“I think we have the right people on each committee to ensure responsible oversight and policy development to meet the challenges Ulster County will face this year,” said a press release from newly elected Ulster County legislature chair Dave Donaldson of Kingston last Wednesday. He had “carefully reviewed” the recommendations of previous legislative chair Tracey Bartels, majority leader Jonathan Heppner and minority leader Ken Ronk.
Donaldson, a retired high-school teacher and veteran Kingston politician who had served as legislature chair from 2006 to 2009, replaced Tracey Bartels in a 13-10 vote at the legislature’s reorganizational meeting on January 8. Bartels had withdrawn in Donaldson’s favor after she couldn’t secure the vote of a Democratic caucus member.
One of Donaldson’s first tasks was to appoint chairs, deputy chairs and members to the nine standing committees. He had a week from his election to do it.
The chairman’s choice of “the right people” inevitably involved both policy and politics. The political component was particularly complex because the legislature is again composed in 2020 of twelve persons who caucus with the Democrats and eleven with the Republicans. The realignment of a single Democratic legislator could have tipped control of the body, as it had in 2014 when Democratic member John Parete accepted the chairmanship by a 13-10 vote with the support of all the Republican legislators over Democratic caucus choice Hector Rodriguez.
Democratic legislator Laura Petit of Esopus declined to support Bartels. She wanted to run for chair herself, according to Donaldson, and she had the support of the Republicans. As incoming Saugerties freshman GOP legislator Albert Bruno put it to reporter Christina Coulter last week, “Laura seemed to be more bipartisan and not as beholden to the party line as some of the others.”
Donaldson said Petit had wanted him to run. The veteran legislator said he had no interest in doing so. But he later “ended being the compromise candidate” at the last minute with Bartels’ support when it seemed that otherwise the Democrats would lose legislative control.
Give these circumstances, what course would Donaldson take in appointing standing committee chairs, deputy chairs and committee members for 2020? He chose six Democratic chairs and three Republicans. With the exception of the Audit Committee, each committee had a deputy chair of the party opposite to the chair.
Democratic committee chairs appointed by Donaldson include Lynn Archer of Ways and Means; Bartels of Laws and Rules; Jim Delaune of Legislative Programs, Education and Community Services; Manna Jo Greene of Energy and Environment; new legislator Eve Walter of Law Enforcement and Public Safety; and returning legislator Brian Cahill of Economic Development, Tourism, Housing, Planning and Transit.
Republican chairs include Dean Fabiano of Public Works and Capital Projects; and Craig Lopez of Public Health and Social Services. John Parete and Herb Litts, both of whom caucus with the Republicans, are chair and deputy chair of the legislature’s Audit Committee, which meets rarely.
Three committees have more members from the Republican caucus than from the Democratic one. John Parete is a member of all three.
Dave Donaldson and John Parete are both lifelong old-line Democrats who grew up in a county where Republican enrollment was predominant. Addressing the legislature upon his ascension to the chairmanship, in January 2014, Parete assured the solons that he wasn’t going to spend another minute of his life on partisan bickering. Donaldson voted for him. GOP leader Ken Ronk said his party felt like they had a partner in Parete.
Six Januarys later, when Donaldson was sworn in as chair, Parete, a registered Democrat who won election in 2019 on the Republican line and caucuses with them, broke with the other members of the Republican caucus to vote for him. Donaldson explained last week that Parete was paying off a debt incurred by Danaldson’s vote for Parete in 2014. Parete’s vote may also have been insurance in case Petit decided to support Republican chair candidate Heidi Haynes.
Petit did not fare particularly well in Donaldson’s appointments. Chair of the Public Works and Capital Projects Committee in the previous legislature, she will now serve as a member of the Public Health and Social Services and Energy and Environment committees.
Donaldson’s approach received ritual praise from several occupants of leadership positions. Tracey Bartels commended “his commitment to a bipartisan approach.” Minority leader Ronk said the appointments showed a renewed sense of bipartisanship. And county executive Pat Ryan said the slate “prioritizes a service-oriented, bipartisan approach to running our county government — which is absolutely critical to our shared success as Team Ulster County.”