Maurice Hinchey’s remarkable career as a public servant stands as a beacon for future generations to emulate. From his earliest days after having been elected to the New York Legislature from Saugerties in the Democrat Sweep of 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Maurice Hinchey assumed a leadership position of great importance in protecting the water and environment, for economic justice and in the 1980s driving organized crime from the illegal toxic landfill and waste hauling business in the Hudson River Valley.
One of his early triumphs in the Legislature was his help in passing the Freshwater Wetlands Law of 1975, and amendments in 1976, ’79 and ’87. Hinchey became chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee in 1979, and served there for the next 14 years. Although very patriotic, Maurice nevertheless took on the military in 1980 with a report that detailed military dumping at Love Canal, the nation’s first major toxic dump site. He was crucially involved also in the enactment of our country’s first law for regulating acid rain. Hinchey also served tirelessly on the Ways and Means, Rules, Banks, Health, Higher Education, Labor, Energy and Agriculture committees.
He had an indefatigable persistence, and good will, which led him to form alliances with those of differing political beliefs, in order to protect the water, national heritage, and the natural landscape. Hinchey’s ability to achieve common group is an important trait our current politicians could well seek to follow.
Throughout much of the 1980s and into the 1990s Hinchey and his excellent staff worked ceaselessly to remove the mob from the waste hauling business. His 1986 report, Organized Crime’s Involvement in the Waste Hauling Industry, was very instrumental in focusing the attention both of law enforcement and the public on the threat organized crime poses to the air and water.
Once I visited the Westchester County District Attorney’s office while serving as volunteer for Hinchey, and I noticed that they had pages of Hinchey’s Organized Crime’s Involvement in the Waste Hauling Industry pulled out and attached to the Westchester DA’s office wall.
Maurice had put together a remarkable team to take on organized crime and illegal dumping in the Hudson Valley. Executive Assistant (and Saugerties resident), Paul Miller, was a key writer for Hinchey. Also key was a peppery and colorful former British Intelligence agent named A. J. Woolston-Smith, known as Smitty, who was part of the Watergate investigation team of the 1970s. Smitty looked into things for Hinchey such as the illegal dumping of medical waste off of barges, and radium contamination in New York City. Another key Hinchey organized crime investigator was Gail McFarland-Benedict. Others were also involved including Assembly Environmental Committee counsel Josh Koplovitz, and staff members such as Vern Benjamin.
Maurice took risks. The FBI opened a sub-station in the building in Kingston where Maurice had his local offices, partly in order to provide protection for Hinchey’s work. In his research on mob-tinged dumping, Hinchey had to undergo a number of unpleasant confrontations. One of the more grim was the “handshake that wouldn’t end.” He was visiting a mob-run landfill and went into the trailer to speak with the owner. Hinchey was ready to leave and the gangster shook his hand and said, “Take care of yourself.” It was the hand-grab from hell — a lengthy, clingy, grasp that, by its duration, seemed to convey a message. Finally Hinchey was able to detach his fingers, and not long afterwards, the assemblyman picked up a pistol permit.
I used to visit Maurice’s Spartan office back then which had blue carpeting, with a framed poster with the text “Secure the Peace” above a photo, “Elect Harry Truman President,” and another poster for the MGM Judy Garland Wizard of Oz.
Hinchey and his investigators also took on the illegal dump located in Tuxedo, New York, operated by a convicted murderer named Frank Sacco, who had ties to mobsters in Westchester County. Answering the complaints of residents who were being overwhelmed by ghastly fumes emanating from the Tuxedo dump, located in the downtown area, Hinchey visited Tuxedo, and held hearings of his committee in the town hall, resulting in a 1989 report, The Tuxedo Story. Federal investigators became involved, with the result that a Tuxedo town judge and the local police chief were all found guilty in Federal Court of taking bribes from Mr. Sacco.
In early 1988, Hinchey sent a two-page letter to every Town Supervisor in New York State warning of criminal figures bring illegal construction and demolition debris commingled with hazardous and medical waste to the ravines of towns in the state.
Hinchey’s efforts in preventing organize crime from involvement in the waste hauling business in the Hudson Valley resulted in a severe crimp in such activities, and in convictions of some organized crime connected haulers.
Role in Creating Hudson Valley Greenway
But it was in leading and organizing the effort to create the Hudson Valley Greenway that Maurice Hinchey’s secured his place in history.
The Hudson River Greenway did not just spring without effort from the mind of the era, like the ancient goddess Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. It required thousands of hours of work, and spirited leadership on the part of Maurice Hinchey and of course thousands of others, up and down the Hudson, who saw the beauty of this grand idea.
How do you create something as far-reaching and complicated as the Greenway? First of all, you go to the public. You set up meetings. You print brochures and flyers. You draft laws. You approach Town Boards, County Governments, established groups, and seek to inform and get their ideas and support.
One of the first efforts for a Greenway was to restore quality fishing in the River, with a law back in 1979 and ’80 establishing a Hudson River Fishery Management Program. In 1986 Hinchey held hearings on the topic “The Future of the Hudson Valley Environment.” In early 1987, he promoted a bill to create a Hudson River Valley Authority. And he was instrumental in passing the New York State Hudson River Estuary Management Act, thus creating Hudson River estuarine districts. He kept drumming up support, from both sides of the aisle, for the enactment of a Hudson River Valley Authority or Partnership. By 1988, Hinchey had introduced legislation which “would initiate a greenway study along the Hudson River from New York City to the Adirondacks.” Governor Mario Cuomo had endorsed the greenway concept in his State of the State talk. A survey by Scenic Hudson had shown that 75% of Hudson Valley residents approved of the Greenway.
Hinchey spearheaded a three year study, including 17 public hearings in the 12-county region, and a well-done report, by mid 1991. On December 31, Governor Cuomo signed the Greenway legislation. It would have never been done except for the non-stop organization work and leadership of Maurice Hinchey.
In 1992, 28th District Congressman Matthew F. McHugh retired after 18 years in the House. Hinchey won the Democratic nomination for the district, which had been renumbered the 26th after New York lost three districts as a result of the 1990 census.
Hinchey served New York’s 26th congressional district from 1993–2003, then from New York’s 22nd congressional district 2003–2012
After election shenanigans in Ohio in 2004 which stripped John Kerry from the Presidency, Hinchey was one of 31 members of the House who voted to uphold the objection to counting the electoral votes from Ohio in the United States presidential election, in order to encourage “a formal and legitimate debate about election irregularities.” If Hinchey’s vote had prevailed, American history would have been significantly different.
After The New York Times first disclosed the existence of the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program in late 2005, Hinchey was among the first members of Congress to criticize the program. Hinchey wrote the Justice Department requesting an investigation.
For his efforts to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 sailing up the Hudson River, Hinchey was made an Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau on September 4, 2009 by the Ambassador of the Netherlands on behalf of Queen Beatrix. He was awarded the Dutch royal order for his work to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration and discovery of the river in New York, and for his efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Netherlands relationship.
In May 2010, Hinchey, along with two other Progressive democrats, Lois Capps and Jay Inslee, began a petition to ask Obama to delay Shell from beginning exploratory drilling near Alaska.
Hinchey worked strongly against shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in upstate New York. Unfortunately, the Obama administration paid little heed to a request by Hinchey to slow drilling in New York and Pennsylvania.
On November 2, 2010 Hinchey was elected to his tenth term as Congressman for the New York State 22nd Congressional District.
On April 22, 2011, Hinchey’s office announced that he was being treated for a curable form of colon cancer. A statement released by his office said that Hinchey would have surgery at the Albany Medical Center, receive treatment at the Ulster Radiation Oncology Center in Kingston, N.Y., and also undergo chemotherapy. He retired in January of 2013, after 20 years in Congress.
The Maurice Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center was dedicated to him in Mt. Tremper. The Catskill Interpretive Center — Another great idea from Maurice.
Since retirement, Hinchey has continued his work for national healthcare, for economic justice for all and for protection of water and the environment. Now, afflicted with a neurological disorder, he’s retired at last from his 43 years of non-stop work to improve and protect our way of life.
All hail to the great accomplishments of Maurice Hinchey!