On the map of the New York State Senate, the 42nd District is a sprawling gerrymander that straddles the southern Catskills. Bordering both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it encompasses all of Sullivan County, the western half of Orange and a large chunk of Delaware County, extending as far as Walton, Delhi and just short of Sidney in the northwest. The sliver of Ulster County that runs from Wallkill in the south to Bloomington in the north might be described as the gerrymander’s tail, and large, thinly populated tracts of the western part of the county also fall into it.
Since 1999, Senate District 42 has been the realm of John J. Bonacic (R/C/I-Mount Hope), but now the veteran legislator is about to retire. Vying for his seat on Election Day 2018 are Democrat Jennifer Metzger, a town councilwoman in Rosendale, and Republican Ann Rabbitt of Greenwood Lake, the Orange County clerk. In a year when only one seat flipping from red to blue could mean Democrats taking over the State Senate majority from Republicans, many eyes are on this race. Pundits have characterized the mostly rural district as leaning Republican, despite the fact that voter registration figures list it as being home to 64,410 active Democrats, 53,441 active Republicans and 42,785 non-affiliated voters. District 42 gave Donald Trump a 5.2-point edge over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. In the most recent State Senate contest, Bonacic defeated Democrat Pramilla Malick of Minisink by 61.16 to 38.84 percent.
This time around, however, Metzger trounced Malick by 9,883 to 6,336 votes in the Democratic primary. Moreover, the State Senate district has considerable geographic overlap with the 19th US Congressional District, where Democratic voters have been galvanized by Antonio Delgado’s tight race against Republican incumbent John Faso — a contest deemed key to a possible “blue wave” tipping the House of Representatives into the Democratic column.
How much of a coattail effect Delgado may generate remains to be seen, but in southern Ulster County, Jen Metzger is already a known quantity, largely for her work on energy issues as director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Citizens for Local Power. She is no stranger to Albany, frequently challenging utility companies and regulatory agencies including the Power Authority of the State of New York and the Public Service Commission to oppose utility rate hikes and fossil fuel infrastructure projects such as the proposed Pilgrim Pipelines. In her years as the chair of Rosendale’s Environmental Commission and on the Town Board, Metzger has developed a reputation for championing projects that conserve energy, promote sustainability and reduce the town’s carbon footprint; surrounding municipalities look to legislation that she has drafted to use as templates for their own initiatives, such as seeking certification as Clean Energy Communities.
For Metzger, switching our dependence on fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources of energy is as much an economic issue as an environmental one. In her campaign journeys around the huge district, she says that pocketbook issues tend to be at the forefront of the concerns that voters express to her. “Affordability is a major issue, especially for healthcare and property taxes — those costs are connected, because a significant percentage of our property taxes goes to pay for health coverage for public employees. I support the New York Health Act, to reduce healthcare costs and guarantee coverage for all New Yorkers,” she says. “We also need to fix the way we fund public education, so schools in our region get their fair share, while shifting the tax burden away from local property taxes.
“Another conversation I have a lot is about a lack of faith in government. People feel that their elected representatives are not looking out for our best interests. The only way to restore confidence in government is to work with people — all people — and deliver results that genuinely improve our lives.” A mantra that Metzger keeps repeating is that the State Senate, as currently constituted, has consistently failed in its mandate to serve the citizens of New York State: “Fully funded schools, property tax relief, healthcare for all and a statewide clean energy economy that creates good local jobs will remain out of reach unless our state senators are willing to pass legislation that helps working families, seniors and young people. But year after year, they continue to serve the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the rest of us. I’m done waiting around for our state senators to do their jobs.”
While a familiar name to voters in Orange County, where she served as a Chamber of Commerce president and village trustee in Greenwood Lake, a Town Board member in Warwick and an assemblywoman for ten years before becoming county clerk in 2014, Annie Rabbitt is less well-known in Ulster County. Flipping the State Senate is obviously not one of her priorities; she sought and obtained John Bonacic’s blessing to be his Republican successor (Metzger has to make do with an endorsement from Barack Obama). But Rabbitt also touts a track record of being able to reach across the aisle during her tenure in the Assembly. “Now, more than ever, we need a strong voice representing us in Albany to ensure the Hudson Valley and Catskills are not forgotten,” she says on her website.
A longtime small business owner herself, Rabbitt has made championing the ability of small local businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive in a challenging economy a linchpin of her appeal to voters, saying that she “has always wanted government to run more like a business, with the understanding people come first…Government should partner with the people or get out of the way!” Pocketbook issues sit high on her agenda. While Rabbitt is on the same page with her opponent in terms of the need to deliver property tax relief to hard-pressed upstaters, her plan favors state takeover of local Medicaid costs, rather than the more sweeping single-payer option that would become possible under the New York Health Act endorsed by Metzger. In addition, Rabbitt says that she wants to make the statewide two-percent property tax cap permanent; put constraints on unfunded mandates coming down from Albany to municipalities; use sports gaming revenues to create a dedicated school tax fund; and to freeze and gradually phase out school taxes for seniors.
New York’s opioid crisis is also much on Rabbitt’s mind. She has espoused a well-developed program to address it on multiple fronts including prevention, treatment, interdiction and divestiture; surprisingly for a Republican candidate, her plan includes the legalization of medical marijuana as a pain-management alternative. While environmental issues aren’t her area of specialization the way that they are for Metzger, Rabbitt in her capacity as county clerk has borne witness to the City of Newburgh’s struggles in recent years with chemical contamination of the water supply. She is vocal in her support for expansion of the state’s brownfield cleanup program, as well as for a $5 billion Safe Drinking Water Bond Act to provide grants and loans to fund urgently needed water treatment and delivery infrastructure.
Clearly, both of these candidates have impressive track records on which to run, and a finger on the pulse of their potential constituents as they pound the pavements (and gravel country lanes) across the length and breadth of District 42. The oddsmakers are calling this race a toss-up. Want to know more about either candidate’s experience and platform? Visit their websites at http://jenmetzger.com and http://annieforsenate.com, respectively. And whichever you favor, make sure you make it to the polls on Tuesday, November 6.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6. Polls open at 6 a.m. and will remain open until 9 p.m. Look up your polling place here.