Congressman Maurice Hinchey of Saugerties, 79, died in his home on November 22 surrounded by his family after succumbing to his long battle with frontotemporal degeneration.
Hinchey retired at the end of his term in January 2013; he had served 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 18 on the New York State Assembly. Once hailed as the “environmental conscience of New York State” by Governor Mario Cuomo, the progressive was the first Democrat from Ulster County to be elected to the New York State Legislature since 1912.
“There’s no question about it, that the entire transformation of Ulster County and the Hudson Valley to progressive values and voting was largely due to Maurice,” said Kevin Cahill, who succeeded Hinchey in the state assembly when Hinchey became a U.S. Representative in 1992. “It was very interesting [taking over Hinchey’s seat]. From very early on, when I was 18 or 19, Maurice took me under his wing. He let me do things as an intern that no one else was doing. He nurtured my fledgling political career in the county legislature. Then he told me I was running for the Assembly…I was one of many he supported and encouraged, and I don’t think it is unique, except that I occupy his seat. And by the way, it’s still Maurice’s seat…”
Hinchey was born in New York City in 1938; his family moved to Saugerties when he was nine years old. He graduated from Saugerties High School and served three years in the U.S. Navy at sea on the destroyer U.S.S. Marshall. He graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1968 and with a Master’s in 1970, earning his tuition working as a toll collector at the Saugerties exit of the New York State Thruway.
“Back in the late 1960s, I was a theater major at SUNY New Paltz,” reminisced raconteur Mikhail Horowitz of Saugerties. “I met Maurice Hinchey when we both auditioned for an evening of two one-act plays, An October Rain Came Cold and The Hangman. Maurice won the lead role in the latter play, which was essentially a monologue by a public executioner, justifying his position in society as a necessary evil and accusing those who reviled him of hypocrisy. I was in the other play, which opened the evening, and along with the rest of the cast we watched from backstage as Maurice enacted the complex, conflicted role of the executioner. We all marveled at his impassioned command of the character and the text, and one of our company spoke for all of us when he said, ‘Man, this guy should go into politics!’ Of course, in just a few years, he did, to the great and lasting benefit of everyone in Ulster County and New York State.”
He was inspired to commit himself to public office by his father, Maurice D. Hinchey, who was Chairman of the Saugerties Democratic Committee in the 1960s. He was among a group of idealistic progressive elected officials colloquially called “the class of ‘74,” who came out of the woodwork in the year that Nixon resigned from office after the Watergate scandals.
“Maurice was a man of the resistance before today’s resistance came into being,” said Saugerties Democratic Committee Chairman Lanny Walter. “He would have stood strong against the values and practices of our current president. He would have been delighted by all the Democratic activism that opposes the dominance of corporate America and that fosters the unequal distribution of wealth in our society. He was a man of the people. We could use him now to lead and support the current resistance…We need him and will miss him. May he rest in peace while we continue to struggle in his name and under his banner.”
He won the majority of his elections with overwhelming victories, in part due to his noteworthy constituent work.
“Maurice was always the pro and always knew how to cover things. There were a couple other legislators I admired, but none quite like Maurice Hinchey,” recalled Vernon Benjamin, who served as a Legislative Aide for Hinchey from 1982 until 1992. “He was going to Plattsburg to visit an inmate who went away for murdering a girl in Kingston. His family was asking if he could help. We walked into this prison on Sunday afternoon, Dannemora…the assistant warden was there and he was shocked. [He] knew that any member of the Assembly can walk into any prison at any time and do an inspection. We went in and saw this kid, big tall and beautiful, and we sat across from him in the old cafeteria. The kid told his story for 45 minutes…Maurice didn’t think he did it…believed him, especially since the tapes of the person who probably did commit the crime seemed to confirm that…There was no way to help the boy, but just the fact that he did that, took his Sunday off and did that, was enough for the family to put him on a platform. Maurice would do things like that —he wouldn’t want to ask an aide to do it just because it wasn’t likely to yield any results. Myself, like other staff members, would want to go with him. We work for you, and it doesn’t stop at five o’clock. I answered only to Maurice Hinchey, and that’s the way it was.”
In his 38 years of service, Hinchey earned a reputation as a champion for environmental issues, including environmental preservation and the pursuit of renewable energy. He was a major sponsor of many pioneering laws to protect water, air and land, including the State Environmental Quality Review Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the nation’s first acid rain law. In his 14 years on the New York State Environmental Conservation Committee, Hinchey became known for his investigation of the Love Canal, the nation’s first toxic waste site, and his research into illegal waste dumping by organized crime led to criminal convictions for over 20 people. He spearheaded the establishment of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, the first of its kind in the country, and the Hudson Valley Greenway. He provided the initial funding for the Walkway Over the Hudson, and brought millions of dollars and many jobs into the district through his involvement with the House Appropriations Committee.
“He made converts out of people,” said Cahill. “Democrats were nothing, but little by little Maurice gave voice to the left and people came out of the woodwork and said I think the same as that guy…There’s so much interesting about Maurice. He brought [the] Saugerties street fighter [in] him everywhere he went. That endeared him to everyone, it’s just who he was. It didn’t matter if it was mafia or high-powered political people, he just didn’t like anyone pushing anyone around. That made people think they had a unique leader, that he was ready to fight for them. What bothered people the most when his health started to fail, that that part was missing and people felt it was tragic that the scrappy street fighter was neutralized.”
A funeral was held at Saint John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on November 29, followed by a private burial ceremony. Hinchey is survived by his wife, Ilene Marder Hinchey, his children Michelle, Josef and Maurice S. Hinchey, his brothers Michael and John, his sister Patricia Hinchey, and four grandchildren. Condolences to the family can be expressed at Seamonwilseyfuneralhome.com. The family suggests donations be made to the Association of Frontotemporal Degeneration at www.theatfd.com, or to the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center at catskillinterpretivecenter.org.