A new kind of politician ascends to the Ulster County Legislature

Legislator-elect Phil Erner, November 2, 2021.

“I think we need to have a really deep basic conversation here in Kingston, Ulster County, about what it is that we value in our communities. What basic things are that we need and who’s getting that right now and who’s not, and we need to hear that from the voices of people who are not getting it, and that’s a lot of who voted for us in this election, folks who felt like their voices were not out there.”
– Phil Erner, Ulster County legislator-elect for District 6, City of Kingston

I wasn’t that surprised to see county-legislator-elect Phil Erner appear at the front door. He doesn’t seem the type of person intimidated by a low sky, full of dark clouds fit to burst, the mercury plunging.

All I knew of Erner I had gleaned from phone communications, and his phone etiquette was erratic. We had communicated largely via text, going back and forth trying to pin down a time and place for an interview. He’d make plans, and then as the appointed day approached scramble them with little comment. Days of silence would follow, and then just as suddenly the phone would ring, and his mid-tenor voice would commit diligently to new plans.

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Well. He had been riding a wild tiger 24 hours a day since his narrow win against veteran legislative chair Dave Donaldson in the Democratic primary on June 22. He was now heir apparent to one of 23 seats in the Ulster County Legislature, part of a much-enlarged Democratic majority,.

“Election day finally felt like when I’d been in a situation where you prepare and prepare and work and work and then finally it’s there,” he explained. “And then I finally started to feel like I could be a human being and relax a little bit again. My partner, she was incredibly supportive and incredibly gracious through this whole thing.”

Erner will have a seat as a freshman county legislator. Donaldson’s chairmanship and its salary of $23,500 will go to someone else. Erner will be paid $14,000 annually.

The list of public officials in home-rule New York State goes on and on. Fractals of influence spider out from power centers like on a shattered windshield. Political parties and influence groups vie for influence. Where does it all end?

“It was too late to … like I was still figuring my stuff out when the Working Families Party was interviewing their candidates, you know,” Erner said. “I was like a couple of things behind, at least in the process, so I missed that opportunity for the primary. So I ran on the Kingston People’s Party line. This was the line that Ethan Barnett had created to run for mayor [of Kingston] in 2019, you know. With Ethan’s blessing, I adopted that as my independent party name, and we had a little tiger logo.”

The 2022-2023 Ulster County Legislature will meet as a body on January 1 to welcome the new lawmakers, renew its charter, and hash out the new order.

“I’m your candidate”

“Donaldson and I were neighbors for two and a half years,” said Erner. “He was three houses down from me, but I hadn’t really known the Donaldson family previous to the election. And then we didn’t even meet through the election process. Um…. That I can say is as much on me for not knowing all my neighbors, but I have met the other immediate neighbors.”

Erner had appeared suddenly out of relative obscurity. He had been badly misjudged by a power player in local county politics, one who had honed his instincts in the praxis of his craft for over three decades, one who could count among his assets the local relationships attendant to incumbency. Somehow, step by step, Donaldson had done just enough wrong so that he could be beaten.

Donaldson had calmly reached out to grip the tallest political lightning rod the City of Kingston could erect at the time. He endorsed his own son-in-law as a challenger in a high-profile effort to replace an incumbent on the school of board who was recognized for loudly opposing an overly generous tax break to The Kingstonian, a large and very controversial Stockade building project.  The election was a raucous affair, and Erner believes that Donaldson’s stance in favor of the tax break greatly damaged his standing in the community.

“Well, we had the support of several school-board members who fought them off, at least two of whom were re-elected,” said Erner. “We had their support in the primary, you know, and then the election, Happening a month before the primary then actually helped us win the primary because we had a list of the voters. We got a list of everybody who voted in the school-board election, and we know that outcome went three to one against this scheme to replace the anti-tax-break board members, right? So odds were if I called someone who voted in the school board and just said, if you supported the incumbents in that election, I’m your candidate. You know, this was a big anti-Donaldson vote.”

After the election to the school board, Erner’s support team argued in their literature against tax breaks to out-of-town developers. “You know,” Erner confided to me, “there’s an error in something we said to the press because obviously not all the developers are from out of town. The Jordan family are long-standing Kingston.”

The birth of a contender

Erner had only very limited political experience.

It helps greatly to think of Erner as a political southpaw. A leftie in a righthander’s sport, he doesn’t square off the way he’s supposed to. He ducks when he should weave. He covers up, blocking his ribs when he should strike. And then, without bothering to feint, he delivers the uppercut. His erratic timing, as noted, compounds the problem.

Squeaking by Donaldson with a win in the Democratic primary by just 14 votes, 248 to 234, Erner clinched the support of the party apparatus, at least nominally.

Erner made no secret of his admiration for senator Bernie Sanders.

“We made our yard signs by hand for the primary. Hand-painting and spray-painting and reusing other signs, and that was the primary situation,” he said. “I had joined the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] as a member earlier this year. I joined them after having worked with them in the Bernie campaigning and seeing what they’d done in, you know, beginning in 2020 in Iowa and then in South Carolina, I went [to] both those places.”

What role did the DSA play?

“Basically the Democratic Socialists of America enabled me to get information on voters’ predilections and things, and also to know who’s already maybe on our side about things,” Erner said. “That’s kind of what VAN access, Voter Access Network, broadly speaking, is used for just voter preferences and such. But I talked to anybody I saw on the street. DSA and the Democrats did our mailers, flyers during the general election.”

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During the campaign leading up to the general election, Erner committed a serious gaffe. After agreeing to take part for a three-way debate broadcast live from a radio station with Donaldson, who continued to run on his own Good Government Party Line, and with Republican candidate Suzanne Timbrouck, running for her first time, Erner failed to show up.
“It was going to be on Kingston Community Radio,” said Erner. “92.5 and AM 920. Their studio’s up on Lucas. Well, Mr. Donaldson had sent around a really negative mailer that pissed me off. I didn’t want to go into a debate in that frame of mind. I got this thing in the mail, and it’s like lies and misrepresentations, and it had been happening before to an extent after the primary, and I didn’t really address it. And I kinda didn’t really want to address it. I don’t want to spend my time debunking things that you’re imagining about me. I can accept that maybe some people who want to know more about me weren’t hearing enough, and I feel sorry for the folks who arranged it. You know.”

This mistake should have been enough to make his prospects go up like a hydrogen balloon in a fire. But it didn’t. His candidacy didn’t crash, nor did it burn. Erner went on to prevail in the general election with 48 percent of the vote against the two opponents who did show up to the radio debate. Perhaps that says more about the marginal importance of the audience share of the public radio market share than it does about the attention of the electorate. It also may be an indictment of both.

Erner’s campaign received a boost a few days before the general election from county executive Pat Ryan’s endorsement, which Erner announced on his Facebook page on October 28. In his statement, Ryan said he looked forward to working with Erner on issues of housing, green jobs, and the environment. “It’s important for our democracy to have vibrant elections and keep our county government fresh with perspectives that will carry us into the future,” said Ryan, who canvassed in Kingston with Erner the next day. “Phil is a people’s person, a farmer, and a neighbor who cares deeply and knows everyone’s names and their stories.”

Erner received 883 votes on November 2, Timbrouck 574, and Donaldson 367.

A bus rider’s perspective 

Like the betting systems of horseracing, success in politics always boils down to numbers, bland as they may be. And there is no arguing with them.

In the primary; it was 266 souls who decided which candidate’s name voters in the electoral district would see on the ballot with the all-important capitol D next to their name. The loss of the big D endorsement may explain what may have been Donaldson’s attempt at a rhyming motto printed across his subsequent mailers: “Vote Donaldson on Line E and make history!”

Speeches and fine words are reserved for the victors. Erner could treat the position he’s been elected to only as a sinecure, showing up for monthly meetings to cast votes, looking smart, and collecting a legislator’s salary at least for the next two years, until someone else from the smart set figures out where he got it and how easy it was.

But those two years could prove of more worth than a bucket of liquid astatine.

Thus far the attention has centered on the upset and not enough perhaps on the motivations of Erner. His recent civic experience was that of a user of public transportation, more specifically as a bus rider.

“I worked with the Friends of Kingston Public Transit,” he said. “So that’s the first organization that I really dived in deep with. We got that started in the spring of 2019. I helped start it. And we’ve been dormant since the pandemic hit, which has been a total disaster.

“We were a group of folks who saw the plan for the county to absorb the city bus and wanted to advocate on behalf of the ridership that we would not lose service that was needed. Keep the fares affordable, ideally not have a fare. In Albany Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga, you know, the students ride for free, but you know if it’s keep it cheap, fifty cents or whatever is going to be, you know. It’s a dollar fifty to ride the county bus now.

“Again, my previous stint having been in Hurley, I was more familiar to the county bus. The county bus fare actually changed when the merger happened, so they had had a zone-based fare where the number of town lines you crossed increased the fare by a quarter for every time, so up to a maximum of two bucks for a ride. So it’d be like a dollar if you’re staying within the town, and you know, but if you took the bus out, you could go from Kingston all the way to Ellenville, and when you hit early, it was an extra and then the maximum fare, when you got to a Wawarsing, so they changed that.”

At this point, Erner had to go out to take a look outside. The striated colors of a rainbow were arching far off among the heavy mist over the Hudson River.

Serving the common weal

H.L. Mencken, that scathing matronish wag of societal commentary, had much to say about the motivations of politicians. Here is an example:

“What is any campaign but a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better? The former assumption I believe is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false. For if experience teaches us anything at all it teaches us this: That a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar. His very existence indeed is a standing subversion of the public good in every rational sense. He is not one who serves the common weal; he is simply one who preys upon the common wealth.”

Might Phil Erner prove Mencken wrong?

Why does it seem like every politician, every political entity, regardless of the truth, here in the Hudson Valley and more conspicuously elsewhere, are adopting the buzzwords of a corporate sponsor of an NPR commercial? Words like: Equitable. Sustainable. Just. If they could sell it, we might muse, crude-oil slurry would now be available to a more equitable, just and sustainable world.

“Okay, like I think we’ve come to expect our leaders to make to be characters of a sort and make a great speech and have a great idea,” said Erner. “But I think ideas in the end are only as valuable as the work you’re going to put into them, and I’m talking about there’s a lot of kinds of work, but like I’ve had the blessing of doing a physical job in my time in Ulster County here. And I’m willing to do a physical job, too. I need obviously to listen to people, especially those who are not agreeing with us or might come from different point of view as individuals, and organizations, but that’s how we’re going to get the work done. I think we’ll be better off if my role can bring people together who might not have otherwise come together to work on something together. Sure, that is to the common good.”

There is one comment

  1. Judith Kerman

    Is Rokosz Most writing news? Or opinion? Or creative nonfiction? The writing style is so mannered as to make me stop reading in the middle of many articles. Since some of the subject matter is important, this does not serve me well as a subscriber. More matter with less art, as Hamlet once suggested.

    Judith Kerman
    Woodstock

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