Hugh Reynolds: Congressional casting call

While most think it far too early to be talking about congressional primaries almost 13 months away, Democratic hopefuls have been crisscrossing the sprawling local 19th District in quest of early traction since last spring.

The traveling circus, hard to the left and harder on Donald Trump and John Faso, brought its act to the Old Dutch Church in Kingston Wednesday, Aug. 23. For audiences, candidates and media, these are perhaps the worst of forums — eight candidates jockeying for attention during a 90-minute session. How does one stand out from the herd when they’re all saying almost the same thing. Shout? Gesticulate? Posture? Lit matches to hair?

For strategy, I refer to the all-but-forgotten Will Yandik, big loser in last year’s Democratic primary to Zephyr Teachout. Speaking to a packed house at Woodstock’s Mescal Hornbeck Community Center last summer, the Columbia County farmer urged fellow Democrats to move toward the center. He was of course ignored here, there and everywhere. A year and a disastrous election later, it appears from public statements by Democratic candidates for Faso’s congressional seat that not much was learned from last year’s results.

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As for the early eight, I’m predicting at least half will drop out by the end of the year, throwing what little support they might have had to one of those still standing. And by that time there will still be nine months until primary.

Meanwhile, Faso will face constituents in open session for the first time at the Esopus town hall at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31. Tickets for the 200 coveted seats are long gone.

A footnote on congressional debates. Having covered dozens of such events over the years from the press box, I was honored to be asked to moderate by Congregation Emanuel, sponsors at last year’s debate in Kingston between Faso and Teachout.

Usually an outsider in the planning phase, I was impressed by the level of detail involved. Emanuel’s organizers seemed on the phone every half hour, locked down on every detail.

Except one, perhaps.

During the milling around period before the debate started, an operative from the Teachout campaign approached me (as moderator) to ask whether “audience participation” would be allowed. Why not? I responded, without much thought. That’s why people come to these things. I like an engaged, active audience. Nothing’s worse than a bunch of listless stiffs sitting on their hands being fed pap from the podium.

As the debate progressed, it became obvious that this audience was all for Teachout, however civil toward Faso. Faso, unflappable, handled it well, but something must have stuck in his craw. He caught me with a “Hey, Reynolds!” at the door after the event. “Nobody told me this was supposed to be an audience participation event,” he said in that affable way of his.

Oops. Dang me. Should have told you, John. Sorry.

He shrugged and walked away. I had no idea Faso, a seasoned politician, felt that way about audience-participation events.

 

Jail time again?

It seems that “the jail issue,” even 10 years after it all got filed in a secret grand jury report, just won’t go away. How else to explain a special legislative “oversight committee” to ride herd on the county’s largest county public works project since the jail, the $12.2 million Family Court project in the Town of Ulster. Committee member Tracey Bartels of Gardiner made the comparison at the committee’s first meeting last week.

I mean, isn’t the well-staffed executive branch, in office for almost nine years now, fully capable of supervising what is in essence the reconstruction of what used to be the Business Resource Center? I think so, and based on recent votes it would appear that a solid majority of the legislature trusts its competence. Why the watchdog committee?

It could be a case of belts and suspenders, to borrow an old chauvinist male phrase. Another set of eyes can’t hurt, after all.

This administration does not welcome legislators eyeballing day-to- day operations. I recall distinctly one of the first meetings newly-elected executive Mike Hein held with legislative leaders in January 2009. Media was sitting at the table while honchos from the newly-launched charter government discussed various responsibilities. At one point in talking about procedures, legislature chairman Fred Wadnola suggested it might be a good idea for legislative leaders and the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to sit in on executive budget preparation.

No way, said Hein. This was an executive function. You’ll see the budget when we give it to you, and we’ll be happy to address any questions then.

The administration has since then conducted all manner of public works projects — bridges, buildings, renovations and the like — with nary a word from the legislature other than its rubber stamp on the results.

The Family Court from the get-go seemed to fall into a different category. The legislature will play an advisory role in the design, bidding and construction process. Oversight committee Chairman Herb Litts of Highland said he’s asking the administration for weekly or at least biweekly progress and spending reports over what will be a 16-month construction period.

Hein, contacted a week after the special committee’s meeting, expressed pride in his track record and welcomed the committee’s input. To a point. “We don’t mind someone watching us throughout the process, but the lines of authority are very clear,” he said. Day-to-day operations would be the responsibility of the executive, he said, though “legislative input is always welcome.”

An example, he said, would be the ongoing discussion over solar power for the refurbished building. Project designers demurred, citing “enormous costs.” The administration, at the prompting of the committee and no doubt input from Hein’s environmental activist base, will do a cost-benefit analysis.

The $95 million jail project, conducted at the end of the administrator-legislature period, also had an oversight committee. Bitter experience suggests some of its members might well have included Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and three blind mice. As the project lurched off the rails from a bid price of $72 million (including pre-bid “soft costs”), the legislative watchdogs who were supposed to be watching pointed fingers at the project’s managers.

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Will history repeat? Probably not. Hein has set a hard figure of $12.2 million, and he means it. If the jail project had a budget, nobody seemed to care. Should the oversight committee this time around wish to add this or that or change something bigger than say, doorknobs, it will have to deal with a bean-counting executive. Make no mistake: the executive is still very much in charge of this project. It appears the committee will have to rely entirely on executive staff for information. As such, an adversarial situation would not be productive.

Belts and suspenders? Can’t hurt, but let’s see what happens if push comes to shove.

 

Legislative notes

A civil engineer by profession, Herb Litts doesn’t seem to suffer idle chatter gladly, especially in meaningless legislative debate.

At last week’s regular session, an issue was whether the legislature should specifically authorize the retention of 1.1 miles of railroad track between the end of Catskill Mountain Railroad’s Kingston-to-West Hurley run and scenic overviews of the Ashokan Reservoir at the Glenford dike. Rail enthusiasts contend the reservoir destination would provide a spectacular terminus for what is now just a nice ride over the fields and through the woods. They worry that opportunity will be forever lost if the tracks are taken up. Litts, who tends to hold comment until debate gets either circular or stupid, had heard enough of what had already been bandied about for years. Referring to legislation unanimously adopted by the legislator in December 2015 and agreed to by the railroad folks, Litts said, “Removing one inch of track requires a vote of this body,” he said, and called for the vote. The railroaders lost another one, 18-5.

Case closed? Depends on the judge. In citing previous legislation, Litts was assuming that precedent holds. Lawyers in the anti-railroad executive branch might have a different interpretation. The political reality is that the trail people have the votes in this legislature, and that this fall’s elections will do little to change that. The rail people have every reason to worry about the fate of those tracks.

There is one comment

  1. endrun

    “Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Three Blind Mice”? Care to take that particular turn of phrase to the national scene these days? With whatever ammonia has filled my head these days, surely I could still come up with better. Oh, and by the way…here’s Sammy Davis’ mud in your glass eye–yes, you have it– for the Glass Menagerie!!

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