HUDSON–The 7th annual Martin Van Buren Testimonial Dinner of the Columbia County Democratic Committee last Sunday had all the trappings of a partisan event: praise and thanks for the efforts of local Democratic Party stalwarts, calls for renewed effort to get out the Democratic vote in the fall election and criticism of the GOP in Washington. And then it had something different, very different in these polarized times: enthusiastic applause for two Republicans, both of whom were in the audience.
Though the event, held this year in the theater at Club Helsinki on Columbia Street, honored five Democrats–Assembly member Didi Barrett (D-106th), Supervisor Art Bassin (D-Ancram), Mary and Dan Udell, and the late Peg Butcher—it was most certainly a Democratic function, with party members and office holders lined up behind Sean Eldridge, the featured speaker and the party’s candidate for the Congress in the 19th District. The district, which covers all of Columbia County and meanders through all or part of 10 other counties, is now represented by Republican Chris Gibson, who is seeking a third term.
Mr. Eldridge was not sparing in his criticism of the incumbent’s voting record.
The Democratic candidate, who recently moved to Ulster County, the most populous part of the district, also used his remarks to introduce himself as a person who grew up in a family of modest means in northwest Ohio and then became an entrepreneur whose company has helped fund local ventures, including Chatham Brewing and the planned Copake Agriculture Center. He said he and his husband, one of the co-founders of Facebook, have been “incredibly fortunate” and that he had most recently been involved with 3D printing systems, developing a program in that technology with SUNY Ulster. He said it was “revolutionizing manufacturing.”
Mr. Eldridge said he is “tired and frustrated” by the lack of progress in Congress, saying the country needs to “invest in our infrastructure.” He said he opposes fracking, the controversial gas and oil drilling technique, supports reproductive rights and the Paycheck Fairness Act for women, and backs increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as the president has proposed. And on the topic of campaign financing, he said, “I’m not accepting a penny … from business PACs,” a reference to political action committees, which do not have to identify their donors and are no longer limited in the amount of money they can give to candidates.
Concluding his remarks Mr. Eldridge cited a recent poll he said shows the whole district “leans Democratic by a whopping 1%,” a margin he acknowledged is slim, but one he said he’d take. The closeness of voter sentiment six months before the election reflects the registration numbers in Columbia County and in the whole district.
The trend of recent years has continued in this county, with more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans, though adding Conservative and Independence Party voters to the GOP column–not something that Republicans can always count on– gives the GOP the advantage even with the Working Families and Green parties added to the Democratic column, also an questionable calculation.
And then there are the “Blank” voters, people registered to cast a ballot who choose no party affiliation. That is the third largest bloc and it is those voters whom candidates must win over in order to prevail in most elections. The same holds true in the 19th Congressional District.
With such clear policy differences between well-funded candidates and what could be a close race for the top of the ticket in this mid-term election, why were three Republican town supervisors–Pat Grattan of Kinderhook, Michael Benvenuto of Ghent and John Porreca of Greenport–invited to the signature event of the opposing party? In a word, the airport.
Mr. Bassin received recognition and praise for his role as chairman of the Board of Supervisors’ Airport subcommittee, which undertook an lengthy and detailed study of how best address concerns of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about aircraft safety at the northern end of the single runway. Through public meetings and a steady stream of email addressing criticisms and questions, all but one of the bipartisan panel of supervisors agreed on a less costly and disruptive plan than the one originally envisioned and their proposal was adopted by the full board
Mr. Bassin said that Mr. Porreca had originally been selected to chair the subcommittee but was unable to do so. Mr. Porreca recommended that Mr. Bassin take the job. “It’s been more fun than you can imagine,” Mr. Bassin said wryly at the dinner. He credited Mr. Porreca with conceiving of the approved plan and predicted that the FAA would approve it.
In a brief interview by phone this week Mr. Porecca said that when he received the invitation from Cyndi Hall, chair of the Democratic Committee, “I didn’t hesitate. I wanted to be there for Supervisor Bassin.” He did add that he checked with his town GOP chairman, who had no objections.
The airport proposal the subcommittee adopted was called “The Porreca Plan,” and its author said he expects it will save the county $2 million or more based on the subcommittee’s findings.
Ms. Hall said the work of the airport subcommittee represented a “different process for making decisions in the county.” And she asked Mr. Porreca and Mr. Benvenuto, who was also a subcommittee member, to stand Sunday, while throughout the room Democrats clapped heartily.
Mr. Grattan, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, had sent his regrets, Ms. Hall said, adding that he had told her he would be otherwise engaged, celebrating his wife’s birthday.
Ms. Barrett was praised as a “heroine” for her efforts in the aftermath of the fire at TCI facility in West Ghent and her efforts to challenge power company plans to run more high voltage lines through central and southern Columbia County.
The Udells were recognized for their public service, in particular their work with children and education. And Margaret “Peggy” Butcher, who died last year, was honored for her work with the Ichabod Crane Central School District, and her service as Kinderhook town clerk and the county Board of Elections, as well as the Democratic Party, girl scouts and other community programs.