Hugh Reynolds: Speculation, social media and civility

As a young reporter, I filed a story from the mayor which turned out to be false. I had committed the cardinal sin of not checking with the other side. Having seen how these things played out in the movies, I offered my resignation.

“Go back to work,” my editor said. “If you can’t believe the mayor, who can you believe?”

We live in less trusting times. Ergo, speculation about public figures generates even more speculation. With the rapidity of a speeding bullet, the web lights up with every nuance, every embellishment. It’s like the old telephone party game where a story is whispered into one ear, only to emerge several stops forward as something entirely different.

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I don’t know what happened or didn’t happen at Mayor Steve Noble’s house or at his father’s couple of weeks ago. If cops were called there is no record, as far as we can tell. In response to a newspaper inquiry, the mayor posted a comment on his Facebook page on Feb. 1 “A number of inappropriate and false statements were made about my family,” he wrote. “I felt these comments crossed the line and quite honestly, I felt it was important to bring a sense of civility and humanity back into politics.” He said he would make no further comment “at this time.”

Public statements, however vague, draw reporters. We talked for a bit. I didn’t get into what the mayor had called “false” rumors, but he hasn’t denied anything, nor has he explained what might or might not have happened. That there were no police reports does not pass muster in some quarters, given widespread cynicism, about public officials. We are left with attempting to prove a negative. Did Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby really conspire to kill JFK?

The mayor had no comment on police records management, but hinted at legal action along the lines of a slander or libel suit. Those kinds of suits are very difficult for a public official to win.

Speculation continues over who might have started this whole thing. Was it a political enemy, a disgruntled city worker, perhaps a vengeful landlord legitimately prosecuted for code violations? These days, anybody can post salacious speculation on social media and find willing co-conspirators within minutes. And as we know, speculation only breeds speculation.

If there’s a bright side to all this, the mayor says he’s received much support since all this blew up. He says the best thing he can do now is to do the best job he can as mayor.

Postings on the web from people who couldn’t possibly had even third-hand knowledge of what did or didn’t happen range from gross to downright disgusting. Such is their right, but all rights carry duties.

We defend the First Amendment here on a regular basis, and Noble knew the deal going in. But shouldn’t public discourse be tempered with some sense of fairness, decency and responsibility?

Civility, indeed.

The six-pack speaks

‘Twas a cold and snowy Super Bowl Sunday afternoon in Woodstock. Twenty early birds huddled on the porch of the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, site of a congressional candidate forum. And they wouldn’t let us in! Not even 99-year-old Catskills legend Sherret Chase, freezing there with his daughter Helen, was offered access to the warm confines but a frosty breath away.

A Democratic operative stuck her nose through a crack in the door. The organizers were setting up equipment and chairs for the debate (so called), she said. The public would not be admitted until the announced 1 p.m. starting time. It was 12:45.

I briefly considered pulling (media) rank, but decided a punch in the face would not be an auspicious way to start my assignment.

Snow blew sideways. Gallows humor prevailed.

“The early bird gets … warm,” said a woman from Shandaken, referring to staff inside the building.

“Gets screwed,” somebody else responded, referring to us.

Olive Councilman Jim Sofranko waxed Biblical: “Let my people in!” he cried to guffaws.

“Now you know why people hate Democrats,” offered another.

Eventually, about 400 people from as far away as Denning, Kingston, New Paltz and Saugerties stuffed the room. Democratic sponsors offered the hope that fire marshals were home watching Super Bowl pregame shows.

Under a Woodstock town ordinance, the hall is limited to 200 persons. Cars were parked halfway onto the narrow road. Snowplows struggled to get past them.

Standing-room-only doesn’t begin to describe the large and enthusiastic crowd lining the walls and sitting in the aisles and on the floor around the stage. After a year speaking to empty chairs at firehouses, diners and town halls, the candidates expressed appreciation for the turnout. There seems to be something in the air, and it wasn’t just snowflakes.

The crowd, mostly Democrats with a few independents thrown in (the latter almost a third of registered voters), was orderly and attentive. Only a few left before the 80-minute session was over.

In-house doesn’t count like it used to. Thousands no doubt watched on the web. Maria’s Bazar in town generously offered to livestream the forum for overflows.

The main event

Cheers and/or applause occasionally broke out as candidates hit this or that predictable hot button. Any mention of the late Maurice Hinchey drew huzzahs.

None of the candidates was lights-out, though I thought Pat Ryan and Antonio Delgado were head and shoulders above, with Brian Flynn rounding out to top tier. At the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Beals, who repeatedly reminded the crowd he taught school in Woodstock and that his kids played on the playground at the community center, probably should be running for town board.

Former Andrew Cuomo PR man Gareth Rhodes parked his well-traveled ’99 Winnebago Minnie in the yard near the entrance and handed out hot coffee before the doors opened. At 29, the good looking Rhodes says he can attract the 18-to-34-year-olds, whom he says don’t vote.

Flynn, “congenitally combative,” will be the grass-roots choice. “Latchkey is not an issue where I come from,” he said, even if his daughter is a latchkey kid. “In Greene County, we don’t lock our doors.” The crowd seemed to enjoy the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia.

Self styled “real progressive” David Clegg, a Kingston lawyer, Methodist deacon and Woodstock resident, is clearly the man on the left, what with his angry disdain of all things Trump. Will this message carry the district?

Which is to ask, which one of these candidates can beat incumbent Republican John Faso? Both sides are seriously mistaken if they think any Democrat could beat Faso or that Faso could beat any Democrat.

We’ll soon begin to get a better picture of who’s for real. While chicken-liver party chairs around the 11-county congressional district have yet to take a stand, other than that the beating of Faso has risen to a moral imperative, nominating petitions begin circulating in about a month. This will be the first real field test of candidate strength.

There, the pool, calculated at 5 percent of those Democrats who voted in the last gubernatorial election, is surprisingly shallow. District-wide, a total of about 3,500 valid signatures from enrolled Democrats will be required to place a name officially on the June 26 ballot. Given the scrutiny that will be given to petition signatures, 5,000 would probably be a defensible number. By way of comparison, Ulster County has almost 44,000 registered Democrats, according to the board of elections.

The consensus among Democrats I’ve talked to suggests that based on a traditional 15 percent turnout something like 23,000 Democrats will vote in the multiple-county district June primary. If Faso has a primary challenger, he or she is hibernating with the bears.

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Dividing the pool among the six candidates means something like 4,000 votes could win the primary, reason enough for all six to stay the course. Then the real job will begin.

Footnotes

Sometimes in the heat of the moment metaphors will get mixed. Clegg, for instance, twice said he could stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Faso. I asked him if he meant toe to toe. “I meant I could stand up to him,” he replied, standing by the malapropism.

Ryan said he stood up to Faso after the congressman’s Kingston chamber of commerce address last week. Faso is very approachable at public events. “He was talking to someone else, so I waited my turn,” Ryan said. “I didn’t introduce myself, but he knew who I was. I asked him about his vote against health care. He immediately went into his talking points. I asked him about the failed talking points of his party. He turned his back on me.”

The crowd, channeling Faso’s controversial refusal to hold regular town hall meetings, got the message.

Red bumper stickers with “Fire Faso.com” were scooped up by the audience.

By an agreed-upon rotation of speakers in alphabetical order, Delgado got the last word in at wrap-up. Moderator Brian Hollander, editor of the Woodstock Times, wisely gave each candidate just one minute for closing statements. After declaring he has “the ability to turn out the [Democratic] vote,” the six-foot-four former Division One [Colgate] basketball player sent the audience to the exits with, “You’re looking at the one guy on this stage who can do it all.” Talk about slam dunks.

It’s good to meet readers, sometimes to straighten out quotes. A woman with a friendly face approached as the room rapidly filled up. She said she read my column in the New Paltz Times. I thanked her. “What do you say about a Faso landslide now?” she asked, gesturing at the overflow crowd.

I had written the week before that if the election were decided by chamber-of-commerce breakfasts, Faso would be a landslide winner, but that chamber breakfasts don’t decide elections. Guess she didn’t read to the end. And it seems that even loyal readers sometimes take things out of context.

Mistakes, on the other hand, need to be promptly addressed. A Faso spokesman called from Washington to correct a recent item that had his boss among 24 members in a so-called bipartisan “problem-solvers” caucus in the House. Five percent of Congress sounded less than impressive, I had written. In fact, he said, the caucus had 24 members from each party.

Six-foot-tall crime show TV actress Diane Neal of Hurley, heretofore unknown on the political circuit, dropped in Sunday to ply her troth among the crowd. Being non-party, she didn’t get a seat on stage, and also since nobody had heard of her before eager campaign manger Rachael Himsel peppered media with an announcement the week before.

“Do you think I’m too late?” Neal asked me after introducing herself at the press table.  “They don’t call it a two-year cycle for nothing,” I answered. “The rest of them [whom she called “the guys”] are 13 months into it.”

Neal, 41, says she eats venison and sky dives, which she said appeals to a constituency beyond the six-pack’s reach. Though Neal’s campaign, a million dollars short and a year late, probably won’t take off, the guys might pay heed to her advice.

Here and there

Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach is hoping eight new legislators (two of them returnees) will help reverse last year’s budget diktat that eliminated his confidential secretary. As arguments pro and con are by now shopworn, let’s take a reality check. Since County Exec Mike Hein originated this hack job — Auerbach calls it “vindictive” for his many criticisms of the Hein administration — 16 of 23 legislators would have to vote to reverse a budget vote in anticipation of an executive veto. That will not happen.

To the surprise of almost no one, Democratic Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum announced for a fourth term last week. PVB, as he signs his departmental memos, had the endorsement of every party four years ago and says he’s hoping for a repeat. Democrats, some of whom don’t like the sheriff on social issues, are grousing about a primary. Republicans love him.

The sheriff’s message apparently reached Saugerties, where town police chief Joe Sinagra, having himself launched a trial balloon for sheriff (or was it a salary drive?) a few months ago, came out four-square for the incumbent. PVB was a man he looks up to and supports for re-election, he said. “He’s done great job,” said the chief, eschewing any personal political ambitions “at this time.”

There are 4 comments

  1. Slick Time

    Maybe the mayor is concerned about his sick time payout in violation of the CSEA contract and city policy is going to be uncovered….could also be why he bagged out of the CSEA contract talks. By the way city corp there are no less then 1,000 legal opinions that with one family member on the other side of contract talks there is no conflict of interest….ditto tony “I’m scared” Davis with the school district last year.

  2. Jen Fuentes

    Total and utter disappointment that you are wading in the sickening muck of conspiracy Facebook rumors. Did you see it on Facebook so it must be true?? Hiding behind the Daily Freeman’s coverage does you no credit Hugh.
    Also, your office is spitting distance from the Board of Elections. Use that resource wisely when reporting numbers.

  3. Slick Time

    Jen even though it’s Kingston it is not really that hard to figure out. Did the KPD respond to an address on the supposed date that the incident involved the the illegal sick time payout mayor?

  4. Outcast Jodan

    News Flash the Kingston plaza was built in a flood zone. The city should not be spending one penny on storm water issues. Look at the deads. Didn’t brad get enough money from the school district and his drinking buddies?

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