State Sen. John Bonacic’s retirement announcement reminded me of one of our first encounters, back around 1997, when he was part of that political gulag known as the Republican Assembly minority.
“There’s no hope for the Senate,” he said then. “They’ll carry out those two guys feet first before I get a chance.”
Bonacic was referring to senators Charlie Cook of Delaware County and Bill Larkin of Orange. Within a year, however, Cook announced his retirement, and an open seat presented itself. Bonacic won the primary. One of the candidates he defeated was then-incumbent Republican assemblyman John Guerin of the Town of Ulster.
Bonacic’s retirement announcement last week did not come as a huge surprise to those who follow these things. He’s been inching toward the door for at least the last two terms, allowing speculation to foment before returning to the lists. He will be 76 in June. His signature achievement after 20 years in the House of Lords was the opening this year of the near-billion-dollar Resorts World Catskills in Sullivan County.
There are always political factors. This is politics, after all. A shoe-in in his Orange-centric district, Bonacic faced a possible return to the state Senate in January as a member of the minority. Been there, done that.
Democrats making temporary peace with each other was an indicator of changing times. But the exclamation point might have been provided by the announced retirement of the popular and highly visible Kathy Machione of Saratoga. Bill Larkin is 90, wheelchair-bound but still kicking. Larkin doesn’t have to talk to the media any more, but like Bonacic, this senior Republican, elected in 1990, would want no part of a minority role in a progressive Democratic Senate.
A wary politician, Bonacic saw other things going south. Rather quietly but incrementally, the Democrats have taken a commanding enrollment lead in his district, now outnumbering Republicans 64,000 to 53,000.
Enrollment shifts don’t much affect entrenched incumbents like Bonacic and Larkin — gerrymandering takes care of that — but there are indications Bonacic was feeling that blue wave lapping around his Gucci loafers.
Did I mention Bonacic was and is considered the best-looking man in the Senate? Best-dressed, too.
He was once a force of nature. The only time Bonacic lost a single county was when former New Paltz supervisor and county legislator Susan Zimet took Ulster by a whisker in 2006.
Flies in the ointment
An open seat draws flies to honey. The Times Herald-Record reports at least three Republicans “interested” in Bonacic’s seat. Two-term assemblyman Karl Brabenec, a former town supervisor and a plausible front-runner, is making all the right noises to obtain Bonacic’s blessing. Orange County Clerk Annie Rabbitt, a former assemblyperson, is a possibility. The rub is, if elected, her position would be filled by the governor, and nobody’s yet betting against a third term for Andrew Cuomo. It’s considered unlikely that Bonacic’s daughter Melissa, majority leader of the Orange legislature, might step forward. Political dynasties went out with the Kennedys.
Ulster County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk of Wallkill, barely a stone’s throw from the Orange County line, says he’s not interested. At 32, Ronk will have other chances.
That the departing senator has some $700,000 in his campaign coffers and can spend it on any political operation he desires fuels the mix.
Democrats must have leapt with joy at Bonacic’s pending retirement, though reports of Rosendale councilwoman and Senate candidate Jen Metzger doing cartwheels down the village’s main street are unfounded. Rival Pramilla Malick of Minisink ran against Bonacic two years ago, with the usual results. For sure, Democratic prospects have measurably improved.
The senatorial district is home to about 300,000 residents, give or take a few tombstones. Ulster’s six towns — Denning (551 population), Gardiner (5,713), New Paltz (14,003), Rosendale (6,075), Shawangunk (14,332) and Wawarsing 13,157) — represent about 18 percent of that population. Sullivan County’s 77,000 residents add another 26 percent; Orange County is where this election will be decided.
Statistically, Metzger’s chances of becoming the first resident state senator since Arthur Wicks retired in 1956 would appear slim. But who knew John Bonacic would leave standing up?
I meant to chat with Erin Collier of Cooperstown (whom I have yet to meet), but missed her during the milling around after last week’s congressional forum at Kingston High School. Collier joined the fray in mid-March about a year after the other six candidates. She had lots to catch up on and little time to prep.
On the way out of the Radio Kingston event, I asked candidate Brian Flynn how the newcomer was doing. “We’ve had about five forums together. She’s pretty much up to speed now,” he said.
“Five, already,” I said. “How many forums have you had?
“I’d guess around 22,” he said.
Pat Ryan thought the total “a lot more than that.”
Point is, how do these candidates stay interested? They’re all playing from the progressive script. They’ve all heard each other on the same subjects dozens of times, and there’s still almost two months to go to the June 26 primary.
Last week’s lightning round provided at least a distraction for the road weary candidates. The seven hopefuls were asked which baseball teams they liked (mostly Yankees) and which late-night snacks (mostly pizza and chips). I thought I had wandered into Michael Kay’s Center Stage show on the YES network.
Youth was served, and that’s a good thing. KHS student Caroline Regan was one of three moderators, along with Radio Kingston’s Hillary Harvey and Kingston Times editor Dan Barton.
Time-keeping is always a factor in candidate debates. Kira Milgrim, a 17-year-old KHS junior, kept candidates to their 90-second response limits even while dipping into a batch of sweet potato fries. Kira’s father is John Milgrim, a former local journalist and presently a communications specialist in the Cuomo administration.
Turnout, I thought, was disappointing. Only about 150 or so.
Next up: The seven candidates, maybe six, are scheduled for a forum at Saugerties High School on May 10 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (I say maybe six, because something like 90 percent of Collier’s nominating petitions have been challenged. If the state Board of Elections upholds even half of those challenges, she’s off the Democratic line for the primary.)
It probably won’t matter all that much who won the April 24 special election for Pete Lopez’s former Assembly seat (the district includes Saugerties), since candidates are committed to a run to November.
Unofficial returns show some 1,325 absentee ballots left to be counted, with Republican Chris Tague clinging to a 288-vote lead over Democrat Aidan O’Connor. Third-party candidate Wes Laraway, an enrolled Republican, polled about 10 percent of the vote. That will complicate things. Indeed, some speculate that without Laraway in the race Tague would have prevailed more easily in the heavily Republican Assembly district.
Absent Laraway, which is not the case, O’Connor would have to pull about 61 percent of the absentee vote to make up for Tague’s lead. Typically, absentees go the way of machine ballots.
Former congressman Chris Gibson will be the Ulster Regional Chamber of Commerce breakfast guest speaker on May 30 at the Best Western in Kingston. Other than perhaps during the Q&A, diners shouldn’t expect much about politics from the former three-term Republican. Gibson, who was named “campaign manager” for Marcus Molinaro’s gubernatorial run, advises he’s the “honorary chairman” only. Paid staff will handle that end of the business.
Gibson, a strong supporter of Congressman John Faso two years ago, has steered clear of congressional politics this year. If somebody doesn’t ask about that or Molinaro at the chamber breakfast, I’ll ask for a refund.