This has been a most unusual election year. No matter who wins, the rancor will persist well after next Tuesday.
The many people I typically interact with during election seasons share the widespread dismay of motivated, generally well-informed voters. How in god’s name, they ask me, did we get to this? Like I have answers.
Self-proclaimed good Republicans and good Democrats tell me they’re “embarrassed” by the choices given them. For the first time in my memory, I find more people considering what many would have thought unthinkable, not voting at all.
Minor-party presidential candidates have been more of a joke than an alternative. Where’s a Ross Perot when we need him? Some people talk about writing in more credible names, like Mickey Mouse and Daisy Duck.
Not voting sends a message and could well affect this election. Is it the answer? I hope not.
Maybe the question isn’t how we got to this sorry pass, but how we get back from it. This may be just a glimmer, but last week’s congressional debate at Temple Emanuel in Kingston could be instructive. Close to 200 people turned out on a cold and rainy night to hear two credible candidates vigorously state their views. The audience got into it early with frequent cheers and applause interspersed with occasional groans and boos.
At the end, Temple cantor Bob Cohen led the assemblage in a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
Lock him up?
Fortunately, there’s some juicy local elections to make the season gay. Just in time to spice up an otherwise ho-hum cycle comes news of assemblyperson Kevin Cahill’s double-dipping on travel vouchers to the tune of some $16,000 over a two-year period. Investigative reporting by the Times Herald Record revealed that while the footloose senior assemblyman was being reimbursed by the state for numerous trips around the country on “official business,” his campaign committee was also billed.
Kudos to veteran reporter Paul Brooks for drilling down through separately filed spending reports to connect the dots.
As for the pre-election FBI-like timing, Brooks said the dig began “right after the primary.” “We run stories when they’re ready,” he said.
Big, too. Cahill got the front page, half a page inside and a follow story from the lower house’s speaker Carl Heastie. Nobody here but us chickens was essentially what Heastie said.
In an unusual move, Ulster DA Holley Carnright announced a review and if necessary, a referral to the attorney general.
Cahill, who said he was unaware of the double-dipping until alerted by the Record, blamed shoddy record-keeping, but accepted full responsibility. He says he’ll reimburse his campaign committee from “personal funds.”
Conservative opponent Jack Hayes called the disclosure just one more example of business as usual in Albany, which come to think of it has been the central theme for every challenger this year. Judging from the mild response, righteous indignation is apparently not part of Hayes’s DNA.
County Republican chairman Roger Rascoe, whose self-admitted candidate-filing snafu last summer deprived Hayes of the GOP nomination he had earned at convention and by petition, was more to the point. “I can see a freshman assemblyman making this kind of mistake,” said Rascoe, “but not somebody in office for almost 20 years.” He did not add that the “mistake” (a word painfully familiar to “The Rajah”) was made repeatedly over that period.
The paradox is that Cahill, the ultimate micromanager, will scrutinize every outgoing office communication for the occasional misplaced comma. Not so, apparently, the travel vouchers.
No small factor in what Cahill called this “devastating embarrassment” is his revolving-door assembly office that has talented young staffers coming and going like monthly utility bills. With that kind of turnover — Cahill encourages his young charges to seek other opportunities in government — clear-cut rules of operation and strict oversight are critical.
Cahill knows where the buck stops. This rare inside look at sausage-making government, coming just days before the election, is unlikely to much move the needle, but it might give pause to that special commission on legislative pay raises. The commission reports out on November 17, the week before Thanksgiving.
The candidates debate
For reporters, the kind of gang candidate forum the chamber of commerce put on last week in Kingston for state senators is pure purgatory. Six candidates responding to four or five questions in about an hour produces at best one memorable one-liner, maybe two. From editors, such assignments constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Screw up and you get to cover the candidate s debate. Arghh!
I can appreciate the chamber’s dilemma. The business organization does breakfasts only once a month, but thanks to the 2012 gerrymandered reapportionment Ulster County is represented by no fewer than eight state legislators. Only assemblymen Kevin Cahill and Frank Skartados live here. Cahill’s low-key race against minor-party candidate Jack Hayes didn’t merit an invitation even if the district covers almost two-thirds of the county population.
The chamber invited the eight major-party state senate candidates who represent Ulster to breakfast at the Best Western Hotel. Orange County senior state senator Bill Larkin phoned regrets, citing early-morning snow flurries. But John Bonacic made the long drive from central Orange through dicey weather, as did Jim Seward from somewhere north by northwest of Shandaken. Sara Niccoli and George Amedore came down from Montgomery County, Jermaine Bagnall-Graham from Binghamton. But at least the genteel Larkin phoned regrets. Pramilla Malick, Bonacic’s no-hope Democratic opponent, didn’t, according to chamber president Ward Todd.
With all those sound bites flying around, I can offer only snapshots and catchy one-liners from candidates.
I had been under the (mistaken) impression that this was to be a faceoff between 46th district senate candidates incumbent Republican Amedore and Democratic challenger Niccoli. Makes sense. The district is home to just over half the county’s population. The other three senate districts were merely “players to be named later” when the lords of the senate carved up the county in 2012.
Seward, a personable glad-hander, tried to put a good face on Ulster’s dismemberment. Don’t think of Ulster as being divided, he said, “Think of it as your delegation working for you in Albany.” Right. Does anybody remember the last time this “delegation” united on behalf of Ulster? Me, neither.
Seward, appearing hale and hearty after battling what he called “serious cancer” last spring, spoke to the pork he’s sprinkled around the Shandaken end of his district. But so much more needs to be done, he said, after having spent over 30 years in the legislature.
Bagnall-Graham (“a combination of my wife’s name and mine”), Seward’s no-chance Democratic opponent, spoke movingly of the challenges facing the working poor. He’s been there.
Bonacic, having represented the 42nd district in one configuration or another since 1999, at least goes through the motions. He shows up. At 74, the “handsomest man in the senate” still seems to enjoy shaking a fist at the gods, of which he is one. Bonacic did his usual song and dance, damning Democrats of every stripe while extolling the Republican senate as standing between the treasury and “those big-spending politicians from New York City.” Yada-yada.
While seldom seen in these parts any more, Bonacic does bring a certain zest to the campaign trail. Days away from another walkover, he nonetheless expressed outrage and “real pain” at being paint-brushed as corrupt by his opponent. To hear Bonacic tell it, longtime incumbents have been championing ethics reform in Albany since the days of the first Cuomo. And to what effect?
Niccoli and Amedore sat at opposite ends of the head table, but she still managed a few slaps. Niccoli twice spoke to the “millions of dollars” allegedly being funneled into Amedore’s campaign by unnamed “real-estate interests.” (For reference, consult the Buffalo Billion controversy.) Amedore responded by defending limited liability companies (the LLCs sometimes formed to generate most of this kind of campaign money) on freedom of expression grounds. Even if the Supreme Court so dictated, he probably should have just ignored the whole secretive, corrupting LLC thing, as did the state senate.
Almost Bonacic’s equal in sartorial splendor, Amedore displayed his creative side with “Big government is heavy on our backs and deep in our pockets.” Thankfully, he went no further.
If Democrat Chris Eachus has a game plan against the generationally impregnable Larkin, it must be running against him every presidential year. Four years ago, Eachus, now 60, a little-known Orange County legislator, got within 3000 votes of Larkin. He sat out the last election. With Larkin a no-show on the campaign trail an emerging issue and Trump depressing Republican turnout, he just might close what seems now a narrow gap.
Eachus doesn’t discuss Larkin’s advanced age — the senator is 88, born about four months after Babe Ruth’s 60th home run. “It’s not an issue, it’s how he represents this district,” he says. But he did respond to a direct question on the senator’s absences by a reporter during the traditional post-forum milling-around period.
Given the dearth of Larkin sightings, I asked Eachus whether the senator had been at any of the numerous candidate forums he’d attended. “No,” he said, adding that Larkin didn’t show up for many budget meetings of the legislature last June, either.
Not for nothing, but Turner films ran a political classic, Spencer Tracy’s 1958 “The Last Hurrah” the night before the breakfast. “Spensuh,” as girlfriend Kathryn Hepburn called him, was 58 but looked 70.
Despite wide-spread disillusionment with government, voters overwhelmingly go with the devils they think they know. Ergo, most observers expect the return of most regulars, albeit in lighter voting.
Did I mention Chuck Schumer? Recent polls have the senior Democratic senator with a 37-point lead over Republican challenger Wendy Long. But he’ll want more. Long set an all-time record in losing to Kristen Gillibrand, 78-22, in 2012.
Congress is the showcase race, and here it’s a pick-‘em. Despite generally positive media and a solid ground game, polls show Zephyr Teachout locked in the mid-40s with John Faso. Based on applause, Teachout probably won the debate with Faso at Temple Emanuel in Democrat-dominated Kingston last week, but that’s not where elections are decided.
Recent reports indicate more than $13 million being spent on this election, almost equally divided between the candidates and most of it coming from outside the district. Maybe that explains the almost 40 negative mailings I’ve received in the last month.
With Teachout, we get a red roadster with plenty of zip and pizzazz, but with a sharp veer left. Call her Maurice Hinchey on speed. Faso is your Chevy sedan, solid, reliable, predictable, there for the long haul. Teachout’s enthusiasm is contagious, but to declare in an ad that “John Faso represents everything that’s wrong in politics,” is pushing the envelope. Faso’s side calls him “hero” as a paid lobbyist on behalf of autistic children, which is barely enough to blunt the “lobbyist-politician” label affixed by opponents.
This campaign could be decided by what’s left of the Bernie Sanders’ vote. With no such cushion, Faso can only hope for good weather on Election Day.
Lower down the ballot
I had expected more of a campaign between newcomer Niccoli and three-timer Amedore. Niccoli, a Teachout clone, busted out of the blocks last spring and stumbled during the summer while reorganizing her campaign She may have hit her stride as the finish approaches. Steady Amedore just grinds it out. With an estimated 6000 new Democrats swelling her Ulster advantage she has to score big here, his vote being solid at the northern end of the district.
I think Amedore prevails, but by nowhere near his 11,500 margin two years ago. As he learned in 2012 (after losing by 18 votes), 19 is just enough.
Larkin is on the bubble, what with Democratic enrollment surging in his district, a strong opponent and his inability or refusal to hit the bricks. Can he hold on for one last dance? I doubt it, but thanks for the memories.
Down-ballot (actually, on the flip side of the ballot), the controversy over relocating Ulster family court from Kingston to the Town of Ulster has generated more smoke than heat. People in metropolitan Kingston will pay attention, but elsewhere?
Consistent criticism of what one of our brilliant editors called a “propagandist” ballot wording may drive enough voters to thumb down this county power play.
There are several back-up choices, as the state breathes down the county’s neck. My favorite, if only for sentiment, is the mostly vacant Freeman building on Hurley Avenue. It’s at least 880 feet within Kingston city limits with plenty of space and parking. And what better location for a courthouse, than this former supermarket where truth and justice once reigned?
The race for surrogate court, Sara-Matera for short, has been more about ratings, party picks and office management than about an obscure tribunal that deals with complicated wills, estates and whatnot.
I think a combination of circumstances gives Republican Peter Matera an edge. Even before Democrat Sara McGinty’s practice management issues from eight years ago were dredged up again, Matera was considered by many Democrats a most serious threat. Republicans are united behind their candidate, not so Democrats, still grousing over the bruising primary between McGinty and Sharon Graff. There will be much gnashing of teeth should Democrats fail to retain a seat they believed they should have won. It was a Norman Rockwell moment.