CLAVERACK—At home with friends and allies, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was the featured speaker Saturday, June 6, at the second annual Martin Van Buren Dinner, a gathering of Democrats from around the Columbia County. In her remarks, Ms. Gillibrand, a resident of Greenport, laid out her legislative priorities, with “true healthcare reform” near the top of the list.
The Democrats who gathered at the Columbia Golf and Country Club also honored three of their own: Kay Abraham, Dianne Klinger and George Rodenhausen for their service to the party.
After acknowledging the honorees and some early supporters of her first bid for electoral office—her successful race for Congress in 2006—New York’s junior senator quickly segued to policy matters, starting with the economy but moving briskly on to other matters, including national health insurance. “Standing up for public healthcare is the most important thing we can do,” she said, adding that her goal was a system that achieved “Medicare for all.”
But while at least one previous speaker had encouraged support for the single-payer approach to healthcare, with an entity like Medicare handling all health matters, Ms. Gillibrand did not mention that idea. She focused instead on what has emerged as the most divisive part of the current national healthcare debate in Washington—whether a government-supported health insurance program should be allowed to compete with private sector companies offering coverage under new terms set by the federal government. On that question she said, “if we do not have a not-for-profit [insurer] then we, as Democrats, have failed.”
Her remark drew applause from her audience, but the issue of how much of a role the government should have in healthcare still divides Democrats as well as separating them from many in the Republican Party, who oppose any government role in a new healthcare system. That became clear earlier in the evening when Kay Abraham, accepting her Distinguished Service Award, said she supports a single-payer system and worries about the reluctance of “Blue Dog Democrats” in the House of Representatives to support a government option for health insurance. Blue Dogs refers to Democratic members of Congress who describe themselves as fiscally conservative, and Ms. Abraham’s reference was pointed because Ms. Gillibrand was considered part of a Blue Dog Democrats when she served in the House of Representatives.
On other issues, Ms. Gillibrand praised President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, saying that the judge has had “an extraordinary amount of experience” and predicting that she would be a “transformational justice.”
She said the federal government has acted to revive the struggling economy in several ways, including funding for energy independence, $40 billion in assistance for small businesses and major support for infrastructure improvements. It was the last of those items she singled out, saying that infrastructure does not apply only to roads and bridges, but also to water and sewer projects. She said water and sewage treatment plants were a big problem all over the state, and putting federal money into improving those facilities is the “the quickest way to reduce property taxes.”
On education, she said that the signature domestic legislation of the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act, had turned out to be an “unfunded mandate” for local school districts. “Either we fix it or we get rid of it,” she said.
The other business of the evening was honoring three Democrats for their service to the party. Bob Sacks, committee second vice chairman, introduced Ms. Abraham, recipient of the party’s Distinguished Service Award. She was one of the founders of the Germantown Democratic Organization and was a member of the county committee. Mr. Sacks described her as a “Democratic force to be reckoned with.”
Former Democratic Committee Chairwoman Denise King drew groans when she announced that she is moving away from Columbia County. She has helped formulate party policy at the local, state and national levels, but her duty Saturday was to introduce Dianne Klinger, also a recipient of a Distinguished Service Award. Ms. King said that she and Ms. Klinger had worked together on many political projects and had been “the mistresses of our own destinies.”
Ms. Klinger said the father of her children, Capt. John Rodney Bass, was killed on June 6 years earlier, and she said her son is now serving as a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad. She said recent email from her son about the conditions in Iraq today had reminded her that people in this country should “never take our electoral process—never take our government—for granted.”
Fellow Claverack resident and First Vice Chairwoman of the county committee Cyndy Hall introduced George Rodenhausen. He is the former town chairman and has headed the county committee’s Election Law Task Force, which responds to vote challenges during ballot counts after elections, among other issues. The number of registered Democrats exceeded the number of Republicans for the first time last year, but Mr. Rodenhausen alluded to the razor thin difference in the registration figures when he acknowledged that “some days of the week we are the majority party.”
GOP challenges to likely Democratic absentee votes was a major issue in the March special election to fill the seat in the 20th Congressional District vacated by Ms. Gillibrand when she was appointed senator. That race pitted Democrat Scott Murphy, the eventual winner, against then Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, a Republican. For weeks after the polls closed GOP lawyers objected to large numbers of paper ballots, including the one cast by the most prominent person in the room at Saturday’s event. As she spoke that evening, Ms. Gillibrand sported a large blue button saying: “My ballot was challenged by Jim Tedisco.”