Barrett, county’s sole Assembly voice, addresses ‘town hall’

CHATHAM–Indivisible Chatham NY hosted Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) for a town hall meeting Sunday at the Chatham Firehouse. Ms. Barrett, whose district includes the part of the Village of Chatham that lies in the Town of Ghent, is the only lawmaker currently serving who represents Columbia County in the state Assembly.

The Assembly seats in 102nd and 107th districts were left vacant after Pete Lopez and Steven McLaughlin, both Republicans, took other government positions. There is no word yet from the governor’s office if there will be special elections to fill those seats temporarily. All Assembly seats will be up for election in November 2018.

Assemblymember Barrett has no plans to leave her position any time soon. When asked directly if she thought about running for the 19th Congressional District during the question and answer part of the January 28 town hall-style meeting, she said, “I love my job, I love my district.”

Ms. Barrett said she seriously considered a run for Congress two years ago, when then Congressman Chris Gibson said he would not seek reelection. She pointed out the size of the congressional district and said she wouldn’t be able to do the same constituent outreach that she does now, like her Diner Tours, where she talks with local residents at various diners around her Assembly district.

“I’m still the first Democrat elected in this area,” she said, adding that she’s also the first woman to represent the district in the Assembly. The 106th District includes most of the towns in Columbia County from Ghent south, as well as the City of Hudson; it also includes much of northern Dutchess County.

She talked about her district being one-third Democratic, one-third Republican “and a third will tell you proudly, ‘I don’t vote for the party, I vote for the person.’”

“This is a purple district,” she said to an audience of about 65 people.

Indivisible Chatham is part of the Indivisible movement started after the 2016 election. “The goal of Indivisible is to oppose the agenda of the Trump White House and pressure our members of Congress to uphold the democratic ideals upon which our nation was founded,” read a handout at the meeting.

Committee members from the local Indivisible group talked about their focus on getting people registered to vote. John Lillis, a member of the group’s Voting Committee, said that in the 19th Congressional District 100,000 residents who are eligible to vote are not registered. He pointed out that Columbia County is a small part of the district. The 19th District includes all of Columbia County and all or part of 10 other counties.

“2018 is a watershed year,” he said of the congressional election. The Voting Committee is also tasked with “identifying candidates for local and district offices, and working toward fair election practices such as the elimination of gerrymandering,” according to the Indivisible Chatham NY website, indivisiblechathamny.org.

Ms. Barrett talked about electing representatives to the state houses. She talked about “flipping” the majority control in the US House of Representatives and the New York State Senate from Republican to Democratic.

Questions she received from the audience also addressed of local issues, including broadband internet access, farming, property taxes, local libraries, the need to keep young people and young families in the area, and volunteer firefighters.

Ms. Barrett is leading a new awareness campaign on Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses called #GetTickedOff. “There is so much information out there,” she said of Lyme disease, but there is little state and federal funding for research. She said that when local planning and zoning boards approve developments they are getting rid of natural habitats where the animals that carry tick live. “You are the front lines here,” she said of local members of the those boards.

She also talked about abortion law in the state, pointing out the original law making abortion legal was passed two years before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. She said the state laws are in the criminal code and not in the health code, where they should be.

She is now chair of the Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology and said of libraries “expanding funding is high on my priority list this year.” Two audience members brought up the issue of cuts in the state budget for libraries.

When asked about property taxes, Ms. Barrett said the 2% property tax cap has been popular law in the state and that any program she was proposing wouldn’t necessarily increase taxes. “I don’t think all of these programs have to cost more.” she said.

She talked about local farmers working with local schools to supply food. “If you’re asking local farmers to feed local kids, that shouldn’t cost more,” she said.

She also talked about carbon tax bill credits for farming.

As for bringing young people into the area, she talked about job training programs. She said she is working on a program in Dutchess County to train people to restore older houses. “We’d love to do that with Questar or the college here,” she said.

The Assembly district’s aging demographic is hitting local volunteer fire companies hard. One audience member said that county can’t afford to have paid firefighters without some help from the state.

“It’s a huge issue,” the Assemblymember said, “And one very much on my mind.”

The other issue she said she was follow up on in the county was access to broadband internet. She said her staff has reached out to the governor’s broadband committee. “You have my word, we are on this,” she said.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email

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