Hugh Reynolds: Politics is a bulldozer

Did anybody get the license numbers of those bulldozers that buried Paul VanBlarcum and Abe Uchitelle at the Ulster County Democratic convention in Kingston Monday night? I think they had blue plates.

VanBlarcum, a three-term Democratic incumbent (with Republican endorsement four years ago) was smoked by newcomer Juan Figueroa of Plattekill, who received 85 percent of the vote. That outcome, received with thunderous cheers and a standing ovation, was a clear indicator of just how far the sheriff has strayed from what are now Democratic Party core values. 

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, seeking 12th term in office, routed newbie Abe Uchitelle in similar fashion, taking 73 percent in heavier balloting.


Uchitelle, sometimes nicknamed “StockAbe” (the search engine optimization firm of which he is CEO is in Kingston’s Stockade District), appeared stunned as the vote was announced by party Chairman Frank Cardinale. “I’ll have no comment at this time,” he said to a reporter. 

VanBlarcum left the hall shortly before the vote was counted, headed for the Republican nomination at the GOP convention next week. The incumbent is also expected to secure the Conservative and Independence party nominations, but will those be enough to offset a near 15,000-voter Democratic enrollment advantage? If Tuesday’s outcome is any indicator, the sheriff faces long odds. 

Figueroa, a self-described “man of color,” was gracious in victory. “Anybody who does 42 years in law enforcement, and I know this,” said the 20-year state trooper, “deserves a bit of recognition. And I thank him.” VanBlarcum, 62, a Shandaken native late of Kingston, joined the sheriff’s department as a 19-year-old corrections officer at the old jail on Wall Street.  

Figueroa, who did not mention the sheriff by name, said “his actions have angered many people.” The nominee promised fair and respectful treatment for everyone. 

VanBlarcum’s tight circle of old friends and police officers clearly underestimated Figueroa’s challenge and the Democratic shift to the left. 

“Why, he couldn’t even get elected to the town board in his own town,” VanBlarcum said a few weeks ago. 

Uchitelle, 30, surrounded by millennials, perceived a youth movement against entrenched incumbency and revulsion at Albany corruption. “You can’t expect change with the same people there,” he said the day before the convention. He said he never called Cahill, 62, old. “Sixty-two isn’t old. That wasn’t my point at all.” he said of the opponent twice his age. The young businessman was “a challenger to the status quo,” according to his nominator, Rochester county legislator Lynn Archer. 

Cahill, in an acceptance speech that eulogized his mentor, the late Maurice Hinchey, and assemblyman Frank Skartados and elections commissioner Victor Work, all of whom died since last November, hinted to an eventual winding down to his long career. “Maurice served for 38 years. I’m not going to make that,” he said.

The mood of the party was exuberant, the near-90 percent of committeepersons at convention but one indicator of engagement. The raucous receptions for candidates for state office most were meeting for the first time was another.  For a change, there was only passing condemnation of the evil Trump. Progressive policies ruled. Hail, hail the blue wave. Now all they have to do is elect some people.

Up the UCIDA

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex situation, it would appear Ulster County’s Industrial Development Agency is undergoing one of those political convulsions that roil the waters from time to time. When Republicans controlled virtually everything in the 1970s, the legislature usually appointed six Republicans and a token Democrat to the seven-person body. With legislative majorities swinging between the major parties these days, IDA appointments have produced an independent, bipartisan board of directors. 

The IDA, which supports itself through fees charged to developers, routinely grants tax breaks to developers every year. Called ‘Pilots’ (payment in lieu of taxes), these oftentimes controversial agreements can mean the difference between developers locating in Ulster or someplace else which offers those incentives. Or so say developers. 

Last week, a screening committee of legislators presented six nominees to serve on the IDA. The fate of the seventh, board chairman John Morrow, an Ulster town Republican councilman, is yet to be decided. 

In an unusual move, legislative Democrats, with Joe Maloney of Saugerties and Brian Woltman of Kingston joining them, preferred retired banker Rick Jones of Rochester to former Democratic legislator T.J. Briggs of Ellenville, the choice of the legislative Economic Committee, acting as screeners, for one of the seats. Jones impressed the committee, which also screened all the incumbents. Jones has also served on the town planning board. 

Legislator Lynn Archer, Democrat of Rochester, a member of the review committee, supports the idea of a sitting legislator on the IDA, maybe one from each party. She cited Jones as “one of the best we interviewed.” Archer, herself a retired banker, said she’s not interested in an IDA board position “at this time.”

While some favor a politically independent IDA, others wonder if that’s possible in a situation where choices must by legislators among competing candidates.

Counting noses

Based on who caucuses with whom, the current county legislature has been 12-11 Republican, between the two major parties. There are in fact only nine enrolled Republicans and an equal number of Democrats. Three of the remaining five are Independence party members: Joe Maloney, Heidi Haynes of Marbletown and Laura Petit of Esopus. Tracy Bartels of Gardiner is non-enrolled; Mary Wawro of Saugerties is a Conservative. Wawro, Haynes and Maloney caucus with Republicans, giving the GOP its one-vote majority. Bartels and Petit caucus with the Democrats. 

Former Democrat Brian Woltman, a Republican first-termer from Kingston is something of a swing Republican. He doesn’t vote straight party, which given his heavily Democratic district may be politically expedient. “I was a moderate Democrat,” he told one of my journalistic colleagues this week. “Now I’m a moderate Republican.”  

Maloney, an anti-establishment type unseen since Kevin Cahill was a county legislator decades ago, wants to form this herd of cats into an “independent minority” in a more formal way. Maloney says he understands such a move would require a charter change — unlikely in my view, since the first duty of majority parties is to preserve and enhance majority parties. Informally, however, a group of united dissidents could be deciding votes on anything either party brings forth. The most recent example was the IDA vote.

Maloney says he drops by Democratic caucuses, to the consternation and suspicion of Republicans, “because they’re a little more open-minded there.” Not to mention open-armed.


Fire away

Former basketball legend Bill Russell probably said it best: “Mixed feelings is like watching my mother-in-law drive over a cliff … in my new Cadillac.”

Thus, the mixed feelings about the county locating a fire training facility for its 50 volunteer companies. Nobody argues that such a facility isn’t needed, badly needed. But nobody, it seems, wants it anywhere near their backyards.

After a meeting with leading volunteer firefighters in Highland three years ago, County Executive Mike Hein committed his administration to building a multi-million-dollar fire training center. Plans for a facility on county-owned land adjacent to SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge off Cottekill Road were made public last year. Alas, the well-oiled Hein publicity machine failed to notify nearby property owners before announcing its site. Opposition was predicable, justified and determined. Residents collected some 1,200 signatures in protest and hounded the legislature at every monthly meeting. 

Hein’s compromise was to recommend location of county burn tower training centers in the Town of Ulster (which has an existing facility near a creek in a sparsely settled area) and Walker Valley, with “classroom training” for firefighters at the Stone Ridge college. Residents of the first site praised Hein for addressing their concerns.

Flash forward to last week’s regular legislature meeting. Stone Ridge residents took umbrage with the new location on the other side of the campus near the ball field adjacent to wetlands. Issues such as noise, pollution, environmental impact and traffic made the reaction sound remarkably similar to that at the first go-round.

Directly involved elected officials I contacted indicated meetings between the administration and residents might iron things out. “I do believe the plan has changed, but I don’t believe the location will change,” said freshman Heidi Haynes, elected on the Republican ticket last fall. Veteran Democratic legislator Manna Jo Greene, whose Rosendale-Marbletown district encompasses the college, wanted more answers on water use and disposal on the site. Greene opposed the original plan because “I have to vote with my constituents.” 

Marbletown Supervisor Rich Parete, another first-termer but a 14-year former legislator wise in the ways of county government, sees a work in progress. He too suggested a possible meeting of the minds. “We [the town planning board] will have the last word in any event,” he reminded the disputants.

Not to diminish the concerns of residents or firefighters, but I get a sense from the officials I’ve talked to that the Cadillac is pretty close to the cliff. The Hein administration had already committed over $200,000 in site studies, design and staff time before this latest storm cloud. It may bridle at the prospect of another go-round.   

I can hear the engine revving.