Congressman Maurice Hinchey, looking tired and disconcerted, stood almost by himself surrounded by staff and well-wishers in his suite at the Holiday Inn Tuesday night. It was a curious scenario. I detected a palpable lack of enthusiasm. Hinchey’s wife, high-powered Albany lobbyist Allison Lee, left the suite almost immediately after the media entered.
Hinchey’s sharply diminished margin of victory over second-time challenger George Phillips will probably wind up at five or six points. In Ulster County, he drew almost half the vote as he had in the presidential year two years ago.
Hinchey was vague about his future. “I’m just thinking about tomorrow,” he said. “We’re called back on the fifteenth to work on tax legislation.”
The now-ten-term congressman is clearly taking things one day at a time these days. In contiguous districts, Scott Murphy and John Hall went down to Republican challengers. The tide which lapped around Hinchey’s district wasn’t strong enough to pull the veteran congressman down.
Congress will be a different place when Hinchey returns in January. He is likely to remain on the coveted Appropriations Committee under a new Republican majority. For sure, the aging congressman retains clout, if not access. It was Hinchey’s wife who escorted Andrew Cuomo around an exclusive $1000-a-plate fundraiser at the Lazy Swan in Saugerties in September.
In one of the uglier campaigns, assemblyman Kevin Cahill rather easily turned aside the hyper-funded challenge of “cowboy” businessman Peter Rooney. Like last time out, Hinchey’s and Cahill’s totals ran neck and neck in Ulster County.
Cahill’s perverse sense of humor was on display Tuesday night. He wore a pair of cowboy boots. Rooney, shrugging off the $350,000 (or more) he blew on this election, says he’ll keep on truckin’.
Voter turnout seemed light. Official numbers will be out in about a week. Hinchey and Phillips, for instance, polled over 70,000 votes between them in the county in ’08, a presidential election year, but only about 53,000 in Ulster Tuesday.
The new voting machines seemed to work pretty well, despite complaints about privacy and smallish type on ballots.
In Albany, we’ll have a new governor with a status-quo state legislature. Despite brave pronouncements, I don’t see much change there. In Washington, the diminished Democrats will face a new Republican majority which thinks it has a mandate to cut spending and generate jobs.
The party’s over
By Halloween night most people were happy the ghouls and goblins haunting us for months would be, in just a few days, returning to their lairs. I’m talking about politicians, of course.
As a former “political editor” for a once-dominant local newspaper, don’t count me among them. I love this season, especially the last two weeks when fear and anxiety prevail, even among so-called sure winners.
I mean, where else but in this wonderful country of ours, could a backwater scribe get a phone call at home — at home! — from a former president of the United States and a former governor of New York?
Well I did. There was president Bill Clinton asking me to vote for Cuomo, his former HUD director, for governor, while former governor George Pataki sought my vote for George Phillips, Republican congressional candidate in what is colloquially known as Maurice Hinchey’s district.
I thought Pataki had crawled off and died someplace, so it was almost pleasant to hear his boring monotone again. Clinton has been like horse apples this season, all over the place. I’m wondering if they staged Chelsea’s summer wedding in Rhinebeck as a promo to campaign ’10.
I didn’t appreciate at first that these were one-way calls, like some of the annoying e-mails we get. I tried to break into their patter, to no avail. Apparently, neither was interested in my views on candidates.
Some people take umbrage at these so-called robo-calls, at what they consider an invasion of privacy. Not me. I thought I’d impress the boys down at the Legion with my connection to the ex-president and governor. Nine out of ten got the same message.
Even hardshell reporters found some of this year’s really negative mailings over the top, mean glaring faces seemed staple, wild accusations a theme. And that was just the reporters.
Over the edge
One flyer for Assembly candidate Rooney showed a pensive Cahill with the question, “Why would Kevin Cahill let criminals work in daycare centers?” concluding, “This time, Kevin Cahill has gone too far.”
After 20-odd years, I think I know something about Cahill. A father of two grown daughters, I doubt he would let “criminals” work in daycare centers, or any other questionable types. This “charge” was undoubtedly taken off one of those one-house procedural votes where Cahill came down on the rights of privacy, though almost certainly not in the context of jeopardizing children.
Hinchey, another seemingly invincible local icon, was attacked unmercifully by Phillips on the airwaves and in mailings. Twin themes were longevity (“36-year career politician”) and Beltway disconnect. One Phillips flyer proclaimed, “When asked about our deficit, Maurice Hinchey said, What deficit? Had enough?”
Again, this was out of context. Hinchey, at a debate in Saugerties last month, did not clearly hear the question, thus, “What deficit?” You had to be there. Phillips was and should have flagged that what-deficit ad.
Tying Hinchey to the much-reviled Nancy Pelosi probably got out a few angry voters. Depicting Hinchey as a puppet on her index finger — I think it was her index finger — was gratuitous, even if Hinchey has voted the party line more than 95 percent of the time.
I’m not sure Hinchey’s “fighting for jobs at home” (other than his own) resonated with an electorate with a near double-digit unemployment rate and few prospects.
Phillips isn’t saying he won’t fight for federal funds to create jobs in New York, as one of Hinchey’s fliers asserted. Phillips wants to make the process more transparent and democratic — as then-congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand attempted — to give everyone a shot at federal funding, not just those who pass (secret) congressional screening.
Picturing Phillips as a radical on abortion issues is probably accurate, but left unsaid are Hinchey’s often-stated views on abortion as an absolute, unchallengeable right. The vast majority of voters fall somewhere between these extremes.
I don’t think former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s sharp attacks against Hinchey’s positions on Israel and Mideast politics had much effect on anybody who was paying the least attention during his 18-year tenure. Former Times Herald reporter Pete Kutschera’s letter to the Freeman put that issue in perspective. Besides, Koch is still something of a pariah in these parts after those caustic remarks back in ’82 about upstate pickup trucks, gun racks and gingham dresses.
Strategically speaking, I liked the way Phillips tied his had-enough theme across a broad range of messages. This was a campaign with purpose and direction.
Linking senior senator Bill Larkin to “corruption” with photos of disgraced senators Espada and Bruno was even by tabloid flyer standards scurrilous. Larkin may not be a saint, but he almost certainly is not a crook.
I can see how voters would be resentful of what they consider unwarranted intrusions into their privacy, like phone calls and mailings. Some may be appalled at the content. “Watch out for their lies,” one flyer warned, “they” of course being the other guys.
The fact is that during a typical 24-month term legislators, legislating in far-off places like Washington and Albany, are seldom held to account. Sure, the occasional letter to the editor with a real ax to grind will surface, and bloggers have their fun, but for the most part unchallenged press releases from incumbents are repeated almost verbatim by media. Photo-ops and ribbon-cuttings pass for political discourse in off-season.
All too infrequently a reasonably well-financed challenger with a fighting chance surfaces and wham! — it hits the fan for the last month. Under those circumstances, haughty incumbents return phone calls promptly, embrace complete strangers, stop and listen. Much of it goes poof! the day after election, which is why I love this season.
I was going to save this for my memoirs, but why wait?
Prominent photographer Felice McFlash and I are big — as in huge — fans of church suppers and firehouse breakfasts. Buffets are a special treat, because then you can go back again and again. We always try to sit near the buffet table so as not to over-exercise.
One of the best firehouse breakfasts is the semi-annual food fests in High Falls. Spring Lake is great, too, and they serve ten months a year. Everybody pitches in; firefighters and auxiliary cook and serve, 4-H kids wait on tables. People are warm and friendly, grateful for the support.
Naturally, these events draw politicians. Where else can you glad-hand hundreds of people for maybe an $8 admission fee and all you can eat?
After parking near Mohonk (it seemed) around 10:30 on Sunday, we hiked to a packed High Falls firehouse. Comptroller candidate Elliott Auerbach was sitting at one table, telling everybody this was “the best” breakfast he’d ever been to. Assembly candidate Rooney was working the buffet line, telling people he was no politician.
Somebody commented (to me) that Rooney’s “save the assembly, ride a cowboy” theme seemed an outtake from some southwest Texas campaign.
We loaded up and sat down. Rooney was standing a few feet away with his full plate, looking for a spot. There was a chair next to me, which I hoped Rooney didn’t notice. Nothing against Rooney, a pleasant enough eccentric, but we reporters are supposed to be neutral. Sharing breakfast with a candidate three days before election would not do.
Rooney looked at the empty seat longingly, then at me, his signature ponytail drooping sadly. What could I say, go sit someplace else? I waved him over
“I hope you appreciate,” I said to the newcomer, “that my having breakfast with the Republican candidate is going to get around the circuit by this afternoon.” We laughed, I nervously.
And then, to my consternation, Cahill himself walked into the lobby to buy a ticket, standing no more than 50 feet away. Yikes.
I raced to meet him before he saw me and Rooney politically indelicato flagrante.
“Cahill,” I cried, grasping him by his right hand (but not his neck). “I’m sitting with Rooney. It’s not my fault. There was no room. He asked me. I mean...”
“No big deal, Reynolds,” Cahill said. (We call each other by our last names either out of affection or contempt, I never know which.)
The polite thing, of course, would have been to invite the assemblyman to join us. But after the raucous show they put on at our editorial board five days previous I feared a vicious food fight. And there were a lot of children around.
The episode raises a question I frequently get from readers: Do politicians fighting for the same job really hate each other? The answer is, don’t invite them both to breakfast. ++
Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.