Hugh Reynolds: A political ambush in Marbletown


As the populations of Ulster County towns go, Marbletown, with 5,607 souls, is a bit on the low side of the gauge. But for a few days last week it was the epicenter of county politics. A sitting county legislator unseated a sitting town supervisor with an 11th-hour stealth campaign that left almost everyone, especially those on the losing side, very surprised.

Marbletown Democrats called their caucus for Aug. 31 with the expectation that incumbent Supervisor Mike Warren would receive the party nomination for a fourth term, along with a couple of councilpersons and the highway superintendent. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one in Marbletown, so that party’s endorsement is pretty close to tantamount to election. There are 1,176 non-party enrolled voters and 852 Republicans, according to the county board of elections.

The big turnout was the first clue that caucus chairman and party Co-Chair Phil Ryan might have gotten that something was afoot. “Biggest caucus we ever had,” he said afterwards.

Upwards of 140 attended, with 119 registered Democrats casting ballots for supervisor. Sixty of those folks voted for seven-term county Legislator Rich Parete. Various misspellings of the Parete surname were written — and accepted — on the paper ballots used for the tally.

Each vote turned out to be critical. In the initial count, the contestants tied at 59 each. Ballots were recounted twice. Yep, 59 each. No hanging chads.

But there was one vote uncounted. Somebody had voted for John Parete, but which one? There are in fact two John Paretes. The elder John, 76, is a former county legislature chairman and current legislator from Olive. The other John lives in Marbletown.

Ryan ruled that the intent of the person casting the last ballot had been to vote for “Parete” and awarded the vote to Richard. Final vote: 60-59. That was it.

Or was it?

A stunned Warren left the caucus and consulted a lawyer the next day after being turned down by the county Board of Elections. “We don’t rule on procedure. That’s for the courts to decide,” said Democratic commissioner Ashley Dittus.

Slam dunk should it go before a judge, Warren said his lawyer told him. Ryan’s ruling on the Parete ballot had been out of order. It should have been rejected.

Absent another vote, which Ryan didn’t call, the tie would have meant that nobody was nominated by Democrats. A blank ballot for supervisor would have faced Marbletonians on Nov. 7. Hello, write-ins.

Warren gave it one more shot, but came up woefully short at the Republican caucus a week later. Republicans, who had previously endorsed Parete for another term for county legislator, voted 60-11 for Parete as their candidate for town supervisor.

“I’m tired,” said Warren, who said he had no plans for a door-to-door write-in campaign this fall. We’ll see. This saga has taken some strange twists.

Lessons from a caucus: If you’re really serious about public office, bring your peeps.

 

Postscript

In days of yore, the gentlemanly thing to do was to vote for one’s opponent. Parete didn’t. “I was the winner by one vote. I voted myself a job,” he said.

There is a world of difference between the jobs of legislator and town supervisor, and not only in salary. Legislators are paid $14,000 a year and attend three or four meetings a month, depending on committee assignments. Marbletown supervisor pays $44,300 annually and is virtually full-time. “It’s pretty complicated, intense stuff,” Warren said of his almost six years in office, “especially for somebody who’s never attended a town board meeting.”

Guilty, pleads Parete, with an asterisk. “The first five or six years [while he was a county legislator] we met the same night,” he said. “I’ve talked to town supervisors and other officials about matters of mutual interest over the years. I mean, why should I sit around a town board meeting for two or three hours while they talk about things like zoning and appointments?”

Parete’s status as a future county legislature was pretty much a dead letter with his nomination for town supervisor. Why would he go through all that planning, plotting and gathering of allies only to turn down the plum he had just won? He’ll run on both major party lines and the Conservative one against Warren’s Working Families Party. I like Parete’s chances.

Transition? “I don’t think so,” said Warren, licking his wounds. “But we won’t be going to the shredders, either.”

Buzz around town was that Parete would be a part-time supervisor seems unfounded. Parete tells us he has been granted a two-year (unpaid) leave of absence by his employer to serve as supervisor. With condolences to Glen Campbell fans, Parete is a six-figure lineman for Verizon, and he roams the main roads.

 

Info overload

In one of those backgrounders Mike Hein sometimes gives reporters, the Ulster County exec advised he’d be announcing bits and pieces of his 2018 program with press releases this year. And how! Hein did three consecutive press conferences last week.

Some, like the thrice-announced cost-sharing plan with the towns, was rehash. Fresh grist was offered with a proposal to spend up to a million dollars to fight the war on opioid addiction. I think the H-Man might have gotten mixed reviews on that one, ranging from “It’s about time” to “Is a million enough?” I found the focus on education, while it is an important component, less an effective approach than a detailed plan for treatment of addicts would have been. Unfortunately, Hein decimated the county mental health department a few years ago.

Behind the scenes we are hearing the usual mixed signals. Hein spent the summer warning department heads to “cut, cut, cut,” according to reliable sources, while sitting on a potential sales tax windfall of three or four million dollars. Be absolutely certain of one thing: the property tax will either be frozen at current levels or drop half a point or so.

Indeed, that’s where the annual budget process starts and ends. The 2018 budget is due in three weeks.

 

Judgment day

Something mysterious is going on with the annual trade show known as the state Supreme Court judicial nominating convention in Albany. Usually held a week or so after Labor Day, this year’s party conventions have been delayed, in part due to Jewish holidays, until at least the 23rd of this month. Time allows for machination and room for mischief.

There are nominees, all right. Ulster is sending former congressional candidate Julian Schreibman to Albany, while the Republicans are advancing Town of Colonie Justice Peter Crummey as their candidate. Everyone’s looking for a cross-endorsement, meaning either Crummey or Schreibman could get a free ride. But are other candidates in the hunt? Dunno.

Given their overwhelming advantage in enrollment, district Democrats are usually loath to give away a seat they can easily win at election. But elections cost lots of money, time and effort.

Adding another layer of intrigue, Ulster believes it is “owed” the seat with the retirement of resident Justice Karen Peters. In politics, you’re generally owed only what you can get. Could a Capital District Democrat surface before the smoke clears from those smoke-filled rooms in Albany?

Back in the day, judicial nominations used to rotate through the seven-county Third Judicial District, thereby giving the smallest counties, like Sullivan, Greene, Delaware and Columbia, a seat every now and then. Justices serve 14 years or until “aged out” at 70, like Peters.

History can be instructive. One year it wasn’t Ulster’s turn, so then-county Republican chairman Al Spada went to convention with no candidate, to schmooze with fellow chairmen and delegates.

It was Sullivan’s turn, but Sullivan had nobody. Open seat. The chairman plumbed the convention. Silence and confusion until Spada leaped to his feet. “I nominate the honorable John L. Larkin of Ulster,” he declared.

In the absence of other nominations, Larkin was the man. There was only one problem: Spada hadn’t told Larkin, then busy building a nice law practice in Kingston with partner Frank Vogt. “We were just starting to make some money, and John goes to Supreme Court,” Vogt lamented at the time.

Spada’s coup had a happy outcome. Larkin became one of the more distinguished judgers in the region, while Vogt served several terms as Ulster district attorney and county judge, ending his career as a Supreme Court judge.

Strange things can happen at judicial conventions.

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