League of Women Voters’ moderators lost control of the Monday, Oct. 22, debate between the incumbent Otsego County Sheriff Richard J. Devlin, Jr., and his challenger, retired state trooper Bob Fernandez.
Not the candidates – the League, to the point where moderator Barbara Heim of Oneonta threatened at least twice to shut it down and send home the 150+ attendees who packed The Fenimore Museum Auditorium, filled folding chairs in the aisles and crowded into the hallway, trying to hear the goings-on inside.
The dramatic highpoint came when Heim challenged the crowd: If you think you can do a better job, come up here. At that point, Tom Leiber of Oaksville, a pal of Fernandez going back to their high school days on Long Island, jumped up and volunteered.
That prompted the League’s debate organizer, Maureen Murray of Cooperstown, to jump up and, again, threaten that, if people misbehaved, she would kick everyone out.
Yes, the attendees – Devlin and Fernandez’
adherents alike – were pumped. Clearly, the League – this was the first co-organized by the Oneonta and Cooperstown chapters – didn’t know what to do.
And, of course, that was contrary to its
central mission: To help Democracy work. Why mistreat citizens interested and engaged enough to drive out, many from 22 miles hence, on a chilly, rainy night to participate in representative democracy?
Active citizens is what we all want – the League,
too – not what anyone wants to discourage.
Happily, in this season of debates leading up to the Nov. 6 mid-terms, the voting public was treated to an excellent contrasting example: The 19th District Congressional debate on WMHT, Troy, on Friday, Oct. 19, between incumbent U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, and the Democratic challenger, Antonio Delgado of Rhinebeck. It was co-sponsored by Albany Times Union.
As you might expect, the experienced moderator, Matt Ryan, host of the station’s Emmy-winning “New York Now” program, was comfortable appearing before a crowd. He had three seasoned journalists – the Times Union reporter David Lombardo and Senior Editor for News Casey Seiler, and Karen Dewitt from WAMC and a 10-station network of NPR stations.
At the outset, Ryan welcomed the audience to applaud “one time” when the candidates were introduced, then to refrain for a logical reason: “So we can ask more questions” within the one-hour limit.
Each candidate was given 90 seconds to answer to a question;
the rival 45 seconds to react – and that was it. Ryan halted any candidate who then tried to jump in. However, given the brisk pace, a candidate who may have felt shortchanged had a chance to expand his comment in responses to later questions.
Blood was drawn. Delgado tried to pin “racist” ads on Faso. Faso noted Delgado moved to the 19th from New Jersey two years ago, then immediately registered to run for Congress.
By the end audience members were given ample insights to help guide their votes, which is the point
In an interview with WMHT’s Ryan, it became clear that, even with a pro, soft skills are essential.
A time clock flags the candidates at 30 seconds, 15 seconds and zero, when bell rights softly, so no candidate is surprised. Ryan says he won’t just cut candidates off in mid-sentence. He gauges whether a candidate is just wrapping up and, if so, will give him a few seconds. If it looks like the candidate is warming up the topic, Ryan will politely – important word – move on.
The set-up of the room is important, too. Remarking on the argumentative Cuomo-Molinaro gubernatorial debate a few days later, he noted the candidates were too close to the moderator, allowing them to dominate. At the WMHT debate, Ryan was at a lectern, with candidates seated on one side, reporters on the other, establishing an air of formality.
Likewise, with proceedings being aired on live TV, candidates and audience alike tend to be better behaved, Ryan said. Locally, the debates have been videotaped for rebroadcast in the past, but that didn’t happen this time.
Bottom line, mistakes were made by people of good will. But a repeat should be avoided. The League organizers would be wise to convene a conversation of stakeholders – League organizers, the county Republican and
Democratic chairs, a winning and a losing candidate, representatives
of the press, and frequent attendees from the public – after Nov. 6 to talk through the whole approach. Maureen Murray was intrigued by such an idea.
Some additional issues:
• Two Otsego debates were cancelled because one of the candidates, Assemblyman Magee in the 121st District then Delgado, demurred. Thus, one candidate’s refusal to debate can prevent another from communicating his/her message to voters. That’s not right.
• A media representative from this newspaper was removed from the panel because a candidate objected. The reason given: the newspaper had endorsed the other candidate in the primary. The League shouldn’t punish a free press for making endorsements; the candidates shouldn’t control the League’s debate.
• Should the League have the exclusive franchise on local political debates? Maybe it could take the lead in forming an independent entity – it would include League representation, of course – to make sure all the local expertise available is brought to bear.
In commenting on AllOTSEGO’s
Facebook page, former Hartwick Town Supervisor Pat Ryan ended her critique with: “This opinion in no way is meant to disparage all of the good work the League does in supporting our right to vote and be informed on the issues!”
But, she added, “Let’s talk about the ground rules for the
Lincoln/Douglas debate, which was a true debate!” A true debate, indeed: frank, content-rich,
pointed and sufficiently polite, leading the best candidate to
victory at the polls. Indeed,
that’s the goal.
Gerrymandering Takes Away
Our Right To Representation
The most remarkable thing I’ve seen in this year’s midterm
election campaigns is Chad McEvoy’s op-ed in the New York Times. The headline says it all: “If I win my district, I’ll get rid of it.”
That’s the 101st Assembly District, a model of gerrymandering, which snakes in a narrow strip from New Hartford near Utica through part of Otsego county to the Hudson Valley.
Its shape guarantees that almost nobody living in the district is connected to anyone else in it. Its only purpose is to provide a safe seat for a politician who can be sure that his atomized constituents have no voice of their own.
Chad is running to overturn this kind of all too familiar nonsense.
The 101st district is an egregious case of gerrymandering, but in fact most of our legislative districts work exactly the same way. Most people couldn’t find their state legislative or Congressional districts on a map, or even name them accurately.
The districts overlay and cut across one another in insane fashion. People in one Congressional district are guaranteed not to be together in the same state Assembly or Senate districts.
Divide and conquer is obviously the rule.
Most districts are spread over a large number of communities almost entirely unique in terms of jobs, industry, schools, social services, and so on. That means our local communities are NOT represented in Albany or Washington.
The heart of your community is where you live and work. It includes your neighborhood, the town where you do most of your business and shopping, and the school district where your kids go. For most people – except for those commuting to distant jobs (say 20 miles or more) – these functions mostly overlap.
Call it home.
The largest local unit which people recognize and more or less identify with is the county, which administers social services, collects taxes, provides public safety, manages code enforcement and waste disposal, maintains major local highways, carries out environmental and planning responsibilities, and coordinates local towns which enjoy home rules under the state Constitution.
People know their counties; counties are the largest political entities which still function as communities. The county should be the political district that is directly represented in Albany, if not in Washington.
New York has 62 counties and representatives elected from each of those counties could comprise at least the state Assembly, if not the entire state legislature. That would be one way to upset business-as-usual in Albany and put the public back
Of course, counties differ widely in size. The largest county in the state – King’s County(Brooklyn)– has a population of 2,504,700, while the smallest – Hamilton County, in the Adirondacks – has 4,836 residents. But just as towns are represented on the Otsego county Board of Representatives by weighted voting, counties could be represented in Albany the same way.
The larger number of smaller, more rural counties would naturally work together to offset the clout of the fewer number of larger counties.
As far as Congressional districts go, in densely populated areas (like New York City) they should be drawn to be within counties as much as possible. In less dense areas, like Upstate, they can be drawn to include whole counties as closely as they can.
The point is that the interests of, say, Otsego county, would have a direct voice in Albany, something that is NOT currently the case.
In fact, our communities
are not directly represented anywhere at all.
This lack of representation
goes a long way towards explaining why a place like Otsego county has long suffered chronic economic decline and social malaise.
Let me close with a couple of personal endorsements of local candidates who recognize the need for the kind of fundamental change I’m talking about.
One is Chad McEvoy in the 101st Assembly District, as discussed above. Chad wants to strengthen local education, supports single-payer health care for New Yorkers, and advocates universal broadband and green energy as economic drivers.
The other candidate I’m voting for is Joyce St. George in the 51st Senate district. St. George – a feisty, anti-corruption investigator and local business woman who also supports single-payer health for all New Yorkers – is running against our long-time senator Jim Seward, who represents the status quo.
Seward has made a career of recycling taxpayers’ own dollars back to them as perks for which he can take credit; his so-called “economic summits” have gone nowhere; and his environmental record is among the worst in Albany – he’s been consistently rated near the bottom of New York legislators by the watchdog group Environmental Advocates. If you think we can do better on these issues, vote for St. George. Adrian Kuzminski, a retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.
It’s pretty clear to everyone by now that the sale of Otsego Manor in Jan. 27, 2014, was a mistake.
That was punctuated with numerous exclamation marks Wednesday, Sept. 12, when Focus CEO Joseph Zupnik and his chief financial executive, Daniel Herman, pleaded guilty before Otsego Town Justice Gary Kuch in the Fly Creek courtroom.
Under a plea agreement, Zupnik and Herman admitted to only one of the eight counts against them, one involving patient M.P., left in a chair for 41 hours over Labor Day Weekend 2016. The specifics, as detailed by the Attorney General’s Office, appear at right.
More serious, in that death resulted, may have been the count involving Robert Banta, former longtime county Soil & Water
Conservation District chairman, so admired that the district’s headquarters on Route 33 is named in his honor. Admitted to Focus, he fell twice the first night there, and died at Bassett Hospital a few days later.
Some may wish the penalties were harsher – avoiding jail time by their guilty pleas, Zupnik and Herman will be sentenced Oct. 10 to a term of community service, plus fines and expulsion from administering nursing homes that get federal Medicaid funding. Further, these criminal convictions should have nursing home owners who are inclined to cut corners to think again.
Still, should the responsibility for the Focus fiasco – the widely recognized deterioration of care for some of our county’s most vulnerable citizens – be left at that?
Retired banker Bill Dornburgh, a member of the county Health Facilities Corp. set up by the county Board of Representatives to shelter itself from attempts to block Otsego Manor’s sale, recalls telling Zupnik that the sale price – $18.5 million – was too high, that Focus could never cover its investment.
Dornburgh voted nay on the sale to Focus. So did two other members of the Health Facilities Corp. – Dr. Don Pollock, the retired Bassett physician, and Carol Kirkey, whose husband Terry passed away at what was still Otsego Manor in February 2013.
But the four others voted aye: county Reps. Kay Stuligross, Democrat, and Don Lindberg, Republican; Kim Muller, former Oneonta mayor and, until the end of this month, chair of the county Democratic Party; and Oneonta contractor Rick Eastman. They are certainly public-spirited citizens to take on a thankless job at no remuneration; nonetheless, they must take some responsibility for what turned out to be the wrong decision, predictably so. Dornburgh was right.
Was there simply no corporation or institution in our vast United States of America capable of effectively administering our county nursing home?
On May 15, 2013, the county representatives voted unanimously for the creation of the Health Facilities Corp., which allowed them to wash their hands of the 4-3 vote to sell Otsego Manor to Focus the following Jan. 27. Shouldn’t those men and women bear some responsibility for the eventual outcome, too?
Most of the county reps then have now moved on; the two most directly involved, Stuligross to retirement near Philadelphia, and Lindberg to election as Worcester town supervisor.
Likewise, Republicans Jim Powers, Pauline Koren and the late Betty Ann Schwerd have left the board, as have Democrats Rich Murphy, since passed away, and Beth Rosenthal, John Kosmer and Linda Rowinski.
Three remain in office today: Republicans Ed Frazier and Kathy Clark, and Democrat Gary Koutnik.
It’s been noted here before that the very nature of the Otsego County Board of Representatives – 14 members, elected by a couple of hundred people from individual districts, yet making decisions for all of us – shelters individual reps from accountability.
You can snub your nose at the 60,636 of us as long as you keep the few hundred neighbors in your camp.
The decision to sell the Manor affected all of us; yet no one – except, thankfully, Zupnik and Herman – have paid any price. This is one reason why a county executive is being considered: to centralize accountability, and thus, responsibility – blame AND credit.
Now, that barely exists.
Still, Frazier, Clark and Koutnik are up for reelection next year. If the electoral process is working at all in Otsego County, they should be challenged, and the challenger should ask: Who lost Otsego Manor?
Ever since the last presidential election the words “populist” and “populism” have been widely bandied about, mostly as pejorative terms.
A populist politician, we often hear, is a demagogue who wins votes by inflaming the resentments and emotions of ordinary people at the expense of rational thought. Those who fall prey to populism are no more to be trusted, critics suggest, than the politicians said to manipulate them.
It’s a curious feature of populism that it defies the normal left-right political spectrum. These days we have left-wing and right-wing populists.
In the last election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both called populists. And historically, we’ve had left-wing populists like
Huey Long, and right-wing populists like George Wallace.
It is the corrupt elites, populists argue, who are to blame for the insecurities and troubles of the middle-class. If you’ve lost your job, are over your head in debt, can’t pay your bills, don’t have adequate health care, lack a decent pension and feel that your values are being undermined, populists say, it’s because of them.
The elitist agenda, they say, is what drives inequality, including the outsourcing of jobs, corporate globalization, union-busting, deregulation and the machinations of the deep state. All this, in their view, represents the tyranny of the one percent, not the welfare of the 99 percent.
It doesn’t require a demagogue to convince people that these are real problems, not paranoid fears. The trouble with modern left- and right-wing demagogues is their unwillingness or inability to get at the root of the problems which they try to leverage for votes.
It’s telling that politicians accused of populism today don’t call themselves populists, as well they shouldn’t. They’re faux-populists who
stop short of challenging the status quo of continuing inequality.
Some history might be useful here. It’s largely forgotten that there was a vibrant populist movement in 19th century America. It was represented first by the Farmers Alliance after the Civil War, and then by the People’s party in the 1890s.
The People’s Party candidate for president in 1892, James B. Weaver, got over a million votes and carried four states. Over 40 populists were elected to Congress in the 1890s, including six United States senators, along with numerous governors and mayors.
Today such a populist wave would be totally shocking, which is a measure of how narrow our political options have become.
The classic 19th century American populists were the last serious political movement in this country to defy the duopoly of the two major parties and lock-step left-right thinking.
Their defeat in the 1890s by their better-funded and organized opponents ensured that the issues they tried to raise would henceforth be excluded from national political debate – as indeed they have been down to the present day.
What were those issues? Classic populists – unlike their modern faux-populist successors – rejected the two options that even then defined American political discourse: corporate capitalism and state socialism.
Corporate capitalism consolidates economic and political power into giant top-down structures controlled by a handful of rich investors and executives. State socialism consolidates economic and political power into giant top-down structures controlled by a handful of politicians and bureaucrats. You see the similarity.
Classic populists rejected both socialism and capitalism as tyrannical absolutist ideologies. Instead they tried to balance the need for collective action with individual freedom.
They sought to maximize equality by making sure that private property was widely distributed, and that concentrations of economic power were highly regulated, if not eliminated.
They were advocates of small, independent producers: farmers, artisans, fabricators and generally owners of moderate-scale, local, independent enterprises.
They aimed to relocalize democratic government in the decentralized Jeffersonian tradition of home rule. You can have genuine free markets and real democracy, they argued, only when citizens enjoy individual economic security as independent owners of productive property, and can practice meaningful local democracy.
Classical populists weren’t led by demagogues – who flourish in modern, impersonal, mass politics – but by a variety of grassroots activists (as we would say today) who focused on the issues then crucial to economic and political independence, especially the regulation and decentralization of corporate power (especially in government, finance, transportation, and communications).
They advocated public banking as a way of redistributing capital to individuals and small businesses by allowing easy public access to credit at low interest rates.
(More about populism can be found in my book, “Fixing the System: A History of Populism Ancient & Modern,”available at amazon.com.)
The politicians who try to exploit populist concerns today aren’t really populists. They’re usually left-wing state socialists (Bernie Sanders) or right-wing corporate capitalists (Donald Trump).
They advocate more big socialism or more big capitalism to solve our problems. But neither socialism nor capitalism is likely to produce the kind of individual economic and political freedom the original populists envisioned.
The problems they raised are with us more than ever. Maybe it’s time to take their solutions seriously.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.
A letter to the editor the other week drew on the Biblical injunction, “The son shall not suffer for the sins of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquities of the son.” And surely that’s as it should be.
That said, it’s legitimate for open-minded citizens to question how county Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr. has handled the situation involving his son, Ros, a correctional officer in the jail his father administers since it surfaced in January 2017. At the least, the situation is an awkward one; at worst, a dangerous one.
In effect, according
to a court decision on a
related matter made public on March 31, 2017, Ros Devlin told a fellow C-O he was thinking of committing suicide in front of his disciplining supervisor at the county jail, after first creating a diversion by shooting up an Oneonta or Milford school. (To read the decision for yourself, type “devlin judge’s order” in the search line at www.AllOTSEGO.com)
From the beginning, the sheriff has stood steadfastly by his son, who was suspended for more than a year – albeit, with pay; since March, without pay – by the Otsego County Board of Representatives.
The sheriff claimed a “witchhunt” was in progress; that his downfall was intended, not his son’s.
If Ezekiel was right
about sons and fathers, his declaration should be equally valid for wives
That said, it’s legitimate for open-minded citizens to question the role of Kathy Clark, R-Otego, former county board chair – and a tough-minded and determined one – in engineering her husband, Bob Fernandez’s, challenge to Devlin after Fernandez’s retirement from the state police.
In New York State, the sheriff’s position – as with county clerk – is a constitutional office, filled by election, not appointment by a county board. There’s good reason for ensuring a sheriff’s independence: to keep law enforcement and politics separate.
Clark championing of her husband sought to breach that sensible divide.
Further problematic was the engineering of Fernandez’s Democratic endorsement. It grew out of a longtime personal friendship between Kathy Clark and Oneonta’s former Democratic mayor, Kim Muller, who for the time being is county Democratic chair. (She expects to step down when the county committee meets in early October.)
There’s no secret. Both acknowledge close ties between their families going back decades, when their children played in the same soccer league. Still, as you can imagine, the Fernandez endorsement has caused a rift among the Democratic rank and file.
For his part, Devlin has argued he didn’t trust the county board, under Kathy Clark’s chairmanship, to fairly investigate his son.
To his credit, when David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Middlefield, succeeded Clark this past Jan. 3, Devlin then reached out to Bliss, and in March agreed to recuse himself, allowing the board chair to order a medical examination of the son to determine if he is fit to continue as a jail guard.
The good news is: A process is in place. In interview this week, Bliss said the medical examination by a downstate physician who specializes in matters involving law-enforcement personnel is expected by mid-month.
Once the report is submitted, Bliss, in consultation with the county’s personnel lawyers and County Attorney Ellen Coccoma will decide on an appropriate course of action. He said he will keep county reps advised of developments and welcome inputs.
If the decision is made to discipline Ros Devlin, “the officer still has rights,” the board chair said. The younger Devlin could challenge any decision in court. Meanwhile, he will remain off the job without pay.
The bad news, from the perspective if the electorate, it’s unlikely the situation will be resolved before the Nov. 6 general election, Bliss said.
All this matters right now because the first match-up between Devlin and Fernandez comes Thursday, Sept. 13, in a local Republican primary. (That’s Thursday, not Tuesday, which is 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah.) The polls will be open from noon to 9 p.m. across Otsego County for registered Republicans.
The vote will not necessarily settle anything. If Devlin, endorsed by the Republican county committee last March, wins, Fernandez has the Democratic county committee endorsement; he will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot anyhow.
If Fernandez were to win the Republican primary, Devlin would still appear on three lines – Conservative, Independent and Reform – on the November ballot.
The world is an imperfect place, as we know from our lives and experiences. We often have to choose between imperfect options, and this is one of those cases.
Yet, on the one hand, there is due process, independent of Sheriff Devlin’s control, that we can hope will resolve thinking people’s concerns – either clearing Ros Devlin, or removing him from his position permanently.
On the other hand, there is no due process, only cronyism and the potential that an alliance between husband and wife will inject politics into law enforcement.
For now, the only option is to vote for due process. For the time being, that option is Richard J. Devlin Jr.
When you think about it, with the amount of baggage both Republican and Democratic designees for county sheriff are carrying, 2018 would be a great opportunity for a third person to run as an independent.
You may have a favorite candidate of your own, but how about someone like Len Carson, the Oneonta Republican who narrowly lost reelection to his seat on the Otsego County Board of Representatives last November despite distinguishing himself as bright, level-headed and forward-thinking during his tenure.
Just that term – “an Oneonta Republican” – speaks to his ability to reach across party lines in the Democrat-dominated city.
He’s a veteran – an able president of the Oneonta Vets’ Club – a distinguished firefighter and EMS leader, who in retirement from the Oneonta Fire Department founded DC Marketing,
the electronic billboard company.
And still a young man – in his 50s – he remains creatively involved in civic life as a future-looking member of the Oneonta Airport Commission.
As a former county rep, he knows his way around county government, and,
as former chairman of the county board’s Public
Safety Committee, the sheriff’s department.
Plus, in the turmoil in the sheriff’s department of his final year, he no doubt learned more about its inner workings than he wished.
There are positives for Carson in the negatives.
Incumbent Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr., the Republican nominee, while often serving ably, has been embroiled in controversy for 18 months now, unable to resolve serious allegations surrounding his son, Ros.
Ros was accused of threatening an “incident” at Milford or Oneonta schools so he, unhindered, could commit suicide in front of a supervisor critical of him.
It might happen, but it’s conceivable the case will still be hanging out there on Nov. 6, when voters go to the polls. If so, would you want to vote for Devlin?
The Democratic designee, retired state trooper Bob Fernandez, has an albatross hanging around his neck: As county board chair, his wife, Kathy Clark, R-Otego, did significant damage to the welfare of her constituents, evident dramatically in the past few days when two top executives of the county nursing home – privatizing it was one of her signature achievements – were hauled into court on felony charges of endangering patients.
Plus, some Republicans believe that Clark led the charge against Devlin to open the way for her husband’s candidacy? With that nagging question, would you want to vote for Fernandez when you go into the polling booths Nov. 6.
The positives for Carson are also in the positives.
While defeated for reelection by a mere five votes, Carson left office squeaky clean. He was generally admired by his colleagues, and very well may have been elected county board chairman if only three voters had cast ballots the other way.
There’s plenty of time to run as an independent. The independent candidate would have to collect a mere 795 signatures. He and his no-doubt many supporters could begin circulating petitions July 10, and submit them by Aug. 14-21.
Plus, a three-way race means someone could win with perhaps as little as 35 percent of balloting; a quarter of the county’s population lives in Carson’s home city.
We have a president who’s seeking to drain what he calls “the swamp” of Washington D.C. – Godspeed! But we have a little swamp here, and – arguably – both Devlin and Fernandez are part of it.
Let’s drain our little swamp. Elect Len Carson sheriff of Otsego County on Nov. 6, 2018.
With 647 of 687 precincts reporting in the 19th Congressional District, it appears John Faso will succeed his Kinderhook neighbor, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, in the district that includes Otsego County.
As of a few minutes ago, Faso was leading Democrat Zephyr Teachout by 145,825 to 118,141, and word was the former Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2006 was preparing a victory speech.
Teachout, a Fordham law professor who moved from The Bronx to Dover Plains, in the district’s southeastern corner, was soundly beaten in Otsego County. With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Faso had tallied 12,653 (56.94 percent) to Teachout’s 9,548 (42.97 percent).