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High drama

by Hugh Reynolds
October 21, 2010 02:43 PM | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Push came to shove. Or was it a question of poke or choke? A meet-the-candidate night in Saugerties last week featuring incumbent Democrat Maurice Hinchey and Republican challenger George Phillips provided the occasion. The next day the chattering classes were talking about an alleged physical confrontation between Hinchey and veteran Freeman correspondent Bill Kemble moments before the debate began.

Stories vary. Hinchey either pushed Kemble or grabbed him by the neck in separate incidents. It was, in a word, ugly. A nine-term congressman, confronted by a persistent reporter on a subject he did not want to discuss, lost his cool and got physical.

Let’s go to the videotape.

Hinchey and Phillips arrive separately for their much-anticipated debate shortly before 8 p.m. at the Saugerties Senior Citizen Center. I saw both of them in the lobby, Hinchey being interviewed on camera by YNN-TV, Phillips shaking hands with a few supporters. I walked back into the main meeting room where about 120 people were waiting for the congressional debate to begin.

Piecing together eyewitness accounts, it appears this is what happened next in the lobby:

Kemble approached Hinchey (who was on camera) and began asking him questions about recent reports that a ferry service from Rhinebeck, years in the talking stages, would dock at Hinchey’s hotel/banquet hall development now under construction on Partition Street in Saugerties. Hinchey played down his role in the development, as he has done on several occasions, and accused Kemble of “fabricating stories.” The controversy is over whether some $800,000 in federal funding secured by Hinchey for nearby infrastructure work in the village would directly benefit the project. Village officials say it would not.

Kemble persisted, asking whether federal monies were earmarked for the ferry project.

YNN’s tape of that part of the interview — the piece did not capture any physical altercation — showed a visibly annoyed congressman.

“Hinchey was acting very peculiar,” said Mark Knaust, Saugerties Conservative Party chairman, who said he witnessed most of the confrontation. “He was deliberately acting stupid, like he didn’t know what Kemble was talking about. I don’t know how he could say that. It was in all the papers. He sounded very angry, his voice rising. Kemble didn’t raise his voice.”

Knaust told me that he saw Hinchey “put his hands on Kemble,” shoving him into candidate Phillips who was passing behind the reporter on the way to the men’s room.

“I really don’t want to get involved in this,” Phillips said on Monday, “but since you asked me, yes, he shoved him into me. I was knocked a little off balance, but I kept walking. Obviously, the guy [Kemble] who was hit took the brunt of it.” Phillips said that while he had read other reports in the Freeman by Kemble, he had not met him as of the debate.

Witnesses said Hinchey campaign manager Liam Fitzsimmons, who was standing nearby, stepped between Hinchey and Kemble.

Kemble’s recollection of events is different from those of the three eyewitnesses that talked to me.

“I don’t remember him pushing me,” Kemble said. What he did remember was Hinchey grabbing him by the neck in the lobby “for between three and five seconds” a few minutes after their exchange about the waterfront project and just before Hinchey entered the main hall for the debate.

“He walked straight toward me and grabbed me by the throat,” Kemble said. “I didn’t try to defend myself. I thought, ‘Just breathe.’ It looked like suddenly he realized what he was doing and moved off. A woman came over and said she witnessed the throat-grab.”

At that point, Hinchey and Phillips (a few steps behind him) entered the main hall. Hinchey sat in his marked place at a table in front of the room. Phillips sat a few feet away at his place.

I was sitting about three rows back directly in front of Hinchey. Kemble was sitting in the front row a few feet from Phillips.

I saw Hinchey make a curious gesture toward Kemble. He looked directly at the reporter, about 20 feet away, put his right hand around his throat and pointed at him with his left index finger. Kemble reacted with what I thought was mock horror. I thought they were both goofing. (At that point, I knew nothing of the alleged confrontations in the lobby.)

After the debate, I happened to walk past Kemble near the door.

“Did you see what Hinchey did?” he said. I thought he was referring to what I saw in the main meeting room, but might have meant what happened in the foyer. In any case, it was late, I was tired and it was raining hard outside. Reporters are sometimes brusque with each other.

“Yeah, so what?” I said.

“He threatened me,” Kemble said, imitating Hinchey’s throat-grabbing gesture.

“Come on, Billy,” I said. “That’s just Hinchey; you know that macho, intimidating crap he does all the time.”

Kemble made no mention of the incidents in the lobby.

The aftermath

Next day, I saw a printed statement on YNN from the Hinchey camp suggesting that the congressman might have been provoked by an overly aggressive reporter. It reads thus:

“Mr. Hinchey and Mr. Kemble have had a longstanding antagonistic relationship. Last night, Mr. Kemble rudely badgered Mr. Hinchey during an ongoing taped interview in an attempt to evoke a reaction. Following the taped interview, Mr. Kemble continued badgering Mr. Hinchey and took an aggressive step toward him in an attempt to provoke a further argument. Nevertheless, the congressman regrets he didn’t walk away from Mr. Kemble sooner in order to end the heated argument.”

From what I saw on the YNN tape and from eyewitnesses, that statement had it almost exactly backward. Kemble, in even tones, was asking reasonable, if pointed, questions on what was a matter of some public interest. Hinchey’s response was to denigrate the reporter, several times telling him to “shut up.” I’ll leave it to readers’ judgment as to who was rude.

In any case, Hinchey’s response — which his statement does not deny — was entirely out of order, whether it was to push or choke.

The easily provoked congressman has a record in this regard. Two years ago, he was accused of slapping a critic at the Rosendale Street Festival but walked when a friendly (Democratic) town judge dismissed misdemeanor charges.

There’s very little doubt that Hinchey went over the line in Saugerties. He is fortunate no one was hurt in this angry outburst.

Politically, the question is whether this incident, now widely disseminated, will impact Hinchey’s reelection chances. A month ago, he seemed a shoo-in. After this and with Phillips apparently surging, who knows?

The money race and the enthusiasm gap

At least one observer, who asked not to be identified, saw some humor in the Hinchey-Kemble exchange. “If you can’t blame [George] Bush, you might as well blame Billy Kemble,” she laughed. For the record, she is a staunch Republican and a Phillips supporter.

Phillips said campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission on Friday will show him with about $210,000 on hand as of October 1, Hinchey with just over $300,000. In polling they call that the margin of error, but in terms of campaign financing, a lot can happen in the less than two weeks between now and November 2.

Phillips acknowledged a Carl Rove-backed Republican advocacy group has taken an interest in his campaign, running several anti-Hinchey TV ads in the district. “We neither solicited them nor have any control over what they do, nor do we intend to,” Phillips said.

Nonetheless, he’ll take all the help he can get. Expect that Hinchey will try to capitalize on the (evil) “Karl Rove connection.”

The candidates covered similar ground at their 2008 debate, with at least one distinctive difference. “Two years ago, Republicans were on the defensive,” Phillips said. This time Democrats are trying to bridge “the enthusiasm gap.”

One thing was obviously different. Two years ago, about 20 people showed up for the Saugerties League of Women Voters sponsored congressional debate. This time it was close to 150.

My unscientific “applause meter” gave a decisive edge to Phillips as the two candidates entered the hall. It should be noted the Republican opened a campaign headquarters in Saugerties a few days earlier. His Tea Party supporters do not lack for enthusiasm.

I don’t call winners and losers on these things, but I thought Hinchey was clearly off his game. At times he seemed confused, out of touch. Others have commented on similar behavior at other venues. Was the usually sharp-as-a-tack congressman just having a bad day? At 72 (next Wednesday), he’s barely middle-aged as members of congress go.

Hinchey actually drew laughter from the audience when he contended Medicaid and Social Security were solvent.

At one point, Hinchey, deaf in one ear, misunderstood a question on the federal estate tax. “Why are you asking me questions about state taxes?” he asked of LWV moderator Cindy Bell. Bell — she broaches no nonsense from candidates or audiences — politely repeated the question.

For this crowd, the highlight for Phillips had to be when Hinchey downplayed federal debt. “What deficit?” he replied to the question, explaining that federal budget deficits have been the rule for at least a century.

Phillips could have reminded Hinchey that president Bill Clinton had balanced the federal budget in 2000, but he lit up at least half the crowd with, “I am deeply disturbed that a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee can not begin to fathom that we have a deficit problem.” The retort drew a burst of applause, which Bell quickly gaveled down.

Like most journeymen reporters, Kemble can’t relish being part of the Hinchey story.

“I’ve got other elections to cover,” he said. “I’ll be thrilled when that sixteenth minute comes.”

Sixteenth minute? I had no idea what he meant.

“Sixteen minutes,” he said. “I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame.” ++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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