Events are moving so quickly and morphing so often these days that it’s almost impossible to keep up with a news cycle, let alone anticipate what will happen.
Witness last week’s healthcare forum organized by Ulster County Executive Mike Hein to hear comments on the repeal and/or replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Hein was about a month behind the curve on this one, rare for a political leader who usually sets the agenda. Recall that two county legislators had offered resolutions to preserve or repair the ACA after large public protests in Kingston and Kinderhook. But as last Tuesday’s gathering at the county office building demonstrated (no pun intended), nobody can organize an event and draw a crowd like the county executive.
With the desks and chairs of 23 legislators (there used to be 33), the sixth-floor legislative chambers usually allow only peripheral seating for maybe 60 spectators. Hein fixed that by replacing the legislature’s furniture with about 120 folding chairs. Desks and chairs were returned for the next night’s legislative session.
Every seat was filled, and people were standing in the back and out in the hallway. Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk said he didn’t have any problem with the executive appropriating his chamber space “for a public meeting.” With permission, of course.
Three dozen speakers were limited to two minutes each, which most observed. Hein’s opening remarks, meant to rally an already indignant crowd against “heartless” Republicans, took five minutes. Sometimes it’s good to be boss. It sounded like a candidate declaring for Congress.
Hein had asked health commissioner Dr. Carol Smith to deliver a report to him within 48 hours in order to respond to an anticipated congressional vote scheduled for two days later. She can take her time. As we all know by now, the Republican House leadership couldn’t muster the votes.
Once again, Congressman John Faso was on the wrong side of the fan. Having voted in committee to move forward what turned out to be widely reviled legislation, Faso was left with egg on his face. Perhaps a town hall or two could restore the faith of his constituents.
Polls taken immediately after the ACA collapse offered Faso no solace. A Quninipiac University poll asked 1,056 responders, “If your U.S. senator or congressperson votes to replace Obamacare with the Republican healthcare plan, would you be more or less likely to vote for their reelection”
Some 46 percent said they’d be “less likely” to return their congressperson to office, 19 percent answered “more likely.” Ninety-three percent of Democrats (they comprise almost half of major-party enrollees in Faso’s district) disapproved of the way the president is handling healthcare.
But Trump isn’t running next year. They say we only get one chance to make a good first impression. If so, the Kinderhook freshman needs to come up with a real strong second act.
I can’t say copies of county legislative leaders’ annual addresses have been flying off the presses. Nonetheless, there’s an occasional nugget in them.
Ulster County Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez of New Paltz goes to the head of the class for effort, content and delivery. This guy might have a future. Though mild-mannered Chairman Ronk could have simply mailed in last year’s address, he showed some spunk, especially in calling out (unnamed) disruptive legislators. Majority Leader Mary Beth Maio of Highland, who generally doesn’t say much as Republican spokesperson, gave the shortest and least specific speech. If Republicans have a platform, their leader didn’t lay many planks.
Maio, the legislature’s first female majority leader, seemed more comfortable with women’s issues. In stating that “a generation ago, women faced forced feedings, jail, asylums and worse, [no] right to vote, own property and be viewed as equals,” she probably meant four generations ago. Point taken.
Maio did break news in some quarters. This year is the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York State. Most had been pointing to the centennial of federal adoption in 2020.
Republican Ronk, unanimously re-elected by his peers in January, got top billing because he’s top dog. For substance and showmanship, however, the honors went to Rodriguez. Unlike his fellow leaders, H-Rod hit a whole bank of hot buttons, ranging from national healthcare to immigration to “creating criteria for measuring economic success in this county,” and to pledging a close watch on county construction projects.
“County government cannot function in isolation from state and national events,” he orated. “Sticking our collective heads in the sand, or in anything else, is not an appropriate response to what’s happening.”
The view from the podium was rosier than among the rank-and-file. “Working together we really had a great year in 2016,” Ronk reported. As evidence, he cited the controversial cyberbullying law and the pet-sellers’ law, both passed last week. In the kingdom of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.
Ronk and Rodriguez took notice of the elephant in the living room, the $12 million Family Court project in the Town of Ulster, the county’s largest construction project since the new jail a decade ago.
And while on the subject of powerful forces, Rodriguez and Ronk both mentioned Hein, though from different angles. Republican Ronk, perhaps piqued at being seen “by some legislators” as a patsy for the Democratic chief executive, spun it into a virtue. An unnamed friend told him, he said, that “if you work too well with people you must be doing a good job.” Ronk is a reasonably intelligent guy, but I don’t think he got the gist of that conversation.
Rodriguez heaped effusive praise on the tender-skinned executive but still managed to convey the impression that not all legislators were enthralled with him. We are “very lucky” to have a county executive “as skilled” as Hein, said the minority leader, even if “he can be maddeningly frustrating to deal with.” Really? Hein on occasion might say the same of the legislature.
I understand that the legislature thinks it should make itself more meaningful in the overall scheme of things, but after almost a decade of executive government the legislature has turned into a junior partner, reactive and indolent, an echo rather than a voice.
Fortunately for them, legislators need only to convince the voters of their districts that they deserve another term. They’ve been successful at that. We’re only two regular meetings removed from party nomination conventions in late May or early June. There is every indication 22 of 23 incumbents will go to the wire. Ellenville’s T.J. Briggs is expected to run for Wawarsing town supervisor.
Face in the crowd
Ronk is by personality non-confrontational. He’d rather reason with people. But some things do get on his nerves.
Case in point, the long-delayed Resort at Belleayre in Shandaken. Starting dates differ somewhat, but 20 years is a good round number since developers first proposed the resort on some 1,900 acres of land on the Ulster-Delaware border. Decades of downsizing (to about 750 acres), regulatory revisions and lawsuits have yet to produce a shovel in the ground, other than test borings. In the meantime, the economy in this part of the region has suffered.
In December, the state DEC gave its final approval. About a month ago, it looked like the final legal hurdle had been cleared, but the Catskill Heritage Alliance last week filed yet another lawsuit in state court.
Ronk made no direct mention of this latest move, which occurred only hours after his address, but he did take a poke at opponents. “We have collectively worked over the years in any way we can [could] to support the Crossroads Ventures project at Belleayre,” he said. “There are many who have worked against this project, citing environmental objections, most of which are pure bunk.”
“Pure bunk?” As Ronk spit out that pejorative, I looked over at Catskill Heritage Alliance leader Kathy Nolan, sitting only a few feet from the press section. I swear her eyes fluttered and her face turned red. Bunk? Nolan, a boon ally of the county executive, was at the courthouse next morning, pre-prepared Article 78 petition in hand.
Ronk knows that if he insults Kathy Nolan he insults the county executive, which can have consequences. Perhaps there is something after all to his claims of independence. I’ll have to see a few more examples.