Hugh Reynolds: Analyzing absentees; what’s up with Joe Maloney?

Joe Maloney, right, with Dean Fabiano and Mary Wawro.

As the following analysis on absentee ballots suggests, Antonio Delgado, a clear winner on primary night, is not yet the official Democratic nominee. But, trailing by some 1,450 votes and with around 4,000 absentees to be counted, second-place Gareth Rhodes would need a miracle to catch up. Until then, if then — and Rhodes did congratulate Delgado in a pre-dawn Wednesday statement — the stage belongs to the election-night leader.

It would appear that Delgado, a former corporate attorney who moved to Rhinebeck last year and won the seven-way primary in Dutchess and Ulster, was the beneficiary of a “hometown split.” Dave Clegg and Jeff Beals of Woodstock, Pat Ryan of Gardiner and Rhodes of Kerhonkson pretty much cancelled each other out in Ulster. Collectively, they polled over 8,900 votes in Ulster, the district’s largest county, averaging about 2,200.

Brian Flynn of Greene fizzled in Ulster with less than 8 percent of the vote. Undaunted, he says he plans to move to “happening” Kingston. Alas, it didn’t happen for him on primary night.

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Nobody expected much from Erin Collier of Cooperstown, despite her gender advantage in this “me too” year. Entering too late, starved for contributions, with ground-game limited to friends and relatives and running from the far periphery of Otsego County, Collier finished last everywhere except in her home county. 

Battle lines for the fall election were swiftly drawn. Incumbent Republican John Faso of Kinderhook “welcomed” Delgado to “the debate” shortly before midnight Tuesday, to wit: “This November, Mr. Delgado will cast his first ever general election vote for Congress in our district after just moving here from New Jersey. He will soon learn, as the last two Democratic candidates for Congress before him, that our neighbors do not look kindly upon candidates who have just moved into our district and presume to represent us.”

Which is to say déjà vu all over again, or so Faso hopes. But a word of caution to the possibly presumption first-termer: Democrats, in large numbers, did not view Delgado in like manner. 

Let’s go to the next stage. To no great surprise, few other than the candidates were expecting Tuesday’s primary among the seven Democratic congressional contenders to be definitely decided when polls closed at 9 p.m. Reason: thousands of absentee ballots are scheduled to be counted by July 3.

The Ulster board of elections tells us that 1,777 absentee ballots were sent to voters, of which 902 (about half) were returned by Monday’s deadline. Election law requires absentees to be postmarked no later than Election Day, returnable by July 3. That says something about postal service, which in Ben Franklin’s day delivered mail between Philadelphia and New York faster than it does now.

These are sealed ballots, so nobody knows the identity of these absentees. I’m guessing that a significant portion will be weekenders. These folks may be keenly interested in the congressional elections, if only to send a message to the detested Donald Trump or to Faso, but probably not so much as to drive 90 miles north to vote on a weekday.

Let’s say 80 percent of Ulster’s absentee voters, about 1,420 of them, are returned by the July 3 deadline. Ulster Democrats represent about 30 percent of the district, which suggests that district-wide, more than 4,000 absentees could be in play. In a close election, one or two percentage points, absentees matter, even if the absentees tend to go the way of machine ballots. And they may not.

Connecting the dots

Joe Maloney, freshman legislator and newly minted Democrat from Saugerties, has become something of a wild card in a precarious 12-11 Republican majority in the Ulster legislature. Elected as an independent with Republican endorsement, Maloney voted for a Republican majority in January and caucused with those who had brought him to the dance — for a while. By springtime, however, he was regularly caucusing with Democrats. 

Last week, Maloney officially enrolled in the Democratic Party on paper. But major-party status is determined for the year each January. Democrats are now the de facto majority but not the de jure majority. The new majority sticking together is something unusual among the Democrats even without considering wild-card Maloney. 

Maloney’s maneuver has had other consequences. Last week, legislature Chairman Ken Ronk removed Maloney from the Ways and Means Committee and appointed Majority Leader Mary Beth Maio instead. Does the majority leader have a majority?  

Why did Maloney switch? He told me the Democrats listened to him while the Republicans marched in lockstep. He said he’d vote independently on any issue that comes before the legislature.

Whether he’ll side with Democrats to organize the legislature in January will depend on what happens in the next half-year. At one point last winter Maloney was calling for an independent caucus made up of legislators who were not enrolled in a major party. Before he switched, there were five. 

Since he first took office after outpolling two-term Democrat Chris Allen, people have been wondering what to call Joe Maloney. Maloney, in a rather pointed phone call late in his campaign against Allen, advised me in no uncertain terms that he was not a Republican, as I had mistakenly reported. He was endorsed by the Republican Party, but a member of the Independence Party. After he hung up, I wondered about who this guy was. 

For sure, he was no backbench first-termer. Weeks into his first term, Joe Maloney started popping up on page one of the daily calling for campaign contribution reforms, limits on political activity by elected officials, term limits for legislators. He had a particular aversion to the county’s Industrial Development Agency, which he charged was giving tax breaks on the backs of taxpaying local businesses. 

His fulminations made for good headlines. While the media tends to oil squeaky wheels, that kind of coverage was highly unusual for somebody in office for less than three months. His freshmen colleagues seemed content to listen and learn. 

Maloney couldn’t — and wouldn’t — be ignored. After some of his proposals were buried in committee recently by the Republican leadership, Maloney went viral this month. His target was, of all people, Democratic County Executive Mike Hein. Citing Hein’s official campaign spending reports on file with the state board of elections, Maloney questioned the executive’s taking donations from developers or consultants who had business before the county. 

Like others, Hein at first ignored the newcomer. But Hein does not suffer critics gladly. The man is “a clown,” Hein declared in the aforementioned daily. Maloney’s accusations were without merit, Hein further declared. The Hein administration, now halfway through its tenth year, is ethical and transparent, said Hein.

“Your president is not a crook” comes to mind, but that’s not exactly what Maloney said. He was addressing the perception of chicanery, he said. Appearances matter. Is Maloney trying to say that Ulster County might be for sale?

More dots to connect

Maloney and I had a long conversation about all this via phone from his liquor store in Saugerties Plaza. 

His accusations, I opined, were interesting enough — sensational, really. But where was the proof? It’s one thing to connect Hein and campaign contributors to projects those contributors were advancing, another to prove what would amount to corruption. Gubernatorial candidates Marc Molinaro and Cynthia Nixon have lodged similar charges against incumbent Andrew Cuomo.

Some of these accusations can be quite specific. Republican Assemblyman Chris Tague of Schoharie, whose district includes Saugerties, cites Crystal Run in Monroe. That’s the privately run medical facility that donated $400,000 to the Cuomo campaign in 2013 and received a state building grant for $25.4 million in 2016. Cuomo spokespersons have denied a quid pro quo connection. The FBI and the Orange County district attorney are reportedly studying the situation. 

Unless someone does a Jack Nicholson — “You’re damn right I called a code red!” (in the 1992 film A Few Good Men) — these dots will remain questionable coincidences. 

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There are always distractions. Maloney’s wife works for County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, a frequent and vocal Hein critic and a frequent target of Hein’s criticsim. Hein has retaliated by cutting Auerbach’s staff, but not Maloney’s wife, who is protected by civil service.

In May, the CSEA contract which Hein negotiated was unanimously approved by the legislature. Hein accused Maloney of voting for his wife’s raise (2 percent a year over three years, granted to some 900 union workers). Maloney now says he should have abstained and will do so if he’s still a legislator when the contract comes up for renewal in three years. If there’s a connection between Maloney’s wife and Hein’s campaign contributors, I missed it.

More dots. It strikes some as at least curious that the really heavy artillery against Hein wasn’t launched until after Maloney took office. Prior to that, the comptroller seemed satisfied with filing periodic reports about executive inefficiencies and the like, and suffering the consequences. Auerbach denies any Svengali-like culpability in the Maloney affair even as he might relish what he calls “the independently elected legislator” poking thorns in the lion’s paw.

For Hein, Maloney’s latest barrage came at an inconvenient time. His annual birthday fundraiser, preceded by a plethora of campaign-like press opportunities, is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on July 19 at The Chateau in Kingston. The event usually adds tens of thousands to Hein’s six-figure war chest. The county executive is up for a fourth term next year. Might regular contributors, department heads, consultants to the county, contractors, unions and the like now give pause before reaching for their checkbooks? 

It’s hard to say where Joe Maloney’s one-man crusade might be headed. So far, Maloney has generated only smoke. Hein ridiculing his lone-wolf critic speaks to mean-spirited overreaction. 

Game on.

Storms in Stone Ridge

Ulster County government probably won’t abandon its plans to establish a fire training center on the SUNY Ulster campus in Stone Ridge against the vigorous protests of adjacent residents. In plain English, residents feel they’ve been snookered by the county. County Exec Hein announced the original plan more than a year ago without consulting residents, and then pivoted to a three-site plan, which to people on the periphery of Stone Ridge is beginning to look more like the original. It comes down to trust: “Trust us, we’re from county government.” County Planning Director Dennis Doyle led a forum for residents at the college on Tuesday, primary night.

Meanwhile, comes news that SUNY Ulster will finally get an adequate supply of water, to be piped from the High Falls water district some two miles away. This will be a county project, planned and paid for, but it will not, say college officials, include the construction of dormitories at the college. Recall that it was the lack of water that shelved the decade-long debate about dorms to attract more students at the community college. With water, we get dorms? Nope. Neighborhood opposition quietly killed that idea. Plans for a southern Ulster site in the Town of Marlborough, boldly launched, haven’t worked out, either.

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