Channeling Jay Leno’s 1995 interview with Hugh Grant after the actor’s mortifying incident with a prostitute in Hollywood, I have to ask Gerry Benjamin the very same question. What the hell were you thinking?
The answer, since the normally loquacious SUNY political science professor isn’t offering further comment after making profuse apologies, seems to be, like Grant’s reply, “Not too clearly.”
Benjamin, in what now appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction, had chimed in supporting his good buddy John Faso with what some critics saw as a racially charged condemnation of Faso challenger Antonio Delgado’s rap lyrics, recorded a decade ago. Benjamin had endorsed Faso for Congress two years ago.
The operative offense was the divisive use of the word “us,” a variation on “them.” Us and them. Don’t we have too much of that already?
Here’s Benjamin, as quoted originally in The New York Times on Delgado’s rap: “People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture.”
A day after it all hit the fan, Benjamin, in what was described in The Beast as “his apologetic memo,” conceded his comments “could be seen as having racial undertones.”
“I made these points badly,” he wrote. “My remarks were insufficiently precise, my points poorly articulated, and my language very insensitive and therefore subject to multiple interpretations. I particularly regret the casual use of the phrase ‘people like us’ to describe rural upstate New Yorkers. This language is over-general, exclusionary and, I see in retrospect, evokes racist connotations.”
This from Gerry Benjamin, professor emeritus, former dean, regional think-tank director, precise in language and so frequently quoted on political stories in the Times (ours and theirs).
SUNY New Paltz officials, up to and including president Don Christian, were quick to denounce college “leader” Benjamin’s remarks but fell short, it seemed, of demanding his resignation.
Benjamin apologized to his college and his colleagues at the Benjamin Center. Critics called for an apology to Delgado as well. But Delgado made no such call. He undoubtedly understands the tactic (by Faso) all too well.
I feel bad for my old professor, under whom I studied the U.S. Constitution at SUNY New Paltz so many years ago. I can’t condone his remarks. By the same token, I don’t consider the man I’ve known and interacted with so many times on professional and personal levels as any kind of racist. Benjamin, a Jewish Democrat native of New York who moved to rock-ribbed Republican New Paltz 40 years ago to begin his distinguished career in academia, understands bias better than most. Which is to say, Benjamin, of all people, should have known better.
Should Benjamin, 73, and in the deep twilight of a long and distinguished career, resign or retire? I don’t think so. One ill-advised confessed “mistake” should not end a life’s work. But he might consider a lower profile, perhaps a leave of absence to write one last book.
Hats off to Larry
It is said that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Maybe the anti-trail Ulster & Delaware Railway Revitalization Corp. may still have a longshot chance of restoring its credibility after some serious gaffes. It’s all in the numbers.
Earlier this month, U&D spokesman Larry Roth held a press conference. He charged that county rail trail project estimates for creating an 11-mile bike-and-hike trail around the Ashokan Reservoir in the former U&D railroad corridor were off by a factor of at least half. County officials had been projecting construction costs at about $8 million. Roth and company pegged it at $17 million. He was wrong. It seems Roth combined projected expenses and revenues to make his point. Oops.
County taxpayers will be on the hook for at least $3 million. But that bottom line is a lot closer to $8.2 million than $17 million. Or is it?
At last week’s regular legislature meeting, the solons, at the behest of the county executive, added another $1.3 million for engineering services, bringing the total to $9.5 million. A number of legislators raised questions about the cost of replacing the hurricane-wrecked Boiceville trestle which bikers and walkers will use to complete the Ashokan rail-trail. Recall that the Federal Emergency Management Administration approved $2.2 million to rebuild the bridge for rail traffic after its destruction almost seven years ago. Heck of a job, Brownie.
Time and inflation wait for no project. County officials now estimate construction costs on the bridge in the $5 million range. Add another $3 million or so in county bonding and assuming the notoriously lead-footed FEMA agrees to transfer the $2.2 million for a walking trail over the new bridge — and we’re talking real money.
As one railroader put it, “Maybe Larry will be right after all.”
After an abject apology to the legislature for his faulty accounting, Larry had better get his numbers right the next time. If there is a next time.
Chasing the caboose
UDRR, of unknown membership (I’m still asking for some kind of roster) and short of funds, took a flyer at halting the county trail juggernaut by attempting to enlist the federal government’s Surface Transportation Board. No dice, concluded the feds.
The county government demonstrated to the STB’s satisfaction that the rail corridor was formally abandoned in 1977 (and purchased by the county two years later in hopes of establishing tourist trains). Federal jurisdiction therefore no longer applied. Roth argues that federal funding for a walking trail didn’t apply either, but I’ll bet there’s plenty of pots to be plumbed for such an environmentally-friendly project.
Roth and company are counting on an as-yet defined old railroad law that it contends may require the county to negotiate with right-of-way owners before proceeding with trail construction. Roth’s side is arguing that abandonment of the railroad right-of-way meant that original easements granted or sold by landowners (in perpetuity?) would again be in play.
Meanwhile, it’s full speed ahead for the rail-trail with the county having ripped up most of the tracks on the old right of way from West Hurley to Ashokan. So swift was this action by the county, starting even before the Surface Transportation Board issued its ruling, that even county legislators who vote on these matters were left in the dust.
At one point during the debate last week over approving funding for the trail, Laura Petit, Democrat of Esopus, asked whether a thousand feet of rail beyond the current western terminus for Catskill Mountain Railroad’s tourist run from Kingston could be preserved for future train use. CMRR’s similar request last year was turned down.
Jim Maloney, chairman of the legislature’s tourism oversight committee, rose to politely bring his colleague up to date. “Those tracks have already been torn up,” he told Petit.
New nest for Joe Maloney
Joltin’ Joe Maloney, not to be confused with the smooth-talking Jim Maloney of Ulster, has left and gone away, hey, hey, hey. Maloney officially joined the Democrats last week, with hardly a word — uncharacteristic of his loquacious self. A member of the Independence Party but elected on the Republican ticket from Saugerties, Maloney caucused with Republicans for a few months, sat in with Democrats for a few more, and last week moved to the Democratic side of the aisle.
Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez of New Paltz personally escorted his party’s prize rookie to his new desk at the end of the front row of Democrats, hard by the press table. There was no announcement, no formal welcome, no handshake, hugs or kisses.
Previously, Maloney had sat on the edge of the Republican caucus, across from Democrats, and one seat in front of the other Maloney.
“I just looked up and he was gone,” Jim Maloney said of the Joe Maloney’s sudden transition. He didn’t say whether he missed him.
This isn’t just about moving legislators and furniture. Maloney’s change of stripe gives Democrats a 12-member majority, if they stick together. It may also give Rodriguez another vote for chairman when Democrats caucus to elect leaders for 2019 in December. Ironically, it might have been Maloney’s vote last December in the Republican caucus that gave Ken Ronk of Wallkill another term as chairman.
Does it matter who’s chairman of the legislature or which side holds the majority? It should.