As Ulster County Republican conventions go, the May 26 turnout at La Mirage in Port Ewen was the best in years. Almost three out of every four committee members, middle-aged to elderly, attended, feisty and ready to rumble.
There were few surprises — this was a Republican gathering, after all. Esopus town Councilman Kyle Barnett’s resounding defeat for the surrogate judge nomination at the hands of Peter Matera raised a few eyebrows, if not hackles.
Butch Dener backed a winner, even if New Paltz Republicans don’t win very often. “Surprised?” he asked in response to a question after Matera’s near-two-to-one victory. “Not at all. I go back a long way with Kyle. This just wasn’t his year.”
The lopsided outcome might have elevated Kingston GOP Chairman Joe Ingarra to something of a sage. Ingarra, in nominating Matera, spoke to “two good men,” one well-known in Republican circles and at county surrogate court and the other a stranger to both, “something the Democrats will take advantage of.”
Ingarra’s attack, with additional spice from Mike Catalanatto from Saugerties, was so far beyond the judicial nominating pale as to leave some breathless. “Very harsh and not true” was all Barnett could sputter as his opponent’s backers piled on. He later said his Poughkeepsie-based firm has 36 cases pending in surrogate court. Trouble is, 30 are in Dutchess County.
Alas, victory has many fathers, and Matera is for now the GOP’s daddy. Barnett, who served for six months as Esopus supervisor after the sudden death of John Coutant last June and was handily re-elected town councilman, said he’d “probably” primary Matera on Sept. 13.
Given how he was manhandled at the convention — insulted, actually — and that only 148 of 229 committee members cast (weighted) votes, he might have a chance. A clear loss at the hands of the most dedicated committee members from the most populous Republican districts should give him pause, however.
Recognition cuts both ways
They’re playing for high stakes. Depending on whether a state judicial compensation commission’s recommendations are adopted by the legislature, clearing the way for legislative pay raises, surrogate judge could get paid upward of $190,000 a year for 10 years. Did I mention patronage, Cadillac-level family benefits, a less-than-onerous work schedule and full-salary retirement? Sorry.
In any event, it’s still a long road to the official GOP nomination. Party designees (Matera) have the advantage of committee members carrying their petitions, while challengers have to assemble their own teams from shallow pools for the tedious and time-consuming chore of door-to-door signature gathering. And of course anything can happen at primary, where typically, less than 20 percent of enrollees turn out. With about 29,000 registered Republicans, that translates to less than 6,000 voters. With those odds, anybody would give it a shot.
Crowd response is often in the ear of the listener, so my take on reaction to the first invocation of Donald Trump’s name last Thursday differed from that of county GOP Chairman Roger Rascoe.
“With Donald Trump leading our ticket we’re going to elect two judges,” Rascoe roared (including one for state supreme court). Committee members did not leap to their feet. Indicating what, stiff joints, indifference, fear?
“I thought the response was, well, tepid,” I said to Rascoe afterwards.
“I thought it was pretty strong,” replied Rascoe, after having mentioned Trump no fewer than five times to diminishing applause.
I also asked him what he thought of Ingarra’s controversial nominating speech. “I like Donald Trump,” he dodged.
Rascoe and sidekick Vice Chairman Kevin Costello of Rosendale will be going to the Republican convention in Cleveland next month, Rascoe as an alternate, Costello as his credentialed guest.
In attempting to set a tone which Ingarra would obviously ignore, Rascoe declared in opening remarks, “We don’t fight nasty.” This from a Trump supporter?
Rascoe does get credit for party-building over his five-plus years in office. When he took over there were 169 committee members, he said, off a potential full house of 326. He has 229 now and continues active recruitment. There are two committee members for each of the county’s 163 election districts. Democrats usually have around 90 percent representation, in part because there are so many more of them, younger and eager to get involved.
A certain degree of bombast can be expected at these preachments to believers. For instance, nine-term state Sen. John Bonacic of Orange County, sounding more like a congressional candidate, declared that America had fewer troops under arms now than “before the start of World War I.”
Not so. The army’s website shows 1.4 million soldiers (not counting Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) on duty, compared to 190,000 soldiers in 1917.
Jane Rascoe, the chairman’s wife and current Shawangunk town clerk, had kind words for her former boss of 16 years. Speaking of Bonacic’s legendary legislative prowess and occasional courage in bucking leadership on controversial issues, she said, “He knows when to push, when to retreat, and when to negotiate.” I thought Kenny Rogers sang it better (“The Gambler”), but Jane was close.
Bonacic declared it would be “devastating for the upstate economy” if Democrats took control of what is now a 31-32 Senate, with independent Democrats giving the Republicans control. Hasn’t upstate been devastated under decades of Republican rule? Is it any wonder people are in a mood for change, any change?
A culture of acceptance
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, reprising what might have been his congressional campaign, called Gov. Andrew Cuomo “a bully.” “Ours is a culture of acceptance,” he said with straight face of fellow Republicans. “If we don’t stand up and fight bullies, we lose.” In his quiet way, Lopez is a standup guy.
Former county legislator Jack Hayes, Conservative from Gardiner, will take one for the (Republican) party in challenging the generally impregnable Kevin Cahill for Assembly. There was that one slip in 1994, but since 1998 Cahill has run off nine straight. Having a 16,000-voter edge in enrollment doesn’t hurt, either.
Playing the corruption card, Hayes, a retired state trooper, spoke to sins of commission and sins of omission. “If you say nothing, bad things happen,” he said. Be that the case, people in Albany these days seems more dedicated to taking sales taxes off tampons (why it took this long is an embarrassment) than taking on corruption in any meaningful way.
To no great surprise, there were any number of Republicans who thought Trump could win the general election, even carry heavily Democratic New York. Some seemed motivated by negative impulse and anger, rarely a good thing in politics or in life.
Take 86-year-old Antoinette Babb, pronounced “Bob.” “That’s three Bs and an A,” she told me when asked for a spelling. A Saugerties committeewoman since she couldn’t remember when — “a real good worker,” said Rascoe in high praise — the very with-it Babb said she was backing Trump. “He’s a little better than Hillary,” she said without much enthusiasm. “I can’t stand Hillary.” She may have captured the mood of her party in what many are calling this historic year.
In the interest of equal time (which Democrats will get next week), I conclude with joyful news from the family of former Kingston corporation counsel Andrew Zweben. Democrat Zweben became a grandfather for the first time with the arrival of Emmeline Catherine Phillips Zweben on April 29. The baby, almost as long as her name, is the daughter of Alexandra Lawrence Zweben (daddy’s little girl) and Brent Phillips.
“Mother, father and baby are all doing well,” Zweben wrote. “Grandfather is doing even better.”