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A week to go

by Hugh Reynolds
October 28, 2010 01:36 PM | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Even in “one of those years,” dramatic change seldom happens in the last week of campaigns. There have been exceptions. It probably wasn’t such a good idea for Nixon to keep his pledge of visiting all 50 states by traveling to Alaska the last week of the 1960 campaign. Likewise, Kingston mayoral candidate Jim Thompson probably shouldn’t have gone to a football game at West Point the Saturday before the 1979 election, while back home rival Don Quick was pounding the pavement. Except for the shouting, campaigns will peak by Friday. It is left only for voters to cast the dice.

In these parts, the showcase race, rather unexpectedly, has been for Congress between 18-year incumbent Democrat Maurice Hinchey, 72, of Hurley and Republican second-time challenger George Phillips, 34, of Endwell, an optimistically named small town outside of Binghamton.

A widely disputed Republican poll in September showed their man with a manageable four-point deficit (47-43). Most troubling for Democrats was that any poll would show their man with less than 50 percent as the campaign headed into the homestretch. The Hinchey side says its results are very different, but it won’t release its polls. Hinchey polled 65 percent against Phillips two years ago.

Hinchey’s embarrassing and inexplicable bad-day debate with Phillips in Saugerties cost the incumbent. For some observers, it was one of those rare moments when history changed before their very eyes.

Hinchey looked and sounded better at a Monday noon press conference at the courthouse in Kingston where he accused Phillips of conspiring with Wall Street moguls to privatize Social Security, no doubt meant to scare the b’jesus out of senior citizens. The late-breaking attack, just eight days before the election, struck me as out of tune. On the other hand, Old Dutch Church bells across the street tolling “Rock of Ages” should have given Hinchey hope.

Can Phillips win? I think the operative question is whether Hinchey can hold on until next Tuesday. (Editor’s note: a poll of October 20-21 by Abacus Associates for the Hinchey campaign showed Hinchey with 51 percent of the vote in the congressional district and Phillips with 34 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.9 percent. Also, a poll taken on October 19 by Magellan Mapping found the two tied at 43.2 percent each, with a margin of error of 2.89 percent.)

Assembly

The other highlight race, featuring an entrenched incumbent defending a detested government against an aroused electorate, could be called Hinchey Lite. The one clear advantage incumbent seven-term insider Kevin Cahill of Kingston has over his former mentor (Hinchey) is that Highland businessman Peter Rooney is not George Phillips. Whereas Phillips has challenged Hinchey on virtually every topic, Rooney’s anti-establishment campaign, long on anger but short on specifics, seems to be mostly that he’s not Cahill. Generally speaking, that’s worth about 35 percent of the total vote in most elections, maybe 45 percent this year.

For his part, Cahill, who waltzed to a two-to-one win two years ago, has been campaigning this year like somebody is chasing him in a Ford F-150 covered with good- luck messages.

Can Rooney catch the ever-elusive Cahill? I don’t think so.

But for those who relish an old-fashioned brawl between two guys who hate each other, these fightin’ Irishmen are just the ticket.

The race between former assemblyman Tom Kirwan, 77, of Newburgh and first-termer Frank Skartados, 54, of Milton is a curiosity, essentially two incumbents running against each other. Republican Kirwan spent 14 years in the minority, generating more heat than light. Democrat Skartados rode the Obama tide in ’08 and still might have enough leg left to beat the ailing but game Kirwan. Given the state of affairs, this one might come down to absentee ballots. Edge to the new guy.

Republicans Pete Lopez (Saugerties) and Cliff Crouch (Rochester) are running unopposed, which probably says more about the state of Democratic politics in their districts than stellar records.

State senate

The issues with the state legislature are really about overbearing leadership and the rank-and-file lickspittles who trade their votes for petty power, patronage and pork. In the Assembly, for better or worse, it’s all about speaker Sheldon Silver. In the 32-30 (Democratic) Senate, we don’t know which party will take control in January, much less its leadership.

Orange County Republicans John Bonacic, 68, and Bill Larkin, 83, seemingly have been in forever, through thick and thin, with precious little thick of late. Bonacic did nine years in the Assembly before ascending to a safe seat in the Senate in 1998. Larkin served a similar apprenticeship, winning promotion to the House of Lords in 1990. That’s roughly 32 years of experience. Since ’98, it hasn’t been good.

But can underfunded, understaffed challengers like Harley Doles, 55, (against Larkin) and David Sager, 39, (vis Bonacic) knock these guys off?

Doles, whose handicapped triplets have been the beneficiaries (he says victims) of the state Medicaid system, seems a one-trick pony. He talks about Medicaid abuses almost all the time. It’s a good place to start — at roughly one-third of the state budget — but voters will want more than “cut waste, save jobs.”

Sager seems to have driven the prickly Bonacic to near distraction with charges of misfeasance, cronyism and the like. I mean when your state senator goes around saying essentially, I am not a crook (that is not a direct quote), a nerve has been touched.

Can Sager and Doles offset collective war chests that exceed the million-dollar mark? Not this year, but these incumbents will know they were in a race.

Comptroller

I wasn’t (yet) at Kingston’s city hall when the seemingly mild-mannered Fawn Tantillo, 58, blasted first-term comptroller Elliott Auerbach, 59, for playing politics with his office, giving the executive a free pass, and issuing less than credible “embarrassing” audits. Sitting in the audience knitting a pink blanket for their first grandchild due in January, Judi Auerbach may have dropped a stitch or two as Tantillo laid on the leather. The non-combatants always take these things harder.

Democrat Auerbach handled this in-your-face attack with aplomb, preferring to detail his efforts (and successes) in creating the county’s first real watchdog office.

Tantillo, a former Republican legislator from New Paltz, has an edge in lines on the ballot, three to Auerbach’s two, and in fund-raising. But I don’t think she’s made the case for replacing a work in progress with a brand-new one.

Sheriff

Maybe there ought to be rule about sheriff’s sergeants running against their bosses. Paul Van Blarcum, 54, tried it against Rich Bockelmann in ’02 and wound up a greeter at the county office building. (They call it “security.”) Democrat Van Blarcum bided his time, winning election four years ago.

Republican George Goodwin, 44, a sergeant in the sheriff’s detective division, finds himself in similar straights this year. Given personal experience, Van Blarcum seems less inclined than Bockelmann to assign his rival to some backwater during the campaign.

In truth, there’s hardly a dime’s worth of difference between Democrat Van Blarcum and his Republican challenger, even as serious issues (like sexual harassment charges against senior officers) hover over the law enforcement center. That being the case, making a change at the top doesn’t make much sense.

City judge

Kingston voters have the pleasant dilemma of choosing between two well-qualified candidates for judge in Democrat incumbent Larry Ball, 48, and Republican challenger Mike Bruhn Jr., 41. Untested as a judge, Bruhn has broad experience in criminal law. He may have appeared before more judges than John Dillinger. Ball gets good marks for temperament — it’s pretty hard to rattle this guy — diligence and commitment. There is the possibility in this year of the anti-incumbent that what some saw as a cakewalk for Ball could turn into a nail biter. All things considered, including an almost two-to-one edge in enrollment, the ball should be in Larry’s court.

As a parting thought, I wish these candidates had spent more time discussing their judicial philosophy than sticking lawn signs in the ground.

Elsewhere

It’s probably not cool to treat races for governor, attorney general and comptroller as an afterthought, but that’s what I hear.

Republican Carl Paladino, feisty, outspoken and independent, and maybe nuts, seems to have alienated enough people to make Democrat Andrew Cuomo the landslide winner predicted in June. That Cuomo carries more baggage than your basic Amtrak makes almost everyone nervous. The fox will be in the henhouse. Pray for the hens.

I liked Republican Dan Donovan for attorney general mostly because he’s not a wheeling-dealing state senator from Manhattan. Will Democrat Eric Schneiderman challenge former cronies? I doubt it. With Donovan there’s hope for some fresh water in the swamp.

Tom DiNapoli is a nice enough guy, he toed the party line for 20 years in the Assembly, but if anybody represents the reviled establishment in Albany it’s him. And let’s not get into Alan Hevesi. As sole trustee of the state’s struggling pension system, the comptroller may be called on to make some very difficult decisions the next few years. Are we better off with good ol’ Tommy or hedge fund millionaire Harry Wilson, the Republican challenger?

As Thomas Jefferson used to say, the tree of liberty needs to be sweetened with a little blood now and then. This may be one of those years. ++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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