hew a bit left in a district that has elected moderate Republican Gibson the last two times.
The good news for Auerbach fans is that he’s not going away. Having worked the yellow brick road these long weeks, I expect the ubiquitous comptroller to be a key player as Teachout’s candidacy unfolds, nudging — dragging? — her toward the center. Already he’s offering advice. “I think as she takes the pulse around the 19th District, she’ll be better able to articulate the concerns of the people,” he said.
Meanwhile, John Faso’s forces, apparently ignoring the fact that rival Republican primary opponent Andrew Heaney decided to forego the cozy-up-to-political-leaders path to nomination and go the direct petition route, continue to run up the score, as it were.
The Faso team announced their man got (only?) 89 percent of the vote from GOP delegates in Faso’s home county (Columbia) and all of the vote in Greene, which he once represented in the Assembly. No surprise — Heaney didn’t show for either event.
In terms of strategy, Heaney, who seems to have mellowed his message of late, might circle back on the Sean Eldridge congressional campaign. Essentially a top-down buy-in by the recently arrived boy wonder, Eldridge’s multi-million-dollar campaign failed miserably. Eldridge presented well enough, but at some point you gotta kiss the babies.