Ulster County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Cardinale and his executive committee have decided “not to put a finger on the scale at this late date” by not offering a vote among the seven congressional contenders at last week’s annual party nominating convention. Most of the conventioneers I talked to seemed to agree.
Some of the congressional hopefuls had been actively campaigning for more than a year. Others, like Erin Collier of Cooperstown, for only about two months.
There being at least two sides to every political decision, the alternate question is why they did not offer a straw vote. An unofficial endorsement by some 90 percent of Democratic committee members in attendance a month before the June 26 primary might have tipped the scales, perhaps decisively.
Last week’s call of the committee represented the largest turnout of Democratic leaders for the year. Might not their collective judgment have been instructive to the rank-and-file they represent? On average, each of the party’s 326 committee members (there are 10 vacancies) represents about 1,335 of the county’s 43,355 enrolled Democrats. What better time and place to get a grassroots read on party preferences?
Given the two votes that were taken, for state Assembly and sheriff, who knows what the outcome would have been? Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a household name for two decades, crushed newcomer Abe Uchitelle. Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum, another familiar name, was blitzed by an unknown retired state trooper, Juan Figueroa of Plattekill. Both challengers called for change. The convention took half the message.
Voters are either fiercely committed to their congressional candidate or view all of them as pretty much the same. Party regulars, like those gathered at the convention last week, are inclined to give more weight to which candidate they think has the best chance of defeating incumbent Republican John Faso in November.
Handicapping the race
To their credit in these brutally divided political times, the congressional candidates have avoided sniping at each other in public. That may change as the days dwindle down, though six of them — all but Jeff Beals — signing a pledge this week to stay positive indicates good behavior is still very much in fashion. Jen Metzger, a Democratic candidate for state Senate in John Bonacic’s district, suggests (hopes?) that losing candidates will rally behind the winner for the final assault on John Faso. Methinks pigs will fly over Rosendale town hall (Metzger is a councilwoman there) in that event.
The order of candidates on the ballot could be an important factor. Brian Flynn got post position in the board of election’s random draw last month (1A), followed by Erin Collier and Gareth Rhodes. Dave Clegg brought up the rear, preceded by Pat Ryan, Antonio Delgado and Beals.
Being first has its obvious advantages, but last, like Clegg, doesn’t mean the end of the world. Clegg’s supporters will be able to find him more easily. Suggested campaign pitch, fitting for a deacon in the United Methodist Church: The Last Shall Be First. Three through six risk getting lost between first and last.
There is always a significant falloff as voters travel across the ballot. Back in the day when the Ulster County Legislature fielded candidates in multi-member districts, some with as many as five openings, thousands of potential votes were recorded as “blank,” meaning not cast.
I think the seven contenders fall into three tiers. Top tier for reasons of campaign fund-raising and petition-gathering goes to Delgado of Rhinebeck and Ryan of Gardiner. Money doesn’t determine outcome, but it does talk. According to the campaign filings, these two have over two million dollars between them for the stretch run. Recent revelations of Delgado’s campaign accepting some $13,000 from casino interests (his campaign declined comment) and concern over Ryan “spying” on liberal activists while he was in the private sector (strongly denied by the campaign) may alienate some voters.
Under the liberal-progressive blanket all candidates share, Ryan and Delgado offer some wrinkles. Ryan, a former military officer, bears resemblance to former GOP congressman Chris Gibson. Gibson-lite? Ryan will appeal to up-district Republicans who revere the retired congressman and Army officer. Harvard-educated Delgado, the brainiest of the bunch, strikes some as Obamaesque. He even sounds like the former president. That each candidate made more than $300,000 a year in the private sector makes some — median wage in the district is about $60,000 — wonder why they’d spend all this time and effort on a job that pays $174,000 a year, plus generous benefits.
In the tight second tier are businessman Flynn of Greene County and lawyer Clegg of Woodstock. Flynn’s financial commitment and deep pockets are evident in the more than $650,000 he has loaned his committee, but his real strength is geographic. With a more conservative take on some issues, which takes him into mid-moderate range among this passel of progressives, Flynn can literally reach out to Republicans and independents in the great northwest of the district. Faso country. Clegg is the quintessential hometown candidate that almost everyone who knows him seems to like. He will run strongest in Ulster County if his ground team can get his vote out. Will the ripples reach far enough?
A Mario miracle?
Not to disparage or discourage the rest of the field. Final results always seem to surprise pundits (re: 2016). But it will take something like Mario Cuomo blowing past Ed Koch on the last weekend in the 1982 gubernatorial primary for Gareth Rhodes, Jeff Beals or Erin Collier to rise and conquer. But I like Collier’s ballot position.
None of the three has shown the fundraising firepower or the ground game to successfully compete in a 163-township district the size of Connecticut. Rhodes has made the effort in his worn-out 1999 Winnebago, but it’s difficult to get elected to state Assembly five or six contacts at a time, much less to Congress. Maybe Rhodes, at 29 a potential player for at least another generation, should have sought state legislature in this his first attempt at public office.
Beals is intense and seemingly sincere, but it’s hard to run a congressional primary while holding down a full-time job. The Woodstock schoolteacher’s CIA service (and I don’t mean Culinary Institute of America) may raise more concern than support.
Very late to the dance, Collier had an ace to play. From what I briefly saw of her, she didn’t play it very well. While every candidate spoke to women’s issues, Collier sounded more like a follower than a leader among men. Only 34, she’ll perhaps be back, but like Rhodes, at a lower rung on the political ladder.
As in the last minutes of sports, much can happen here as the clock winds down. Top tiers could split their vote, middle packers could move up. For intrigue, I look to bottom-feeders. Will any “suspend” their campaigns and throw what little weight they have toward one of the contenders in hope of future consideration? I don’t think so, but politics is the art of the possible.