The mayoral election this year in Hudson does at least present one clear choice: a choice between the future and the past. Will this small City look ahead, or try to turn the clock back to a mythic, imaginary past?
Admittedly, the whole future/past thing is one of the more tired political clichés. But this particular race maybe be the rare case where it has meaning, since the candidates have explicitly staked out positions that fit the old formula.
In a recent debate, Nick Haddad’s forward-leaning campaign theme was summarized by Carole Osterink at Gossips as
... the need to provide a future for Hudson that “reflects our aspirations.” Haddad talked about jobs, opportunity, and quality of life. He talked about making our school a “magnet for people” and said of Hudson that it is “more than shovel-ready, and we have the work force.” He also urged that we be “Hudsoncentric,” working together to ensure a bright future.
That’s solid, if expected, stuff, from the Democratic candidate, whose slogan is Let’s Move Hudson Forward, Together.
His Republican opponent, by contrast, is an unabashed proponent of trying to drag Hudson backward through time. In his few public statements, as well as in several reported conversations with voters, Bill Hallenbeck has harped on how long he has lived here as his primary qualification—and waxed poetic about the glory days of Hudson’s industrial past. Though he was still in diapers when Lone Star Cement closed, he remembers those times as a Golden Age. Hard evidence, such as the contemporaneous narrative in this detailed study from 1963, suggests the reality was far more tinhorn, and even tarnished.
Such nostalgic notions represent more than just a well-worn demagogic rhetorical material. It’s also a familiar refrain for this particular GOP candidate. In a long March 2001 opinion piece published locally, Hallenbeck lavishly thanked St. Lawrence Cement for hiring him as a paid canvasser. After recounting a litany of businesses that abandoned Hudson, Hallenbeck singled out the antiques dealers who embraced the City when it fell on hard times as out of step with the community. He rhapsodized about his “fond memories” of a Norman Rockwellesque era when, in his mind’s eye at least, “mostly everyone live comfortable [sic] and securely.”
Hallenbeck then turned to his short-term employer, SLC:
With the efforts of the St. Lawrence Cement plant attempting to build a $320 million, state-of-the-art cement plant in this area, we have an opportunity [to] acquire the stability and comfort once shared by our parents and grandparents when they were raising us. Thank you for bringing back ... the ability for all of us living here to again have the expectations of living the American Dream. We support you 110 percent. Good luck!
Hallenbeck omitted mention of the many cement industry widows whose husbands died young. At about the same time as Hallenbeck’s editorial appeared, it was deeply moving for me to meet with several of these survivors at a meeting at A.M.E. Zion Church. With the expert analysis of Dr. Ira Marks—who delivered countless babies at Columbia Memorial Hospital—we discussed the asthma-causing effects of fine particle pollution on young lungs; their heart attack-inducing impacts among the elderly; and the carcinogenic components of microscopic dust. The cost of living in the shadow of such facilities was profoundly understood by many attendees, because this was not theoretical science to them, but a reality they’d lived. (Who knows, Dr. Marks may have even delivered Bill Hallenbeck. How’s that for nostalgia?)
Within four years of Hallenbeck’s love letter to SLC, the phony job and environmental claims which he’d eagerly accepted—and then spread as an employee—had been completely debunked. During the final comment period, not one public official wrote in support of the project, a striking turnaround from when it was announced nearly 7 years earlier. Of a record 14,000 comments submitted, 87% were opposed, with the 13% still in support coming, ironically enough, mainly from union halls in faraway places like Syracuse and Long Island. (So much for the company’s nativist strategy, which we hear strong echoes of in Hallenbeck’s campaign today.) Reason had prevailed against both false hope and fabricated memories.
Like Hallenbeck even to this day, SLC had sought to create a gauzy vision of the past, where every able-bodied man carried a lunchbucket to a well-paying industrial job. Everything, they would have you believe, was just about perfect in Hudson—until those dratted (rich, gay) newcomers showed up. The company commissioned a clumsy short movie entitled Etched in Stone to help falsify memory, and further inflame latent us vs. them tensions. The company’s rose-colored lens omitted mention of the “brown snow” which used to fall on Hudson when the Atlas and Lone Star plants were running, which I know about from none other than mayor’s aide Carmine Pierro—who once recalled it in a moment of candor during a lull in a public hearing at Columbia-Greene.
While one can debate whether things were ever so wonderful, the stark reality is that due to globalization, automation, and wage stagnancy, big industries simply do not provide the types of jobs they did a half-century ago. Open your arms to the likes of SLC, as Bill Hallenbeck did, and Hudson would have suffered all the downsides of the past, with few of the benefits. More pollution and only one new job proved the stark reality of the cement proposal, one that the public, State and City came to reject once they had the chance to think a bit harder than Hallenbeck had about their lavish p.r. claims.
And yet Mr. Hallenbeck touted his time with SLC as “one of the most educational and rewarding experiences of my life.” That’s one memory that Hudson voters might want to heed on Election Day.
NOTE: Hallenbeck’s work for St. Lawrence Cement, a subsidiary of Holcim, occurred in the midst of what he has unmodestly described as his “stellar” career in law enforcement. His 2001 opinion piece alluded to “a trying time” when he was “out of work for a while, and trying to manage without my normal income during the holiday season.” But it provided no explanation for this odd gap in his policing career. If nothing else, that past employment would create an obvious conflict of interest in the event that Hallenbeck were elected, and had to negotiate with Holcim, which recently has brought a lawsuit over its taxes against the City.