The elephant in the room at last week’s Ulster County Democratic convention was the specter of an ongoing federal investigation of a money-laundering operation allegedly run through that party committee in 2014.
Figures are not yet exact, but published reports indicate some $375,000 from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to elect a Democratic majority in the state Senate was funneled through party coffers to be swiftly transferred to Cecilia Tkaczyk’s state Senate re-election campaign just before the polls opened. In one instance, $60,000 came in one day and went out the very next.
“They [the county executive committee] called it a transfer and [said] that it was perfectly legal,” said Marbletown committeewoman Judy Hakim. At the time Hakim, a self-proclaimed “loudmouth,” said she challenged what she saw as a highly questionable procedure conducted in secret by the party’s inner circle.
In response to blaring headlines last month, county party Chairman Frank Cardinale said only that counsel has advised that he not comment on an ongoing investigation. When it comes to saying nothing, Cardinale is a man of his word. That he did not mention the investigation at last week’s convention, if only to assuage the worried, must have given some committee members pause. If this goes south, maybe all the way to Foley Square, the committee could be on the hook for substantial sums in terms of legal expenses, payback, fines and penalties. If it goes criminal, orange jumpsuits could be in play.
Meanwhile, life goes on.
As with Republicans a week prior, the showcase local contest was for county surrogate judge. When the weighted votes were tallied, 197 committee members gave 57 percent of their votes to newcomer Sharon Graff and but 43 percent to party stalwart Sara McGinty.
The party’s executive committee did not make a recommendation in this race — busier with other things, perhaps. McGinty was by any fair measure the establishment candidate in a badly divided party. A familiar face to many in the room, with multiple campaign medals awarded her over the years, she served eight years as a Rosendale town justice. Her practice centered in family and surrogate courts.
In many cases, Graff was introducing herself to committee people.
County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach spoke for the establishment in nominating McGinty. “We know Sara as a dedicated Democrat for many decades,” declared Auerbach, no stranger to excessive alliteration. “We know Sara. Vote for the Sara McGinty we know.”
Lloyd town Chairman Bob Haskins called forth the record of retiring surrogate Judge Mary Work in nominating Graff. “The job fits the person like a hand in a glove,” he said, comparing Graff to the outgoing judge.
There was a brief rustling of feathers when chairman Cardinale initially ruled against a request to hear from the candidates before the vote was taken, but then relented. Graff came across as judicial, measured and confident. McGinty, appealing to a crowd of familiar committee members, sounded more political. “Surrogate judge is at the bottom of the ballot, but I will be working to get every Democrat on that ballot elected,” she pledged.
Defeated at convention, she said she’d primary Graff. “We’re Democrats,” McGinty said. “We’re used to going on and on.”
That remains to be seen. Party leaders, even when their candidates are beaten at convention, do not like primaries that pit brother against sister (in the political sense), cost money better spent on electing candidates. Primaries can leave lasting scars. The first priority of Republicans last week after Peter Matera crushed Kyle Barnett was to try to convince Barnett to forgo a primary in exchange for future considerations. Much the same scenario will play out among Democratic leaders, assuming federal investigators don’t take up all their time.
A litany of huzzahs
Scheduled for a transpontine nominating convention at the same time in “southeast Dutchess,” 10-term incumbent Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (his district includes the towns of Red Hook and Rhinebeck) kept his acceptance speech to only about 20 minutes. But not before a parade of pork meant to grease the skids.
Kingston Mayor Steve Noble launched the litany of huzzahs by pointing out that Cahill had inspired him as a youngster to a career in public service. Woodstock’s Laura Ricci spoke to Cahill’s constituent work — key to any incumbent’s reelection — and his bringing $160 million in state aid for SUNY New Paltz construction and $88 million to consolidate Kingston’s hospitals. Cahill doesn’t make a big deal of the grants he secures. Could he be nervous?
Cahill’s acceptance speech covered the usual subjects, though his foray into the state’s rising and falling prison population — in the context of raising the age of prosecuting offenders as adults from 16 to 18 — struck some as curious, considering things in Albany these days. Or as a wag from Gardiner put it, “Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos have certainly helped increase prison population.” (That would be federal prison.)
County Legislator Hector Rodriguez of New Paltz, ever the rebel, was sporting an “I love Bernie” T-shirt with a big heart on it. It could soon be a collector’s item.
Chris Eachus, 60, a retired schoolteacher from New Windsor, thinks he has a real chance at beating senator-for-life Bill Larkin, 88, in this year’s race. Four years ago Eachus, an Orange County legislator, got within two percentage points. Orange, trending Democratic since 9/11, turned the corner a few years back.
Congressional candidate Will Yandik narrowly lost the county committee endorsement at party convention last March, but was on hand with supporters to glad-hand committee members at last week’s session.
Our sharp-eyed editors picked up a questionable quote in a feature I did on congressional primaries last week. I had asked all the candidates where they were with fundraising. Republicans John Faso and Andrew Heaney said they were in the $1.2 million range, as did Democrat Zephyr Teachout. “We’re between three and five,” Yandik told me, by which I assumed he meant three and five million.
Rule One of journalism is to assume nothing. Circling back on Yandik at the convention, I asked him if he meant three to five million. Looking surprised, he responded, “Oh, no. Three to five hundred thousand!” Yikes. He agreed that with his opponents raising at least twice his total, he needed to get going on fundraising.
I will say this in righteous defense of a cardinal sin: From my experience with hordes of scribes over the years, our mistakes are for the most part inadvertent. Politicians’ misstatements often represent deliberate spin. As former Freeman sports editor Ed Palladino said, “Harrumph!”
Money matters in these things. Teachout did not attend the convention, but has sent at least two mass mailings to Democratic enrollees in the past month. Yandik has to date sent nothing. Primaries are scheduled for June 28.
Speaking of congressional primaries, Faso’s pollster released a survey taken around the first of the month that showed the former assemblyman with a 51-32 lead over Andrew Heaney. The margin is an eye-opener, the lead no great surprise. Heaney has been pounding Faso with hard-hitting negative TV ads, a typical strategy to bring down frontrunners. A Siena/Time Warner poll released Tuesday night showed Faso with a 22-point lead and Teachout with a 30-point lead.
Pounding the campaign trail as the days dwindle down, Heaney is hard to reach. Let me take a stab at a presumed rejoinder to these poll numbers: The only poll that counts is on June 28!