In Kingston, Dems keep 8-1 advantage on Common Council; Woltman unseats Berky

Brian Woltman beams after his win. (Photos by Phyllis McCabe)

When the Kingston Common Council convenes on New Year’s Day 2018, for the first time in modern memory there will not be a single registered Republican on the city’s governing body.

The blowout by Democrats in the ward races was offset by a single Republican victory in the County Legislature’s District 7, where Democrat-turned-Republican Brian Woltman defeated freshman Democratic lawmaker Jennifer Schwartz Berky. Republicans also scored a victory of sorts in Ward 7, where Patrick O’Reilly, a non-party-enrolled candidate recruited by local Republicans to run on the GOP line prevailed.

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Republicans entered the 2017 election cycle with high hopes. The City of Kingston Republican Committee, which has struggled to field candidates in recent years, was able to recruit eight hopefuls for 12 seats on the council and the county legislature. The party was also animated by a robust fundraising operation and a new brand, Restore Kingston Pride. The “RKP” slate — masterminded by accountant, business owner and newcomer to Kingston politics Vincent Rua — touted its nonpartisan credentials. The slate included a mix of registered Republicans, Democrats, Independence Party members and non-party-enrolled candidates. The slate was bound together by a message of fiscal restraint and a message that the city, under Mayor Steve Noble’s “One Kingston” agenda, was headed in the wrong direction.

RKP candidates also seized on controversial issues which resonated with more conservative voters: Opposition to Kingston’s “sanctuary city” policy limiting city cops’ cooperation with immigration authorities, and opposition to housing nonprofit RUPCO’s affordable- and low-income housing initiatives. Democrats countered by seeking to link “Restore Kingston Pride” to President Donald Trump’s hard-edged, nationalistic “Make America Great Again” rhetoric  and painting the slate’s message as backward looking and ignoring concrete signs of progress in the city.

“Our opposition had a really difficult time trying to frame a negative argument because so much positive has been going on for the past two years,” said Alderman Rennie Scott-Childress, D-Ward 3.

In legislative District 7, Woltman prevailed over Berky by a decisive 55.7 percent to 43.8 percent margin, garnering 1,030 votes to Berky’s 811. Woltman, who works as the city’s purchasing agent, switched his party registration to Republican last year after a long tenure of service on the City of Kingston Democratic Committee. In 2015 he was soundly defeated by Berky in a Democratic primary.

The Woltman-Berky rematch came just two weeks after officials in the Town of Ulster released a police dashboard camera video of a May incident involving Berky and town police officer Gary Short. In the video Berky became distraught, at one point hyperventilating and claiming she was suffering a panic attack and PTSD episode after she was pulled over for going 43 in a 30 mph zone on Ulster Avenue. Over the course of the 26-minute video, Berky invoked her status as a county lawmaker and told Short that she would contact Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum and Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III about the stop. The video was widely shared in national media outlets including the New York Post and resulted in a flood of angry phone calls to the county legislature’s office. On election night, Woltman downplayed the impact of the video on his victory. In a post-election statement entitled “Concession to my Community,” Berky, who emerged in her first term as a leader of the legislature’s progressive wing, made no reference to the video. Instead, Berky thanked her supporters, promised continued service to the community and pointed to high voter turnout as a promising sign of stepped up engagement with the democratic process.

Former Ward 1 alderman Matt Dunn congratulates Ward 1 Alderman-Elect Jeffrey Ventura-Morell as Ward 3 Alderman Rennie Scott-Childress looks on.

“All those who know me know that I have shared myself with this community wholeheartedly,” wrote Berky. “I shall never regret stepping into the arena.”

In legislative District 6, the legislature’s longest serving member, Democrat Dave Donaldson, brushed aside a challenge from Republican Jean Jacobs. Donaldson, who has served continuously since 1993, bested Jacobs 75.4 to 24.3 percent, earning 1,336 votes to Jacobs’ 432. In District 5, current Ward 1 Alderwoman Lynn Eckert coasted to the legislature without opposition.

 

Widespread GOP failure

In the city’s nine ward races, just one RKP candidate and not a single registered Republican prevailed Tuesday. In an upset victory in Ward 9, newcomer Democrat Andrea Shaut unseated popular three-term incumbent Deborah Brown. Brown is currently the only Republican on the Common Council. Shaut, a professional musician, won the race by a 56 to 43 percent margin — 367 votes to Brown’s 288.

“I just kept my head down and worked really hard at being a positive person throughout the campaign and delivering a positive message in terms of what Kingston has to offer,” said Shaut.

Andrea Shaut speaks to supporters on Tuesday night.

Brown, who served as a neighborhood activist and advocate before joining the council, said that she planned to continue her grass roots efforts going forward.

“I look forward to seeing her pick up the Ward 9 mantle and continue advocating for the residents on such issues as [the boarding house at]106 W. Chestnut St. and other quality-of-life matters in the neighborhoods, along with legislative concerns,” Brown wrote of Shaut. “I will continue to be a voice for my neighbors when called upon and I look forward to enjoying some new-found time off.”

While Brown will be leaving the council come January, her position as a one-person Republican caucus could be filled by Patrick O’Reilly, who will take over the Ward 7 seat. O’Reilly, a teacher with the Kingston City School District is not enrolled in a political party, but he was recruited and endorsed by the GOP committee and ran as a “Restore Kingston Pride” candidate. In September, O’Reilly pulled off an upset victory when he snatched the Democratic Party line from Democratic Committee-endorsed candidate Bryant “Drew” Andrews after a successful write-in campaign. The result left O’Reilly with both the Democratic and Republican lines, as well as the Independence and Conservative party lines. Andrews held only the Working Families Party line.

The Ward 7 race was largely viewed as a referendum on a proposal by RUPCO to convert the former city alms house in the ward into supportive low-income housing for disabled and mentally ill seniors. O’Reilly had support from opponents of the plan while Andrews accused opponents of spreading falsehoods about the proposal and the city’s role in approving the project. On Tuesday, O’Reilly steamed to victory garnering the highest vote total of any council candidate. O’Reilly won the race 78.1 to 28.8 percent with 556 votes to Andrews’ 226.

“I am honored that my neighbors in ward seven have chosen me to be their voice on the common council,” O’Reilly wrote. “I look forward to serving my constituents for the next two years.”

In Ward One Democrat Jeffrey Ventura-Morell defeated Republican Michael T. Russell by a margin of 61.1 to 38.6 percent. Morrell, an art and antiques dealer who moved to the city in 2015, earned 432 votes to Russell’s 273.

In Ward 3, Scott-Childress garnered the second highest vote total in the council races. The SUNY New Paltz history professor and “One Kingston” stalwart pulled in 510 votes to opponent Ellen DiFalco’s 237.

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In Ward 5, Council Majority Leader, Democrat Bill Carey survived a challenge from first-time candidate Teryl Mickens. Mickens, a registered Independence Party member, ran on the Restore Kingston Pride slate. Carey prevailed in the race by a 61.4 to 38.3 percent margin. Turnout in the ward was low; Carey won the race just 263 votes to Mickens’ 164. In a post-election statement, Carey echoed Scott-Childress’s contention that Democrats’ near sweep in the election represented a vote of confidence in the city’s current leadership and direction.

“The voters seem to like the direction of Kingston based on the turnout and the results,” wrote Carey. “I look forward to working with everyone and sharing ideas that can help Kingston continue its recent economic upswing.”

In Ward 8, two-term incumbent Democrat Steve Schabot beat out James Rodden 63.2 to 36.1 percent. Schabot garnered 320 votes to Rodden’s 183.

Democratic incumbents Tony Davis (Ward 6) and Doug Koop (Ward 2) as well as first-time candidate Rita Worthington (Ward 4) ran unopposed for council seats.

All results are unofficial.