By a one-vote margin Monday night, Gardiner resident Tracey Bartels defeated Republican Ken Ronk to become chairperson of the Ulster County Legislature. Bartels, a political progressive widely respected for her independence, is the second woman and first person not registered with a political party to assume the top leadership role in the chamber.
The chair’s seat is decided every year at the reorganizational meeting. Saugerties legislator Joe Maloney, an independent who had caucused with the Republicans, enrolled as a Democrat last year, opening the way to a potential Ronk ouster. The vote was strictly along party lines.
In addition to running legislative meetings, the chair appoints members to standing and ad-hoc committees.
Ronk smiled through the reorganization process. He noted afterward that he believed what occurred had been the seizure of an opportunity to take power. He did not believe the vote was a good example of working together, but he was heard telling Bartels later in the evening that he would “make this [transition] as painless as possible.” Ronk will now become minority leader.
In the wake of county executive Mike Hein being tapped for a state job, Ronk has made noises about running for that county position. Several prominent Democrats are also expected to throw their hats into that ring.
The vote on the selection of the chair was greeted with a warm round of applause and a standing ovation from the gallery. Several people moved to hug Bartels during the meeting and afterward.
Having the chairmanship go to a member of the Democratic caucus was not a surprise. New Paltz legislator and minority leader Hector Rodriguez was unable to secure the support of twelve legislators. A split in the Democratic caucus might have allowed Ronk to remain chair. All members of the Democratic caucus thought it important to get behind one person, even a person not enrolled in their party. Bartels was the consensus candidate.
Rodriguez will no longer have a leadership role. He was minority leader, but Jonathan Heppner of Woodstock has been named leader of the new Democratic majority. Asked why he didn’t seek that job, Rodriguez said, “I wouldn’t do that to Jonathan.” Rodriguez said he’d mentored Heppner during the latter’s first three years on the job.