The importance of being Erner

As one of the more shocking upsets in local political history’s moves toward a June 29 final decision, plenty of people are still wondering how a virtual unknown knocked off a sitting county legislature chairman.

Chairman Dave Donaldson, D-Kingston, defeated at the polls for the first time in a more than a 30-year career, has to be one of them. In typical primary turnout (about 15 percent of enrolled Democrats voted in last week’s Democratic runoff), newcomer Philip Erner topped Donaldson by an unofficial (machine) vote of 236-192, just 44 votes.

To eke out the narrowest of wins, Donaldson would have to take 75% of the approximately 60 absentee ballots the Board of Elections will open and count on Tuesday. For Donaldson, that’s a near impossible order. Absentees typically reflect machine turnout and there the incumbent reached only 44 % of ballots cast. For context, there are 2,432 enrolled Democrats in Donaldson’s Dist. 6. Fewer than 8% voted for him.

First things first.

Who is Phil Erner and how did he pull off this upset? Of the former, I know little. Efforts to reach Erner during the campaign proved futile. Other than on social network, which is what counts these days, he has said little. Erner lives in midtown on Clinton Avenue, within easy walking distance of the residence on Henry Street which Donaldson and his family have occupied for decades. It’s hard to tell how long Erner has been in town; official records indicate something less than two years.

For Donaldson, this can only add to the bile. It’s one thing to be challenged by a neighborhood alderman looking to move up to county government, quite another to lose to someone few district residents would have recognized months ago.

And yet, the message Erner carried door to door, while Donaldson relied on expensive mailings, an active phone bank and free publicity in the Freeman, apparently resonated with just enough people. A far-left progressive, Erner waged class warfare in a hardscrabble midtown district, specifically the controversial Kingstonian hotel project in the Stockade.  Donaldson has been a staunch supporter of the $56 million Kingstonian and its massive tax subsidies.

It’s ironic that Donaldson, a “downtown boy” who moved to midtown when he became a county legislator, was in his day the rebel fighting the system and all “those fat cats.” This time it was Erner for the masses.

Some of this loss is on Donaldson, though I doubt if he’ll ever admit it. Donaldson had always practiced “retail politics,” meaning campaigning where people lived, knocking on doors. Maybe he just got tired, or, with typical hubris, figured he was well- known enough where he could literally mail it in. Donaldson has never been shy about talking down his opponents. Imagine if he’d just hit 23 more households (enough to turn around the Erner vote) with a personal call, “explaining” to the uninformed that his opponent didn’t even live in the city two years ago.

This is no small thing. Residents like to believe their candidates have lived among them for some time, that they know the landscape, the issues, the people.  It matters, though sometimes to a fault.  When I started writing about local politics ages ago, about the only thing a candidate had to feature on his palm cards or lawn signs was the phrase “native Kingstonian.”

Donaldson’s downfall will have little effect on the legislature he leads; his term as chairman doesn’t run out until Dec. 31. Erner assumes office the day after. But other legislators might take a somewhat jaundiced view of a chairman (elected by them, not the people) who couldn’t hold his nomination in a 3-1 Democratic district. For sure, the notion that some stranger come in and snatch their seat will give pause. In low-turnout party primaries, anything can happen. But not now. Primary season is over.

In the meantime, there’s a general election less than five months away. Republicans have nominated Suzanne Timbrouck, a member of a respected old Kingston family. Timbrouck also carries the Conservative banner, worth a few hundred votes in the general. Donaldson will remain on the ballot as the candidate for the self-created Good Government Party.

Not to hedge my bets here, but there is still a chance that enough absentees will swing Donaldson’s way, but it’s a long shot. In the remorse that comes with sudden and entirely unexpected defeat, Donaldson, more than anyone, has to know that if he had taken care of business, it would have never come to that.

Bloggers note: I usually don’t devote an entire column to once subject, but in the absence of any other public commentary, this one just had to be explored. My apologies to readers in Saugerties, Marbletown and several wards in Kingston. But really, there’s only one Dave Donaldson.