The saddest thing about the passing of former congressman Maurice Hinchey last week was that he never got the chance to enjoy his retirement. He should have been able to drive his Ford Mustang convertible around the district he had represented for almost 40 years as assemblyman and congressman, or entertain lucrative speaking engagements from environmental organizations he had championed, gotten involved in the last presidential election, written his memoirs, or just sat in the window of the Kingston restaurant down the street where he got his haircuts, nodding at passers-by.
Seventy-four when he retired in 2013, the sharp-dressed man was already in physical and mental decline. An announcement by his family in June of terminal neurological disease confirmed the worst. He had just turned 79 when he died at home on Nov. 22. Seventy-nine for most men is a good run, in Biblical terms. Hinchey got more out of it than most.
The eulogies that poured in struck me as boilerplate. Most of these mourners knew Hinchey, or thought they did. Almost all referenced his environmental leadership, garbage wars with the mob, Hudson River PCB cleanup and the like, stuff anybody could pick up from any newspaper morgue (That’s newspaper-talk for the file room). In any event, Hinchey had heard it all at the numerous, seemingly annual, testimonials held in his honor over the years.
I like to tell people I knew Hinchey before he was a household name, two years before he first ran for Assembly. David Lenefesky of Manhattan and West Shokan, Hinchey’s close confidant and personal lawyer, was running for state Senate against Jay Rolison in 1970. Lenefsky invited us to his summer home to meet his campaign manager, Maurice Hinchey, and Hinchey’s wife Erika. Hinchey was town Democratic chairman in Saugerties at the time, a post his father had held. He seemed like a nice guy; Erika we liked right away.
Lenefsky ran a long-forgotten a slash-and-burn campaign against the entrenched Dutchess County Republican. It proved a prototype for Hinchey’s unsuccessful campaign against Woodstock’s H. Clark Bell for Assembly in 1972.
“I think I learned something from that,” he said the night he went down by some 9,000 votes. One of the things he learned was that he’d cut Bell’s plurality almost in half in the teeth of a Nixon landslide. Two years later, with a strong Watergate tailwind, he beat Bell by 1,700. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hinchey, in many ways, redefined politics in these parts. He didn’t just show up in October of election years. He was everywhere, all the time. He drove his cars over 50,000 miles a year. His constituent work was razor-sharp, spot-on. Families still talk about how he cut through red tape to get them a benefit they deserved. His staff combed through state programs (later federal) for local fits. Oftentimes, Hinchey would alert a local leader about a grant he or she didn’t even know about.
His publicity machine was relentless. Barely a day went by without a Hinchey press release — they called it “Hinchey News” — about this grant or that. Where others avoided the media like they did lepers, Hinchey held regular press conferences. He was almost always available by phone, except when peeved, which didn’t last long.
While others were tapping fat cats for $50 or $100 donations, Hinchey in the beginning was running $5-a-head beer-and-hotdog fundraisers. People who had never heard of him showed up, mingled, got involved. He built a base that stayed zealously loyal his whole career.
A smart politician, he made peace with county Republican poo-bahs early on. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, when Republican county clerk Al Spada cited Hinchey as a close friend when he retired in 2005. Hinchey returned the favor by steering the Democratic nomination that year to Nina Postupack, Spada’s deputy and handpicked successor.
He liked to dance, known more for exuberance than any signature moves. Back in the day, his Friday-night circuit began at the Flamingo in Saugerties, hit a few stops in Kingston, and then headed up Route 28 to the midnight hour at Joyous Lake in Woodstock.
Barely 120 pounds in high school, he was an interior lineman on the football team. Hinchey always wanted to be where the action was. He broke a leg sliding into second base during a town league softball game early in his Assembly career.
He was invariably the leader of every parade, waving to standees and calling them out by name. Belying a sliver of Irish heritage, he sang “Galway Bay” at the opening of Hoolies on the Hudson in Kingston, loud, off-key, but as always, enthusiastic.
In the Assembly, he was given chairmanship of the then-obscure Environmental Conservation Committee. He had a talent for moving ground-breaking legislation through a conservative state Senate. That, too, is history.
He liked the rough-and-tumble, the give-and-take, the wheeling and dealing of the state legislature. “Best training I ever got for Congress,” he liked to say.
He never chaired a committee during a 20-year congressional career, but served on the Appropriations Committee, where the money was. Hinchey never apologized for bringing millions to his district. Quite the opposite. He saw pork-barrel as a central duty for any representative. Envious critics accused him of buying votes.
He was a bit vain, image-conscious. Always impeccably dressed, even in casuals, he wore his trousers high, the old-fashioned way. It made him appear taller. A colleague called him “Congressman Pants.”
Even as he could trace part of family trees in Saugerties back to the Dutch, he was extremely well-read and conversant on state and national affairs. Among the most traveled congressman, Hinchey was of the belief that a member of Congress should view first-hand — first class, of course — those far-flung places that might come up in congressional votes.
There were some contradictions. A progressive Democrat all his life and a darling of Americans for Democratic Action, he was a gun guy back home.
He admired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, whom he met face-to-face once. He voted against a World War II memorial in Washington he considered “fascist architecture.”
Hinchey did not participate in any public way that I know of in the 2016 presidential election, but I think he must have felt conflicted. Not about Trump. A Bernie Sanders acolyte long before the Vermont senator rose to prominence, Hinchey would have found it difficult to choose sides between Hillary Clinton and Sanders. The Clintons, in some ways, made Hinchey’s congressional career. Both came to Kingston, as did Al Gore, to speak on his behalf.
Like most politicians, Hinchey was a pretty good actor. He played the hangman in a Dostoyevsky play while a student at SUNY New Paltz. Maybe it gave him some ideas on how to run a political campaign.
He had his tragedies, like most of us. Hinchey lost his mother and a brother in car accidents.
This most public of public officials, Hinchey was extremely guarded about his personal life. A hopeless romantic, Hinchey was married four times, twice to his last wife, Ilene. At one of those transition points I was given the uncomfortable assignment of confronting Hinchey about a pending divorce.
We met at the Stadium Diner in uptown Kingston for coffee. After some small-talk, I raised the subject. “You mean I have to announce in the press that I’m getting divorced?” he said, his voice rising.
Another confrontation occurred when he moved from Saugerties to Hurley. Editors weren’t sure how to formally identify him, so one posed the question at the end of an editorial-board meeting.
Cognizant of Hinchey’s aversion to personal questions, the editor said, “Not to inquire into your personal life, congressman, but just for the record, how should we refer to your address for readers, Saugerties or Hurley?”
Hinchey, who had seemed unusually disengaged, even bored, sat up bolt upright at that one. “You say you don’t want to inquire into my personal life and you ask where I live?” he said, face going a nice shade of red.
“Just for the record, congressman.”
“For the record,” Hinchey said slowly, biting off each word, “you can refer to me as Maurice Hinchey, Democrat, (pause) Hurley.”
Hinchey’s last few years in office were marked by increased dependence on staff and handlers. The most extemporaneous and entertaining of speakers was reduced to reading dry speeches in large text, with glasses.
His last major public appearance was at the July 2015 dedication of the Catskill Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper, named for him. Hinchey had secured state funding for the center as an assemblyman in 1984, only to see it redlined by incoming governor George Pataki in 1995. As congressman, Hinchey won approval of the final $380,000 to start the project. It is altogether proper that at the request of his family he will be buried there.
Around this time about nine years ago, I approached Hinchey to do a feature on his upcoming 70th birthday. “Oh, I’m not very interesting,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal.
I pressed. “Yours has been a wonderful life,” I said. “Look at all the things you’ve done, the people you’ve met, the lives you touched, your impact on so many issues.”
He shrugged. And that was the end of that.
I think that Hinchey just wasn’t ready for the oldies tour. He liked to look forward. There was a new president on the horizon, things to do, people to see, places to go. There would be plenty of time for reminiscing.
Our condolences to his family, his friends and to the many he served.