As presently constituted, the Ulster County Legislature, with its 12-11 Republican majority, offers a conglomeration of outlanders and party stalwarts. New faces could change its composition next year.
Of the 23 seats, six incumbents and Democratic primary winner Lynn Eckert of Kingston have no opposition. Most of the remaining incumbents face only token competition. Election results could swing the majority to the Democrats or preserve a fragile, if united, Republican majority. It’ll be close.
Before we get into picks and guesses, the question should be raised as to how much the legislature, in this era of executive dominance, really matters. Of course it does, but not nearly as much as when the legislature ran things (prior to 2009), with a county administrator to carry out day-to-day management.
The charter changed things. By charter, the legislature is supposed to be the policy-making branch of government, but it doesn’t do much of that. Most policy is made by the executive, usually through the budget process. Under former chairman Rich Mathews’ “golden rule” (“he who has the gold, rules”), legislators on the stump like to tell ill-informed constituents that “we control the purse strings.” On paper, maybe, but almost all the executive budget is routinely approved by the legislature.
Under the single-member districts initiated in 2013, voter turnout has been dismal. Voters just don’t seem to have much interest in off-year county legislative races.
The swing districts, some open seats, are in Marbletown, Esopus, Rochester and Olive/Shandaken/Denning/Hardenburgh. Moving from north to south, we give you:
Three hard-charging candidates all think they have a lock on a minimum of a third plus one votes on Election Day. Two will be wrong.
District 22 consists of Olive, Shandaken, Denning and Hardenburgh. Olive boasts more population than the other three towns combined.
Long-time Democrat incumbent John Parete of Olive, after losing both major party endorsements at primary, is running as a Conservative and Independent. Democrat Kathy Nolan of Shandaken, an outspoken critic of railroads and resorts and a staunch ally of County Executive Mike Hein on most things, could be considered the front-runner among this contentious ménage. With a Wharton degree in finance, Republican Cliff Faintych considers himself one of the leading financial managers in the region and therefore eminently qualified to be the next chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Veteran Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine of Marlborough, unopposed for his 13th term, will have something to say about that. Verily it is said, Gerentine will meet his maker with that chairman’s gavel clutched in his cold, dead fingers.
Everything depends on how each candidate turns out his or her party base, plus his or her ability to attract independent voters. The Democrats start with a more-than-500 enrollee advantage, but they could split between good ol’ boy Parete and the baggage-laden Nolan. Faintych can rally his base and will draw votes from Republicans formerly friendly to Parete. My prediction: With Faintych playing spoiler, Nolan’s ground game from the executive’s zealous trailblazers gets her to about 40 percent first.
Esopus: Open seats don’t open up very often in a legislature where 10 years in office entitles one to a modest pension. How modest? One former legislator told me his pension take-home is $110 a month (based on the former salary of $10,000 a year).
Call this one the resurrection race. Republicans have brought back former town-board member, chairman, veterans advocate and retired car salesman Ira Weiner, while Democrats are fielding former Republican legislator Laura Petit. And yes, I would buy a used car from Ira Weiner, one of my favorite Vietnam combat vets.
Given Petit’s political pedigree, some diehard Dems in the town might stay on the sidelines, even as they respect her environmental advocacy. This one could be closer than the stats suggest. Edge to Petit.
The Rondout Valley being a hotbed of political intrigue these days, the race to replace outgoing legislator Richard Parete between Democratic town board member Doug Adams and newbie Republican Heidi Haynes figures to generate much heat. Democrat Parete, a candidate for town supervisor with both major-party lines, is backing Haynes, district director for state Sen. George Amedore. Late to the dance after Parete declined the Republican nomination for legislature, the personable Haynes brings energy and enthusiasm to the campaign. The trick as in most places is for Democrats to get their people out, which didn’t happen when Parete trounced Adams (1512 to 903) two years ago. Presumably, Adams learned something from the last campaign, and there remains that 650-vote Democratic advantage. If Democrats turn out, Adams prevails.
I love rematches. There’s context there. In Rochester, freshman Republican Ron Lapp, a retired cop, surprised incumbent Democrat Lynn Archer two years ago, much like Archer shocked Terry Bernardo, then the Republican chairwoman of the legislature, in 2013. Three different legislators in four years? Whew.
Archer, a former town-board member, will come to this one much wiser about Lapp’s deep roots in the community of his ancestors. On paper, Archer, a retired banker and current real estate broker, looks the stronger candidate, but Lapp scores where the rubber meets the road. I think he retains his seat even as the district runs 400 voters in favor of the Democrats.
Democrats need win only one more seat to take back the legislature. With an overall 10,000-enrollment advantage county-wide, I like their chances.
Candidates say a lot of not-so-nice things about each other on the campaign trail. So-called “whisper campaigns” rarely reach the papers, and most of it is not printable anyway. Not many candidates make such kinds of statements about their opponents at town-board meetings. Judging from the official minutes of the Denning town board meeting of June 6, Faintych did.
As discussed above, Faintych, 55, a former Denning councilman, is locked in a three-way battle with incumbent John Parete, 76, and Democrat Kathy Nolan, 62, in the Olive-Shandaken-Hardenburgh-Denning district.
Denning, where everybody knows your name (Population: 551), allowed Faintych to speak on no less than 10 subjects. The comment in question read: “He [Faintych] says legislator Parete is too old to be effective.”
I first heard about it while chatting with Parete at the Marbletown supervisor’s debate last Sunday. “Did you hear Cliff is going around telling people I’m too old?” Parete asked me just before the debate started.
“Yeah,” he continued, without mentioning the Denning minutes. “I don’t much care, but I bet those 60- and 65-year-olds won’t like it.”
Then, mysteriously, a fax of the town board minutes wound up on my desk while I was out to lunch the next day. In my business, we call this spoon-fed news. In this case, it was from Parete.
Minutes in hand, I rang up Faintych and read him the quote. “I have no recollection of saying that,” the Republican candidate said, adding, “I’m not saying John’s too old. I’m saying it’s time to move forward.”
Denning Town Clerk Joy Monforte, who drew up the [unrecorded] minutes, said she had a clear recollection of the comment. “He said it. It’s in the minutes. The town board approved the minutes,” Monforte said.
I sensed indignation.
She called across the room for Town Supervisor David Brooks. “That’s what he said,” he said. “It’s in the minutes.” The best defense Brooks could offer his former colleague was, “Maybe Cliff got caught up in the heat of politics.”
Maybe Cliff should have used that as an excuse. Probably Cliff shouldn’t have said it in the first place, his recollections notwithstanding.
Maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us. Be careful what you say about other people. Someone might be listening. Worse, someone might be writing it down. Way worse, somebody might put it in the paper.