The political transformation of northern Ulster County from solid red to predictably almost-solid blue has been more than a half-century long. Municipality after municipality has experienced it. Democratic enrollment in the entire county is that despite now very close to being double that of Republican enrollment — despite the presence of a strong and resilient Republican redoubt in its southeastern townships. With that degree of political polarization, municipal races are now more often decided in the dominant party’s caucuses or primaries than at the November general election.
As of last November, Ulster County had 57,067 enrolled Democrats and 30,672 enrolled Republicans. For the Republicans to win countywide, if everyone who was eligible were to vote, three-quarters of the 38,633 voters not enrolled in any political party would have to support the GOP. That’s unlikely but not impossible, though the fact that many of the unenrolled are immigrants from heavily Democratic urban areas makes it more difficult.
The Town of Hurley provides a recent example of the political tide in northern Ulster County – political change with distinctly Hurley characteristics rooted in the town’s history and its consequent demographics. Hurley’s a town that’s evolved in sort of a barbell shape, with very different middle-class communities spread out at each end and relatively few people in the middle. In neither end has a central area evolved for a significant cluster of commercial activity. Gertrude Stein’s jibe about her own hometown, Oakland, comes to mind: “There’s no there there.”
The original township encompassed New Paltz, Rosendale and Marbletown as well as the wilderness north and west of Old Hurley, the farming community of the Esopus Valley close to Kingston – so close, in fact, that when the British burned Kingston in October 1777 Hurley for a few weeks served as the capital of New York State. Thereafter, the valleys and upland areas in Hurley’s wilderness areas hosted small farms, and tiny hamlets sprouted near mills established where the flow from streams permitted. In the 1840s the Hurley Greens militia helped provide military support for the suppression of the anti-rent wars in the Catskills, including a memorable outburst of rebellion in neighboring Woodstock.
From the 1830s through the remainder of the nineteenth century, bluestone, much of it quarried in Ulster County west of Kingston, was shipped down the Hudson River. According to the Friends of Historic Kingston website, at its peak that local industry employed 10,000 Ulster County workers.
The condemnation of land by New York City for the Ashokan Reservoir in the 1900s put an end to the booming Hurley hamlets of West Hurley, Glenford and Ashton, some of whose homes were transplanted to the northward side of the old road, now Route 28, that leads through the Catskills.
Republican dominance was unthreatened in most of the twentieth century.
A slow and gradual process
The gradual transfer of voter allegiance from red to blue started earliest in Glenford, that part of Hurley closest to Woodstock. It was fueled in part by people who couldn’t find suitable Woodstock housing and settled in areas on its borders: the same phenomenon as occurred in Mount Tremper in Shandaken, Boiceville and Shokan to some degree in Olive, Glenford and Maverick Road in West Hurley, and West Saugerties in Saugerties. All were the part of their towns that, like snowdrops in the spring, presaged a coming change in climate.
The Glenford voting district had registered 288 Democrats and 129 Republicans in 2012. A decade later, there were 406 Democrats and 92 registered Republicans. The Maverick Road voting district next to it had 297 Democrats and 188 Republicans in 2012, and 407 Democrats and 158 registered Republicans in November of last year.
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The Old West Hurley and Spillway districts moved in the same direction. The four election districts on the western end of the Hurley barbell combined had 1009 registered Democrats and 721 registered Republicans a decade ago. As of last November, there were 1420 registered Democrats and 560 registered Republicans.
A decade ago, the Republicans could still count on strong and consistent support from the historic Hurley end of the bifurcated township. No longer. By last November, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans there, 872 to 605.
Unsurprisingly, the town board in Hurley is now all-Democratic.
This pattern is a very recent one. As the Democrats gained strength over the years, why didn’t it come sooner? Why did Hurley, decade after decade, term after term, retain a Republican town supervisor?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that a larger percentage of the Republican electorate turns out for local elections than the percentage of the Democratic electorate. And part of it lies in the support of the unregistered-in-any-party vote swinging regularly Republican.
But yet another part lies in the electorate being unwilling to depose a local administration it thinks is doing a competent job. Republican officials in municipality after municipality have been reelected – sometimes unopposed – in places that are now Democratic in registration.
It is usually when the consensus office-holder retires that that office swings in most of Ulster County from Republican to Democratic. The local political transformation becomes complete. The new officials now benefit from the advantage of incumbency – as long as they are perceived as competent. The stronger their party becomes, the lower is the bar of competence. And when a challenge occurs, it’s more likely to be in a party caucus or primary than in a general election.
The people is the power
“The American institutions are democratic, not only in their principle but in all their consequences; and the people elects its representatives directly, and for the most part annually, in order to ensure their dependence. The people is therefore the real directing power; and although the form of government is representative, it is evident that the opinions, the prejudices, the interests, and even the passions of the community are hindered by no durable obstacles from exercising a perpetual influence on society.”
So wrote the endlessly engaging and optimistic Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America 188 years ago, his paean to American local government.
Local government is not necessarily limited government, the least possible governance. The town government of Hurley (population 6192) passed a 2023 budget of $3.96 million. Woodstock (population 6295) passed a budget of $8.35 million. The striking difference reflects not only circumstances but governmental philosophy.
Hurley has historically followed the conservative path that the least government is the best government, that the taxpayer is always the best judge of how his or her money ought to be spent. Woodstock politics, following the social democratic model more common in Europe, largely believes the government should play a role in helping provide the social goods that the free market has failed to do, like open space and housing.
Last year’s state election gives a sense of the direction that the Hurley political wind is now blowing.
Governor Kathy Hochul triumphed over Lee Zeldin statewide by an unexpectedly small margin, 53 percent to 47 percent, trailing badly in the vote in most counties. She won Ulster County by more than 11,000 votes. How did she do in Hurley?
Overall, it was a shellacking. Hochul garnered 2134 votes to Zeldin’s 1407 in Hurley, about three votes to two. The total count was 1250 to 661 in West Hurley, where the Democrats attracted the lion’s share of the unenrolled voters. It was 884 to 748 in Old Hurley, where the Republicans held their own among the unenrolled voters.