ULSTER COUNTY – Just one year after one of the most historic elections many of us have ever experienced, voters in Ulster County's District 1 (Wawarsing, Rochester, and Marbletown) don't have any incentive to go to the polls when casting their ballots for the county legislature: there are only four candidates running for four seats.
The main issue at hand is that the four candidates have been cross-endorsed by each of the two major political parties. The three democratic incumbents, Mary Sheeley, Joe Stoeckeler, and T.J. Briggs, have been endorsed by the Republican Party, while Terry Bernardo, an Independence Party member, has been endorsed by both the Democratic and Republican Parties. This cross-endorsement effectively closes off any legitimate competition to any of the four candidates who are running, rendering voters impotent in their ability to make a choice for county legislature.
"It preempts the electoral process, and is not desirable," says Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz and former director of the Center for the New York State and Local Government Studies. "Elected people are held accountable through elections, and they're held accountable through competitive elections…[when] structural arrangements are made to make them less competitive, it adds to the non-competitiveness that arises out of settlement patterns, concentrations of partisan populations in one place or another, and the power of incumbency and so on, and it's just not desirable.
"It's not a question of ethics; it undermines democratic process, the electoral process," he says.
Cross-endorsement, according to both Benjamin and Ulster County Board of Elections Co-Commissioner Tom Turco, is illegal throughout most if not every other state in the nation, with New York being the lone exception.
And while it's true that the democratic process, in theory, allows anyone to run for office as long as are eligible, Benjamin points out that the reality of the two-party system makes it unlikely for candidates not endorsed by either party to successfully win one of the seats — a reality likely preventing anyone from considering such a run.
However, both the incumbents who are running for reelection to the county legislature in the district, as well as party leadership, say that the task of finding viable candidates to run for these seats is proving to be nearly impossible.
"Even with the democratic majority in this district, we didn't have a fourth candidate," says County Legislator Joe Stoeckeler. "For a variety of reasons, people aren't that inclined…I think the bigger issue is why don't people want to get more involved anymore. Some people are disgusted. Some people don't have the money. For some people the compensation package has basically been cut in different ways, and I think that one of the big reasons still is people are too busy taking care of, what comes first to people, usually their family." Stoeckeler estimates that running a campaign against an incumbent might cost somewhere between $7,500 and $10,000, a prohibitive cost considering the economy's current state.
"Usually people decide to run for office when they're extremely unhappy with the people that are there, so there aren't formidable people coming forward and saying that. There aren't outspoken criticisms, nor have there been, over the last six months, 12 months, or 18 months, where people are very dissatisfied with what the people from district one are doing," he says.
His colleague in the legislature, Mary Sheeley, agrees.
"I'm thinking that maybe the fact that we do a good job and that we do cross party lines…two out my three town supervisors are republicans, but that doesn't mean that I don't call them up and say, 'Listen, this is coming up, what do you want us to do? How do you feel about this?' I'm hoping that it's a testimony to the fact that we've done a good job, and fairly represented all sides of the aisle, and they decided, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Ulster County Republican Party Chairman Mario Catalano agrees that the situation has effectively disenfranchised voters, and says he is unhappy with it. However, he blames the problem on the fact that the legislature is comprised of multi-representative districts, a factor that forces the party to focus on districts that have a more diverse electorate from both major parties.
"It's the Don Quixote syndrome: you want to fight windmills, or do you want to run for something when you actually have a chance of winning?" he says.
Because of Republican Sue Cummings's retirement from the district's fourth seat in the legislature, the county's republicans were suddenly faced with losing the one seat they still controlled in District 1.
"I lost our incumbent…the best case scenario for me was we were going to win one seat. Now, if they're willing to endorse [Terry Bernardo], and guarantee me that seat, my favorite term is that Mrs. Catalano didn't bring up a dummy. They're guaranteeing me something, and I didn't see how I could say no."
While Rochester's Manuela Mihailescu is working to force a primary within the Republican Party for the seat, the outcome will be the same whether she wins the nomination or not: District 1 voters need not puzzle over their choice for county legislature. The choice will be made for them.
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