“Coming off the victory of Pat Ryan in the special election for Congress, the Ulster County Democratic Committee is energized and committed to democracy. This November our freedoms are on the ballot, and we will be working non-stop to get out the vote to elect Democrats — including our exceptional new candidate, Jen Metzger, for Ulster County executive.”
— Kelleigh McKenzie, chair, Ulster County Democratic Party
A familiar political face arose from the brief scrum that was the three-way contest to replace former county executive Pat Ryan. Former state senator and dedicated environmentalist Jen Metzger will be the Democratic candidate for county executive in the November 8 election.
Ulster town supervisor Jim Quigley announced early Sunday that he’s seeking the Republican nomination to run against Metzger.
Endorsed by a slew of savvy politicos and local heavyweights, Ryan and sheriff Juan Figueroa among them, Metzger intends to succeed the acting county exec Johanna Contreras, who was put in place by Ryan on his way out the county door.
County comptroller March Gallagher and deputy county executive Marc Rider couldn’t hold Metzger under the 50 percent vote threshold needed to trigger the newly adopted system of ranked-choice voting, which would have sent the voting into a second round. The candidate with the least votes would have been eliminated, and the second choice votes would have been tabulated and split among the remaining two candidates.
Metzger dominated outright, with 64.4 percent of the vote, Gallagher was second with 29.7 percent and Rider brought up the tail with six percent.
Much journalistic hay has been made covering the committee’s method for nominating a candidate during this special election. The lack of a Democratic primary had been criticized as being undemocratic.. Because of the warp and weft of New York State law and the Ulster County charter, the Democratic committee found itself legally compelled to move ahead in this hasty manner rather than allowing Ryan’s replacement, acting executive Johanna Contreras, to fill the position until its expiration next year.
Ryan was himself nominated by the Democratic Party to be county executive in exactly the same way in 2019 after county exec Mike Hein took a job up in Albany before his term was finished.
The nominating convention was held late Saturday afternoon beneath the massive chandelier in the City of Kingston council chambers where over 300 people had gathered, 280 of them Democratic committee members representing the 163 election districts in Ulster County.
Each election district was represented by a maximum of two committee members. The value of each district — the weight of its vote — was in equal proportion to the turnout of Democratic Party voters in each district for the last gubernatorial contest in 2018. Thus, the secretary of the Democratic committee, Alexandria Wojcik, committee member of New Paltz, counted the most, because her district saw mustered at the polls a larger outpouring of Democratic voters than any other district.
A number of county legislators have said a list of committee members exists that had a convenient system ranking each name. Asked for a copy, chair McKenzie demurred with a pleasant smile. She suggested that the numbers devised by the committee could be totaled using information available on the Ulster County elections website and using good old arithmetic.
Transparency, it has been emphasized, is the goal of the Ulster County Democratic organization, but it wasn’t made sufficiently convenient for the layman to handicap the intrigue.
Speeches made to persuade
After some preliminary motions to re-elect chair McKenzie chair to her post and reinstall the current slate of Democratic officers, the mood grew boisterous. The crowd and the chair engaged in procedural call-and-responses.
The nominating process is a bit like a duel. The main parties assign seconds to speak to the crowd on their behalf prior to the contest.
As it happened, Metzger’s name was chosen first. Sheriff Juan Figueroa and Nejla Liias, Saugerties committee chair and founder of Global Health Visions made her case.
Figueroa gives the impression he chews gravel before all his speeches. The sheriff spoke of the tremendous responsibility that comes with the county executive position and asked the room to trust his advice, noting Metzger’s time as a local government official and a state senator.
Liias continued in the vein which would be repeated for each candidate, words of support illustrating qualifications, highlighting virtues, and recalling character. All were elements of a speech meant to persuade. Unimpeachable integrity. Make Ulster County a beacon of progress. And so on.
When Metzger spoke for herself, she recounted her father’s alcoholism, the economic insecurity in the household in which she grew up, and the frequent and tiresome moving from place to place. She talked about the financial aid that enabled her to attend college, the opportunities for which she was forever grateful.
The path to victory
By 5:20, the speechifying was out of the way. The assembled politicos got down to voting, a noisy process primarily because a short list of committee members are called up to vote at a time. The remainder were left to their own devices.
The politically minded are natural-born networkers, or they’re in the wrong business. Town supervisors, deputy mayors, county legislators, and assorted municipal boohoos chatted with each other. Many of them were silver-haired hustlers with intimate knowledge of rules and regulations, motions and tabling,. They mingled amongst the rows of wooden pews. Hugh Reynolds, famous opinion-giver in the local print media, was seen stalking between the aisles calm and priest-like, his hands held together before him. Reynolds’ square build gives him the hardnosed impression that he only plays with words because he doesn’t have to.
Forty minutes later, it was all over. Beyond her seconders, Metzger could boast a deep bench of heavyweight endorsements from Pat Ryan, assemblymember Kevin Cahill and legislature chair Tracey Bartels. This sort of company surely smoothed her path to victory.
Who voted for her and who did not, remains a mystery. A sure sign of a house wary of its own family, the voting process was anonymous. With its factions and infighting, the event was more than anything like a large family reunion to check the mutual temperature and to settle competition.
If the Democrat Party at large has a tendency to quibble over details and to splinter when a united front is required, the operation in Ulster County could be instructive of a sea change in that perception. The turnout in the county for the Democrats is among the highest in the state outside New York City and its immediate suburbs.
In 2018, county legislator Joe Maloney switched parties, handing the Democrats control of the legislature. The next year Pat Ryan took on the county executive role, and in 2021 the legislature tightened its hold on that body, gaining a supermajority.
If Pat Ryan defeats Republican competitor Colin Schmitt for the 18th Congressional District seat in the general election less than two months away, it will be easy to visualize a handy pipeline installed from the House of Representatives direct to Ulster County, which will listen to the amplified voice and concerns of Ryan’s constituents on one end and receive the largesse of the federal government on the other.