A blast of fresh air blew into the local congressional race last week in the person of independent candidate Diane Neal of Hurley. A seasoned actress, Neal, 42, has appeared on several installments of the TV show Law & Order. She could now be auditioning for a part in a new drama, whose working title could well be “Diane Dumps on the Six-Pack.” The production will not be without its comedic aspects.
Unlike most of her would-be rivals, Neal actually voted in the 2016 congressional election. Still a relatively new arrival, she registered as a Democrat in May of that year, according to Ulster County’s board of elections.
Neal made her debut at the Super Bowl Sunday candidates’ forum sponsored by Democrats at Woodstock’s Community Center. As a self-declared independent, Neal was denied a place on the stage with the six previously declared Democratic candidates.
No matter. She worked the incoming crowd before the program kicked off, paying particular attention to media covering the event. A personable six-footer, Neal dismissed her rivals, suggesting that only she could beat freshman incumbent Republican John Faso in the fall. Her 11th-hour campaign of “empathy and reason” (whatever that means) may have broad appeal, but for party regulars the flip side of her campaign palm card might be troubling. “When life feels like a zoo,” it reads, “vote for the person, not the party.”
Neal is at least entertaining, even if I had trouble believing her story about sticking a chopstick in Donald Trump’s hair at a cocktail party years ago.
The heretofore absence of a woman in an overcrowded Democratic field being conspicuous, Neal’s campaign might gain traction. I mean, it took almost 13 months for a woman, any woman, to declare in a race at least six men and half of Washington believe is winnable seat.
We of course need to learn much more about candidate Neal, her background, beliefs and plans. Being a woman is no doubt an advantage in this era of Me Too and the almost daily reports of male malfeasance, though, as the last presidential campaign demonstrated, gender politics can go just so far.
Politicians, like real people, value order and process, especially if they can control it. Neal’s sudden emergence has raised suspicion in some quarters. Her stated worldview falls somewhere between progressive and libertarian, the latter so wide as to include almost anyone. In any event, Neal’s philosophy, however vague, does not appear much different than that of the six declared Democrats she thinks she can beat.
Motive is of course the mother of action, which raises questions among Democrats of where this late bloomer came from. Living in Hurley for the last few years doesn’t explain much. Could this be some dastardly plot by those evil Republicans to create even more dissension among Democrats? Is she mere stalking horse, or worse, just looking to stoke her theatrical career? (Repeated calls to Neal’s campaign phone number were not returned.)
Faso was asked about Neal’s candidacy on Liz Benjamin’s Capital Report last week. A Cheshire-cat-like smile creeping across his face, the congressman said that he wasn’t talking politics. TV being revealing, the message was clear, at least from my couch: The more the merrier.
Assuming she’s a legitimate candidate, Neal faces some steep challenges, the most immediate being how quickly she can put together a campaign organization to carry petitions to get on the ballot, whether it be for November (as an independent) or the June 26 Democratic primary. As an independent, she’d need many more valid signatures (3,500) than her Democratic rivals would need (2,250) from their party.
The Democratic nomination, I believe, is out there for any of the six (or maybe now seven) candidates. Even for bottom-feeders or late arrivals, garnering an estimated four or five thousand Democratic votes to win a primary is not impossible.
On the trail
It would appear that Democrats love foul weather. By my eyewitness account, more than 400 turned out for the Woodstock candidate forum in a snowstorm on Feb. 4. Organizers who are claiming 600-plus must have been counting people on the roof or buried next door in the Woodstock Cemetery.
Native Kingstonian Pat Ryan, lately of Gardiner, drew about 125 supporters to a campaign headquarters opening Sunday. Chilly, rainy weather prevailed, but warm hugs predominated inside the former Radio Shack store in Kingston Plaza. Ryan, appearing comfortable in his role as candidate, took the occasion to introduce campaign staff and announce his endorsement by the Gardiner Democratic Committee and by County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach. New Paltz town councilman Dan Torres is also on board. Woodstock’s Bill and Hillary (town Supervisor Bill McKenna and wife Hillary) showed up. I sense momentum.
Candidate Dave Clegg held a gathering of about 40 supporters in his Main Street law offices recently. He announced his endorsement by the anti-Trump-group Indivisible Ulster. Also backing Clegg is newly seated Ellenville county Legislator Julius Collins.
Earlier this month candidate Gareth Rhodes announced the endorsement of Kingston Democratic Committee Chair Joe Donaldson. While this does not carry the official endorsement of the famously contentious city committee, it does, as Rhodes insists, mean something.
Candidate Jeff Beals, harkening to his Woodstock base, will host a ’70s-style “Dance for Democracy” at the Colony Restaurant on Rock City Road this Saturday, Feb. 17, beginning at 8. Sounds like fun.
The old political saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” seems to fit the campaign strategy for Assembly by Greene County Democratic legislator Aidan O’Connor. At 29, O’Connor is one of the youngest county legislators in the Hudson Valley and already Democratic minority leader of the Greene legislature. He’ll face Republican nominee Chris Tague, 47, Schoharie town supervisor, to fill the Assembly seat held for 11 years by Republican Pete Lopez. Lopez resigned last October after being appointed Region 2 EPA administrator.
Hailing from Greene County, O’Connor knows he faces steep odds in a district where even the cows vote Republican. The district has about 6,000 more Republicans than Democrats, which explains O’Connor’s apparent strategy of wrapping himself in the legacy of the departed Lopez. “I plan on matching [Lopez’s] energy to be everywhere…while being in the majority, [with more clout],” he told our reporter. That’s a compelling combination, except for those darned enrollment figures.
With the prize clearly in sight, don’t expect old hand Tague to sit on his lead. A former dairy farmer, Tague said he started lobbying within days after Lopez announced his surprise change in careers. All-told, he told us he contacted over 300 GOP committee members in the district.
Tague has deep roots in Republican circles, having worked on Lopez’s Schoharie county clerkship campaigns. Given his present duties, Lopez can’t endorse his old pal, but bet on some of those now fading campaign photos of the two of them to rain down on voters like April showers. Big advantage: Tague.
Key players knew the Tague campaign was coming long before it went public. This was inside baseball, boss politics and an insult to democracy. I do not blame the candidate or party leaders who were only after all going by established rules for such special elections. But party leaders do have choices. In Westchester County, for example, both parties held conventions to nominate candidates to fill a State Senate vacancy.
Committee chairs of both parties from the seven-county Assembly district (which includes Saugerties) met in secret, screened about a dozen candidates all told, maybe fewer, and then separately nominated one from each party.
In the end, it would have taken only four votes (or a majority of chairmen voting) to nominate a candidate for a state Assembly seat. Under state law, there will be no recourse, no petition process and no primary challenge to those nominations.
New York, for better or worse, has always been a two-party state, a condition of perpetual self-interest both parties zealously protect. This was one of the worst examples.
It’s true that whoever wins the April 24 special election will be required to go through the usual process of party conventions, petitioning and a long, grueling election campaign for the seat in the fall general. But those inconveniences will be offset by the significant advantage an incumbent assemblyman will enjoy when it comes to the November election.
And politicians wonder why people hate politicians.