Many of us know more about the latest developments related to the Trump Administration and Congress than we do about our local legislators. Yet it’s government at the local level, in which an election is sometimes won by a mere handful of votes, where an individual can truly make a difference.
The Ulster County Legislature, which consists of 23 members, makes decisions that can profoundly affect our lives, such as how taxpayer money is spent on economic development and whether a service such as Meals on Wheels can continue if the program’s federal funding is cut.
In an effort to shift the Ulster County Legislature from a Republican majority to a Democratic one and elect candidates who embrace the progressive platform of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, two former Sanders supporters, Kelleigh McKenzie and Rebecca Rojer, joined forces in 2015 to found Ulster People for Justice & Democracy (UPJD). The main focus of its efforts in the past few months was campaigning for the 13 candidates it endorsed for the legislature.
While only seven of those candidates won their elections (four were unopposed, including Lynn Eckert, representing District 5, the City of Kingston; her battle was won in the Democratic primary), McKenzie and Rojer said the group’s efforts have helped lay the groundwork for change. They noted that most of their candidates, even if they lost, gained significantly more votes against their Republican opponents than in the past.
Ulster People started as a way “to continue Bernie’s political revolution by getting local people elected and educating people about how government works and pressuring our representatives to support policies we believe in,” said McKenzie, a Rosendale-based musician and songwriter who had founded Ulster for Bernie. UPJD began by reaching out to former Bernie supporters, using the database Rojer, a Kingston-based filmmaker and web designer who had founded Kingston for Bernie, and other Sanders activists had compiled. The group currently consists of a core group of ten (“we’re essentially like a steering committee,” said Rojer), with another 20 or so volunteers helping out and an email list of 1,000.
Each of the 13 candidates endorsed by Ulster People embraced Ulster People’s platform, which calls for a thriving and inclusive economy that supports local business; protection of the rights of the most vulnerable; and a sustainable environment. Ulster People’s goal was to shift the legislature politically, so that it would “pass a comprehensive human rights law, establish markers for measuring the success of our spending on economic development, and bring broadband to all our residents,” according to McKenzie.
The two criteria for UPJD’s endorsement were “do they support our platform and can they win,” said Rojer, who noted UPJD is non-partisan. UPJD, along with Citizen Action of the Hudson Valley, also lobbied extensively in the Democratic primary, with all four of its candidates winning by more than 60 percent, according to McKenzie. For the Nov. 7 election, the group held three work parties in Stone Ridge, New Paltz and Kingston, at which volunteers made phone calls and wrote letters to Sanders supporters in support of its various candidates. Information about the candidates, the legislature, the group’s platform, and a calendar of events was posted on its website, www.ulsterpeople.org.
Rojer said the results were “disappointing but not surprising.” (The legislature remains in the hands of a Republican majority.) “We endorsed candidates in a number of districts that skew conservative, where the incumbent is entrenched and the Democratic Party has basically not bothered to run a serious challenger in years,” she said. “So it’s going to be a long process of building up the relationships, the organization, and the local know-how to be able to win in these areas.”
“Some of the candidates Ulster People endorsed were definitely long shots,” added McKenzie. But she noted that “while first-timers Laura Hartmann [running in District 5, Town of Ulster and Town of Kingston] and Glenn Geher [running in District 12, Town of Plattekill] didn’t win, they earned hundreds of more votes that the last Democrats to run in those districts, laying solid groundwork for the next time around.”
Rojer said she was particularly pleased by the election of Julius Collins District 15, Town of Wawarsing, Village of Ellenville] and Eckert, whose key battles were in the Democratic primaries and whom she described as “deeply principled and caring people, really intelligent, and experienced as advocates and leaders of their communities They will both be a huge asset to our county.”
McKenzie said that Ulster People’s efforts to teach people about how the legislature works had an impact, reflected by the greater interest by the public in the local elections this year. Last spring UCJD held two teach-ins featuring members of the legislature as well as people from the community. UPJD tries to send at least one of its members to each legislature session and is working on having a representative at all the committee meetings as well. “We want to be like citizen reporters, and we envision our website becoming a resource to find out what’s going on,” McKenzie said.
UPJD’s research uncovered several issues of concern. “The jail is under capacity and yet there’s still a lot of overtime pay,” noted McKenzie. “The sheriff has a lot of specific powers separate from the legislature, but how legislators act to make sure things in law enforcement are being held to account is a little unclear.”
She added that for her personally, “it’s been great to learn about the many decisions made at the county level that impact our daily lives, how the legislature is structured and what its procedures are, and how citizens can interact with the body and have their voices heard.”
Rojer agreed that Ulster People’s main impact on the elections was its educational work. “A couple of people have mentioned to me that they used our educational materials during canvassing and volunteer trainings. So I think we helped raise awareness … hopefully that will continue now that the elections are over and people turn their focus towards specific issues and policies and making sure the legislature actually represents the will of the people.”
While Ulster People is unique in its focus on the county legislature, it is not the only progressive group in the region working for political change. Citizen Action of the Hudson Valley, a chapter of a state-wide nonprofit that started in 2013, took the lead in successfully canvassing for Eckert, a Kingston alderwoman, in the Democratic primary and, among other initiatives, sponsors the “Faso Friday” demonstrations in front of the congressman’s office at the 721 Media Center on Broadway.
CAHV is predominately focused on Kingston and endorsed four candidates for the city’s Common Council (three of whom won). Callie Jayne, CAHV’s lead organizer, said her group is committed to fighting for racial justice in the city and has appointed “block captains” to help create a local network to empower underserved and underrepresented members of the community. “We want to hear their stories,” said Jayne, who said having boots on the ground and listening to people’s experiences is essential to truly serving and engaging them.
CAHV, which has 800 paying members, lists upcoming events, such as Faso Friday and a “day of action” to make calls to the congressman, write letters to the editor and distribute postcards from its office at 7 Grand St., on its Facebook page. Jayne said CAHV volunteers canvassing for Eckert focused much of their efforts on Midtown’s Ward 4, in effect “doubling the turnout for the Democratic primary compared to the congressional primary the year before.” Volunteers knocked on doors to “to educate people about what’s on the ballot” and the group made sure that nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the area were supplied with absentee ballots.
Now that the election is over, what’s next? McKenzie said group organizers will be meeting later in the month to discuss next steps. Focus areas under consideration include “statewide single-payer health care [the New York Health Act], voting reforms [same-day registration, early voting, shorter deadline to change party enrollment, etc.], continuing to engage with the county legislature, and looking at the sheriff’s office as well,” she said. Added Rojer: “We — and I mean all the myriad groups and individuals who participated in this election, not just Ulster People — made real strides in developing everything that needs to happen below the surface. In many ways, that’s as important as the number of seats won.”