Hugh Reynolds: Can Marcus Molinaro seriously challenge Andrew Cuomo?

Molinaro with Ulster County Executive Mike Hein in 2013 (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

It seems state Republicans are beating the drums (again) for Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro. They want him to run for governor against Andrew Cuomo.

No knock on Molinaro, but I sense desperation among Republicans. Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb dropped out citing “family considerations,” as if he didn’t run this by loved ones in the first place. Then former Erie County exec Joel Giambra withdrew. Last man standing was state Sen. John DeFrancisco, 71, of DeWitt, who excited little enthusiasm. A capable 13-term senator, said to be one of the best legal minds in the State Senate, DeFrancisco, like Molinaro, found the waters beyond his safe district deep and cold. His prospects of success against the juggernaut Cuomo appeared slim.


The only announced challenger knows they play hardball on the Second Floor. Witness, for instance, a Cuomo administration response to DeFrancisco’s criticism in late January of Cuomo tax policy: “That statement is about as real as his hairline,” sneered a Cuomo spokesman of the senator’s dime-store toupee. Ouch.

“This has been Cuomo’s M.O.,” DeFrancisco fired back, according to published reports.  “When they can’t respond logically to a logical argument, they make derogatory personal remarks.”

Molinaro, at 42 fit and photogenic, has won on every local level, from Tivoli village mayor to Dutchess County legislator to state assemblyman to two-term county executive. But he’s no Tom Dewey, and he sure as heck isn’t a Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the pair being the last Dutchess residents to be elected governor.

The state Democratic Committee, controlled by the governor, seems to be taking a Molinaro candidacy seriously. Why else link him to Donald Trump, the anti-Christ of the left-of- center?

Molinaro is being ardently courted. Is he ready for prime time? He’d better make up his mind soon, again.

An ode to Billy

Let’s break up the politics for a moment for an endearing tale. There I was last Sunday lounging in my pew at St. Peter’s Church in Rosendale in anticipation of one of pastor Edmund Burke’s insightful sermons. After reading the Gospel, Father Burke paused, gazed at the congregation and began with the passing of Billy Graham, who had died at 99 the week previous. I looked around to check if I was in the right church. A priest eulogizing a Protestant evangelist from the pulpit? This was not my grandmother’s church.

Billy Graham, Father Burke told us, was a humble man with a wry sense of humor.

Graham, he said, liked to tell the story about holding a rally early in his career in a small Southern town. After writing a letter to his wife, he left his hotel in search of a post office. Encountering a young man on the sidewalk, he asked for directions.

“It’s two blocks down on the left side of the street,” the man said.

Graham thanked him and invited him to his rally that night.

“Why would I go to something like that?” the man asked the minister.

“Because,” said Graham in that sonorous voice millions had come to know and love over decades, “I can show you the way to Jesus.”

“I don’t think so,” the stranger said over his shoulder. “You can’t even find your way to the post office.”

He shocked the sheriff

Three-term Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum, a Democrat, would not have been surprised if a Republican had challenged him for re-election this fall. He may not have expected a primary from his own party. Only a few weeks ago VanBlarcum was talking about not having to raise money for an unopposed election.

Enter retired state trooper Juan Figueroa of Plattekill — committed, he says, to challenging VanBlarcum in the September 13 Democratic primary. Who woulda thought?

Heading the list of “early support for Juan” attached to Figueroa’s February 28 formal announcement were legislature Minority Leader Hector Rodriquez of New Paltz and Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, in addition to luminaries from Rosendale, Saugerties and, of all places, Shawangunk, where enrolled Democrats represent a quarter of registered voters. Republicans have 40 percent, according to the board of elections; Shawangunk was one of two Ulster towns to go Trump in 2016.

It would appear it’s the sheriff’s controversial public statements on social issues that have the active and vocal progressive wing of the Democratic Party ready to dump their incumbent.

“Sanctuary cities, they’re furious about,” said the sheriff. “I met with the president. I talked about checking IDs at Social Services. Guns. Nobody seems to have any complaints about day- to-day operations. They just complain about me.”

In some places, they call that democracy. As Harry Truman used to say, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

VanBlarcum isn’t complaining. He’s been through this routine for three elections and he’s sticking to his guns. Ah, guns. It was VanBlarcum’s so-called “call to arms” in late 2015 after another school shooting that gave his political enemies ammunition.

The sheriff told a small gathering of Town of Ulster Democrats last week that “the media” had misrepresented his urging licensed pistol owners to carry their weapons full-time. “I wasn’t telling everybody to run out and buy a gun,” he said. “That would be adding more guns.” He believes armed civilians, “properly trained,” can make a difference in situations so tragically common these days.

“Take the mall shooting,” VanBlarcum said, referring to the February 2005 shooting at Hudson Valley Mall where two people were wounded by a 24-year-old gunman from Saugerties with a semi-automatic rifle. “There were five off-duty cops in the mall that day. None of them were armed,” the sheriff said.

If VanBlarcum is advocating that police officers carry their guns at all times, count me in. Less so in recruiting Joe and Mary Pistol Permit to the Armed Forces. These are, after all, civilians who take out a gun permit to protect their homes or businesses, and who might fire their weapons a few of times a year at tin cans in the woods. People like that shouldn’t be facing down crazy guys with high-powered rifles in crowded, unimaginable conditions.

Unlike some on the right, VanBlarcum does not support arming teachers. Armed police officers at highly secured schools make better sense, he says.

Figueroa worked out of the Kingston barracks while a young trooper, but spent most of his 25-year career as an investigator assigned to special duty in New York City. The two old cops know each other from various beats, and there appears to be mutual respect. But the retired trooper says the sheriff ought to talk less.

At least he’s not tweeting every other day.

Meanwhile, we point to county unofficial nominating conventions in late May. Candidates are not held to convention results. Losers have gone forth to nomination and victory in the past, but margins can be telling. Close calls in either or both contests could signal a race to the finish on primary day.

I suspect that lots of people currently occupying fences will jump one way or the other long before then. Republicans can only relish the thought.

Connecting the dots

There’s always politics, motivation and history to consider, especially when two unknowns suddenly emerge to challenge veteran officeholders in primaries. A few days after Figueroa formally announced for sheriff, Abe Uchitelle, a young businessman in Kingston’s uptown Stockade area — thus “StockAbe” — announced for the Democratic nomination against 11-term Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.

Cahill, who keeps his ear to the ground, was not surprised. “Bring it on,” he said, hinting at a connection to arch-enemy Mike Hein. “He interned with Hein right out of [SUNY New Paltz] college,” Cahill, 62, said of his 29-year-old challenger.

Was Hein playing Oz again? I can lure politicians to the phone, but they don’t always bite.

“We’re not choosing sides,” Hein said when asked if he was supporting either candidate. “They’re both very smart and talented,” he said, referring to the challengers but not his own party incumbents.

Nudged a bit, Hein recalled Uchitelle briefly serving as an intern with his administration “early on,” meaning around 2009.

Hein also recalled that Figueroa and his late brother Werner, a state police zone sergeant who died at 45 the year Hein was elected executive, were close.

I smelled smoke, but that’s all I dot.

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