And they’re off!

Thought the elections were over? Think again. There’s potentially an important election for chairperson in the county legislature looming in late December. And the buzz gets louder every day.

Being a spectator to this highly secretive process (like 99.9% of registered voters), I can only speculate on a handful of bandied-about names among the 16-member Democratic majority. The seven remaining Republicans can watch from the sidelines; they’ve gotten accustomed to that in recent years. Despite their humiliating losses on Nov. 2, they’ll probably reelect the personable Ken Ronk from Wallkill as their leader. Ken got them this far. What else can go wrong?

In handicapping the potential hopefuls – some may formally announce after Thanksgiving – please understand, dear reader, that I am not taking sides. In truth, there are some I find with more potential than others.

This could be the equivalent of the of Sports Illustrated magazine cover hex, but I’ll start with Tracey Bartels of Gardiner. Based on experience, intelligence and a sunny disposition in these dark times, Bartles, barely five feet tall in her elevator boots, stands head and shoulders above most legislators. Bartles overcame one high hurdle when elected chairwoman four years ago: she has for her whole career been a non-enrolled legislator who caucuses with Democrats. The very definition of independence, Bartels could again be the new face of the legislature. All she needs is 12 votes from the 23-member legislature; she has four to spare.

Republicans love their “southern strategy” because that’s where most of their minority hails from, but electing Eve Walter of New Paltz would send one loud shot across their bows. Though only completing her first term, Walter has shown a remarkable feel for the sources of power and how the wheels turn. She’s smart, determined and more than a bit driven. Her sheparding mental health reform through the legislature on onto the executive must-do list is but one example.

Traditionally, but not always, the majority party’s leader gets first dibs on the chairmanship when it falls vacant. But newcomer Democrats might not be that committed to the past.

Nonetheless, majority leader Jonathan Heppner from Woodstock is seasoned, highly capable, good looking, too, and more than ready for the next rung.  If Heppner doesn’t get to 12 (am I getting too Gospel here?), absent a Judas or two, those who come to the dance with their dear leader will have significant influence on who does win.

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HONEST, ABE – I’ll throw in Kingston’s Abe Uchitelle, Heppner’s majority whip (second in caucus command) with a spotlight mostly because he intrigues me. After a disastrous start in local politics (a few words on that later), Uchitelle, with at best a slim resume, has twice been handed legislative elections. (He ran unopposed in 2019, rode out the pandemic under the radar and got another free ride this year.)

The only time the very fit redhead faced live fire was when he prematurely and foolishly challenged assemblyman Kevin Cahill for reelection in 2017. Crawling from that party convention, Abe’s still looking for the license plates on that truck.

Nonetheless, he is a young man on the rise and will certainly attract the attention of newcomers and far-left Dems.

Reporters are supposed to give subjects the benefit of an open mind. It’s not always easy. An annoying (for me) exchange with Uchitelle just before Tuesday’s legislature meeting won’t affect my opinion.

“I’m polling some legislators,” I told Uchitelle. “Are you interested in chairman?”

Uchitelle smiled slightly with a look that seemed to me a response to a dumb question. “I don’t comment on questions involving leadership,” he said.  

“Well, then you might have a tough time as a leader, if you make it,” I said.

“Why do you say that?” he responded, the smile fading.

“Because,” I said, “leaders have to respond to the media.”

“I responded to your question,” he said.

“’No comment is not a response,’” I said. And then it was showtime.

I can’t say if Uchitelle is not ready for prime time. I do think he can use some fine tuning.

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ERNER MAKES HIS MARK – I assume he’ll resent this description, but legislator-elect Phil Erner from Kingston was literally the elephant in the room at this week’s legislature meeting. Erner addressed the full legislature only two weeks after winning election, with the man he defeated, chairman Dave Donaldson, presiding not 10 feet behind him. Oh, the irony, and I thought I’d seen everything.

Erner’s remarks won’t make the Congressional Record – some Democratic Socialists of America warmed-over rhetoric on rent control, something the county does not yet control. But could.

But I do respect brass. Candidate Erner struck me as a man in quest of a pulpit. Now he has one, and is not the least bit shy about using it.

Freeman editor Tom Wakeman once appeared at a Halloween party dressed as a nun with half his luxuriant mustache shaved off. His costume: “I’m not the man I used to be.” He walked around the newsroom for a month before anybody said, “Hey, Tom. Did you shave….?” Sans habit.

Ever a fool for the fallen, I felt that way about Donaldson in the chair on Tuesday. He seemed diminished, shed, smaller than two weeks ago even though he’ll have all the power and privileges of legislature chairman until Dec. 31.

I sensed an unease about their wounded leader among rank and file. We usually address those uncomfortable situations with humor, as in 10,000 jokes about sex. There was at least one wise guy in the crowd. To wit: Recently the legislature erected thick plexiglass on the podium in front of the  legislature chairman, perhaps to protect him from those out front.

As Donaldson entered from the side to take his place as chair, some (male) voice from the rear of chambers yelled out “Duck, Dave!” He proceeded with barely a glance but some nervous chuckles were recorded.

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