Though it is only late February, candidates for various public offices at the local caucuses in the municipalities and the general election on November 7 are already emerging from the woodwork. This past week, the Woodstock Democratic Committee heard some declared candidates make their pitches.
Two Democratic contenders for Ulster County district attorney, chief assistant district attorney Emmanuel Nneji and sheriff’s office chief civil administrator Jarred Blades, were among the speakers.
Candidate for highway superintendent Don Allen, a retired Kingston deputy fire chief, and incumbent town clerk Jackie Earley provided insights into their work.
Jeff Collins is running for the Ulster County Legislature’s District 23 seat, which consists of Woodstock, Glenford and part of West Hurley. Incumbent Jonathan Heppner is not running for re-election.
Linda Lover, a retired teacher, had not yet decided to run on the night of the Democratic Committee meeting, but reached out later to announce her candidacy for a seat on the town board. She said the political status quo in Woodstock was not working.
Incumbent Bill McKenna and his announced opponent, councilmember Bennet Ratcliff, will run for town supervisor. McKenna will run on a slate with Laura Ricci and Anula Courtis.
The candidates for DA
“I am running for district attorney because I believe that a fair administration of our laws is the absolute and inherent right of every citizen,” said Nneji. “And the district attorney’s office is an integral player in that respect. I want to continue the excellent work that we have done over the last one and a half years since I was appointed chief assistant DA of Ulster County.” Nneji said he had prosecuted some of the most serious and violent cases in the county for 32 years quietly but effectively.
“There is no one running in the Democratic Party or anywhere else in this race that has any experience close to that. I have made the toughest decisions you have to make,” he said.
“I want to make sure we take a robust approach in using alternatives to incarceration, such as drug court. It has been one of the most effective programs since it was begun in 1990,” Nneji said. He supports a work release program that allows people on probation for misdemeanors to be released early upon proof of successful employment.
“As you all know, being able to work and earn a living for your family brings in some elements of dignity, self-respect, and for yourself and from others,” Nneji added. “If somebody is on probation for five years for a felony, they show proof that they have consistently worked for two years. The same thing removed, remove the three years that they have left so that they can continue.”
Nneji, born in Nigeria, came to the United States after graduating high school and attended college at SUNY New Paltz, working his way through school as a dishwasher and dorm cleaner. He then attended law school at SUNY Buffalo, where he worked at McDonald’s to pay for his first semester.
His work in the Ulster County DA’s office began in 1990 as a law intern, which led to a job offer as prosecutor under then-DA Mike Kavanagh. He also served as an assistant state attorney general from 2007-2014.
Nneji said the DA’s office has largely resolved questions about the discovery laws that went into effect in 2000. “We have set up a disclosure system, and we have given defense attorneys more time than the previous administration had set up. They have set up a system to give the defense attorney 30 days to access materials,” Nneji said.
Jared Blades, who grew up in Ellenville, began his legal career as an assistant district attorney in Monroe County. He worked as assistant DA in Ulster County until he was recruited by sheriff Juan Figueroa to serve as chief civil administrator and the commander of Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team [Urgent].
“I think I’m one of the few attorneys who have appeared in every single court in Ulster County, including all the justice courts. Supreme Court, county court, you name it. I’ve been there,” he said.
Blades favors greater transparency between what happens in the courts and what is conveyed to the general public. “What occurs in Ulster County courts should be reported back to the people in a very clear and concise way. We need to bridge that gap,” he said.
“I’m an attorney, not a know-it-all. There are people in this county who have phenomenal journalistic backgrounds and communications backgrounds. We need to bring them into the DA’s office so we can bridge the gap between what happens in court and what gets reported to the media,” Blades said. “Let’s not rely on the media to fill in the gaps. And let’s also say if someone in the community wants to know what happened in court, I believe they have an absolute right to know what happened in court.”
Blades said he understood Woodstock is DA David Clegg’s home town. “I want to make it abundantly clear. There is not a single thing that Dave Clegg has advocated for or set out to do that I disagree with. I just would like to take that to the next level and produce results off of what that is,” he said. “I think Dave signifies a paradigm shift in law enforcement and the way we look at prosecutions, and I think he pressed back against decades worth of the same way of doing something. And I think we need to realize that fact and take it a step further.”
The other positions
Donald Allen graduated from Onteora High School and received a degree from Ulster County Community College in fire science. He eventually became a captain in the fire department of Kingston and then deputy chief before retiring in 2019.
He is a volunteer and commissioner for the Woodstock Fire Department and part-time plow operator for the highway department. Allen was also the first fire inspector for the town in 1984.
“I like to say my duties of deputy chief, I believe, are going to be a little like running a highway department. I took care of time and attendance. I took care of girlfriend problems, boyfriend problems, I took care of divorces and I took care of my firefighters when we were out on an emergency,” he said. “I used to say my biggest responsibility was making sure they didn’t get hurt and they got home to their families. And I live by that.
“If I get elected highway superintendent, my priorities will be to listen to the needs of the entire community. I feel communication with the taxpayers in the community is so important. And it’s got to be easy, so they can communicate to me and I can communicate back to them.”
Long-time town clerk Jackie Earley had considered retirement, but decided to run for another term.
“I talked with my husband about it. He said, ‘If you retire, I’ll retire.’ And then I thought, well, what am I going to do? And he was like, ‘Well, you know, you could do your garden.’ Well, you can only do that a couple months out of the year,” Earley said. “So anyway, I broke the news to him and told him that I was thinking about running again.”
Earley is the second-longest-serving town employee and the second-longest-serving town clerk ever. She and Allen are running on a slate together. “I’ve run with every other highway superintendent, and it’s my honor to run with him,” she said.
Jeff Collins did not speak at the Democratic Committee meeting. Collins is the Woodstock Public Library District board president and has served on the zoning revision committee and housing oversight task force. “I hope to continue to work for Woodstock, Hurley, and Ulster County as your next [county] legislator,” he said recently.
Linda Lover has served on numerous committees and volunteer organization boards. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz with a degree in art education and credits in early childhood education, she opened a licensed daycare and pre-school in New Paltz and operated her home-based business for 14 years. She worked for 17 years as head teacher in Saugerties for a private pre-kindergarten program.
Lover has lived in Woodstock with her husband Terry since 2015.
Lover is a Woodstock Library trustee and a member of the town short-term rental revision committee, complete streets committee and Woodstock Immigrant Support. She is vice-chair of the Woodstock Democratic Committee.
She helped launch an effort to start a free senior lunch program at the town community center, and has worked with Ratcliff and Maria Elena Conte.
“I believe Woodstock is at a crossroads. Our town board can be so much better when people’s voices are heard,” she said.