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Year of the Fred

by Hugh Reynolds
January 13, 2011 01:24 PM | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The camaraderie surrounding Fred Wadnola’s unanimous reelection last week to a second one-year term as chairman of the Ulster County Legislature followed a brief period of intense, heated closed-door debate over the direction of the Republican-controlled body.

Wadnola won reelection by a 30-0 margin, with two Republican legislators, Catherine Terrizzi of Wallkill and Frank Felicello of Marlboro, and Democrat Alan Lomita of Rosendale, absent from last week’s organizational meeting.

With the absent Republicans, Wadnola did not have the 17 votes necessary within his own 18-person majority for reelection when the legislature convened, leading to speculation that minority Democrats, with 15 votes, might have been able to influence the outcome.

Several scenarios floated around the chamber as Democrats and attendees waited for Republicans to conclude their caucus three floors below. One had Richard Gerentine returning as chairman, another Wadnola winning reelection with Democratic support, and yet another with minority leader Jeanette Provenzano emerging as the legislature’s first chairwoman with Republican support. Perhaps the most speculative scenario of all was the never-never candidacy of Terry Bernardo of Kerhonkson, an outspoken freshman with a talent for asking tough questions. No woman has ever been elected chairman, much less a freshman. Gray beards rule this legislature.

Seventeen-year veteran Provenzano had her shot two years ago when Democrats had a majority. Nonetheless, she made herself available again to be the first woman chair.

But it wasn’t to be. “That would be nice, but it would be a pretty long year for a Democratic chairman of a Republican majority,” Provenzano said in dismissing the notion before the meeting.

The Republicans were looking mysterious and sly as they filed into the chamber about ten minutes later. The public unanimity shown before a sparse audience belied the blood-letting and jockeying in both parties over leadership of the legislature. To be sure, the executive branch kept a close watch on developments.

Republican Jack Hayes of Gardiner said he got “at least 17 phone calls” over the weekend. Mike Sweeney of Saugerties declared via his blog that he was ready to leave the Republican Party over leadership issues. Laura Petit of Port Ewen declared that she was leaving to join the Conservatives. Since one is still the loneliest number, she’ll continue to caucus with the GOP.

Sweeney, after voting for the man he said had failed to provide leadership, did some dancing after the meeting. “I have no differences with Fred personally,” he explained.

And politicians wonder why people don’t understand politicians?

The koom-by-yah demonstrated at the public meeting was in stark contrast to what happened behind the scenes. One visitor to the sixth floor told me he could “hear those guys yelling through the walls” (of Wadnola’s office) last week. Presumably, he was talking about one of the several small groups of legislators who met personally with Wadnola to discuss their differences.

In the end, a tightly written script emerged.

Gerentine, who might have been chairman for the second time, was elected temporary presiding officer of the meeting in order to accept nominations for chairman, Wadnola sat at Terrizzi’s vacant desk awaiting a fate already ordained.

Jim Maloney, Wadnola’s Ulster running mate, nominated Wadnola, praising him for “bringing us together.” What he might have added was “eventually.”

Democrat Pete Loughran seconded the motion, citing Wadnola for being “fair and honest, willing to listen.”

There were no other nominations.

Majority leader Paul Hansut and Wadnola’s wife Cynthia escorted the chairman-elect to the podium. As Gerentine stepped down, Wadnola embraced him, kissing him on both cheeks. Were knowing looks exchanged among the legislators?

Wadnola thanked the legislature, saying his open-door policy would continue. “We can work well together, on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

The legislature got down to other business, quickly dispensing with 18 resolutions.

Hansut allowed after the meeting that “communications” had been an issue, poli-speak for unyielding cloistered authority finally getting the message.

Wadnola’s reelection papers over the deep fissures in both caucuses. In any group of 18 or 15 people — especially if they’re all politicians — there will be differences of opinion. In the legislature, there are at least three sub-caucuses in each party, not taking geography into account. There are constantly shifting alliances and intrigues.

That Wadnola, through a combination of cajolery, muscle and barter — “You want that goddamned committee? You got that goddamned committee!” “Your nephew wants a job! I’ll talk to the executive.” — gets to return as ringmaster of this hapless herd speaks at least to his political skills. He’ll need that, and more, if he is to lead this legislature in new directions.

The taxing business

One of the more noteworthy resolutions advanced was the extension of the permanent “temporary” (1991) one percent sales tax for another two years, beginning in March., Advanced with little fanfare, the extension would represent about $8 million in annual revenue at current collection rates. The measure passed 25-5, with Sweeney, Robert Parete, Kevin Roberts, Susan Zimet and Petit opposed.

State legislative approval is necessary which might not be as automatic as it used to be in an era of legislative commitment to no-tax-increase policies. Locals will make the case that without the sales-tax extension property taxes could go up ten percent. (A percentage point on the property tax is worth about $775,000 in revenue.)

The legislature also approved a $178,000 bond issue to pave sections of county-maintained Putt Corners Road in New Paltz. Petit and Sweeney, who said they oppose all bond issues, voted against.

The legislature designated official newspapers for the year, including Ulster Publishing, the Daily Freeman, the Times Herald Record and the Southern Post Standard.

Local connections

What’s that they say about six-points-of-removal in Kevin Bacon movies? Something of the same might be said for Ulster County.

Last weekend, Arizona congresswoman Gabriella Giffords was seriously wounded by a lone gunman during a constituent meeting at a mall in Tucson. Six people were killed, including a nine-year old girl, others wounded.

Ten years ago, Giffords, now 40, was the youngest state senator ever elected to the Arizona legislature. A Democrat, she was elected to Congress in 2006.

In 2002, Giffords was named a Flemming Fellow from the Center for Policy Alternatives, comprised of state legislators. She served on that body with local assemblyman Kevin Cahill of Kingston.

Arthur Flemming (1905-1996) was a Kingston native, son of a lawyer-banker. Flemming, a lawyer, served presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan. He is credited with being one of the originators of Social Security during the Roosevelt administration and of Medicare under Johnson. A Republican, he was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Eisenhower administration.

Cahill this week termed Flemming, whom he knew, “a great Kingstonian, who inspired generations of leaders, including Gabriella Giffords.”

The shooting of the congresswomen was a shocking event even in these unsettled times, but more so among her colleagues. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, who used to carry a gun in an ankle holster, said in published reports that he has no plans to alter his public behavior in the wake of the Giffords incident. He decried the rising level of rhetoric in political discourse — this from one of the outspoken attack dogs in Congress — which some say incites unsettled people to violence. No argument here, but who will be the first to step back?++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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