Today’s the last day of Rick Scalera’s most recent two-year term as Mayor of Hudson. (I won't say his last day ever, because he could always run again if he doesn’t get the leadership positions he covets on the Board of Supervisors.)
Since 1993, Scalera has been ruling City Hall with an iron fist for all but two terms: 2001-2002, when he chickened out of running and put up Cappy Pierro in in place; and 2006-2007, when he again was afraid of losing and backed Danny Grandinetti. Both of his surrogates lost, mainly due to situation’s Rick created but ran away from, so that he could run two years later against his successor’s mistakes, and claim to have been “undefeated.”
Alderman Doc Donahue recently pronounced the signing of an agreement with Colarusso to mine around Hudson’s backup water supply as the Mayor’s “legacy.” It’s tempting to agree, because that document sums up a lot of what has been so wrong with his tenure as Mayor. Scalera’s tenure as Mayor is indeed well-encapsulated a sweetheart deal with a former campaign contributor, feebly negotiated with financial terms highly unfavorable to the taxpayers (what's $100,000 per year going to be worth in 20 years, with no increase in payments to account for inflation?). It represents Rick fumbling away one of the City’s most important assets. The next time there’s a drought, or your tax bill goes up, do remember Donahue’s pronouncement.
But Scalera’s actual legacy is bigger than deals like the one with Colarusso. His true legacy to Hudson is that of job-killer.
During Rick’s tenure, at least 1,000 local jobs were lost. One need look no further than an op-ed Scalera co-wrote with his then-consultant, Bill Lowenstein in 1998, to find the evidence. Stung at the time by criticism of the City’s mishandling of HUD grants, Scalera touted all the good that Federal and State grants had done for Hudson, by proclaiming a list of jobs these programs had created locally. His list of valued local businesses aided by grants included:
Today, with Scalera leaving office, all of these businesses (and more) are gone. Several of them continued to receive fresh infusions of public cash long after it was clear they could not survive even with assistance.
Others, such as Wittcomm —which Scalera announced in 1998 he was giving a big loan to bring 100 jobs to the City—never even opened their doors. The money went out the door, but the jobs never came in. (Later, the City forgave much of this debt in a complicated land swap among its own agencies.)
While these 1,000-plus jobs disappeared, others outside City Hall independently, without Scalera's aid, and often with his overt hostility, slowly built a new economy based on small, locally-owned businesses. Individual entrepreneurs steadily created 1-50 jobs each—bit-by-bit, and building-by-building.
As this rejuvenation of a once-abandoned river city gained critical mass about a decade ago, it started to attract still others to invest in crumbling real estate, restore boarded-up storefronts and homes, jumpstart main street activity, support the City’s flagging tax base, and giving people something to do both before and after 5 pm. Yet these same merchants and property owners were the frequent target of Scalera’s scorn and ire, and were thanked for their faith in Hudson by getting to the max with increased property taxes. Shunning those creating actual jobs with limited capital and sweat equity, Rick spent much of his time cheerleading for destructive, incompatible, foreign corporations such as Americlean and St. Lawrence Cement—neither of which offered any paid work except to those willing to help promote phony promises, imaginary pollution control technologies, and cooked job numbers.
Had Scalera been at all thoughtful about the changes our post-industrial society was undergoing, been attentive the many voices suggesting a different path to a new economy, considered open government and sound planning something other than a nuisance for his closed-door deals, and embraced the changes occurring around him, he might have had the best of both worlds: A lot less day-to-day on the job stress, and a lot more cooperation. The benefits of those changes might have been seen a lot more quickly, and been spread around more broadly. Hudson still has a long way to go, and that’s in part because Scalera has been fighting positive development and putting the brakes on progress for so long.
Instead he fought the changes, and closed his mind to new energy possibilities. Thus his legacy: Rick Scalera, Job Killer.
NOTE: The following relies on specific voter turnout data, obtained from the Columbia County Board of Elections, and reviewed in some detail in Part I of this article.
Victory, they say, has many fathers. A close victory has even more daddies—not to mention a long list of mommies, step-grandparents, loudmothed uncles, zany aunts, and other distant relations who suddenly come out of the woodwork, as if the winning candidate had just won the Powerball jackpot.
Whenever an election is decided by a small number of votes, almost anyone even marginally involved in the process may claim credit (or shoulder blame) for the outcome. Every move by the candidates, and every modest effort to deliver votes, can appear decisive. Swing 51 voters in a 100-vote race from one side to the other, and the outcome gets reversed.
The recent Hudson election is a perfect case in point. Bill Hallenbeck’s margin of victory over Nick Haddad was just 50 votes out of 1,700. (The true margin would likely have been shaved down even more, perhaps as low as 15 or 20 votes, had the Haddad campaign taken ballot challenges to court to prove a point about election fraud, rather than conceding gracefully.) Like all winners of close contests, Mayor Hallenbeck now can look forward to a line out his office door of partisans seeking favors—accompanied by reminders that the favor-seeker “won the election” for him. All and none of them will be right, since any minor factor arguably could be seen as winning (or losing) the race.
In addition to such claims, a host of theories are floating around: accusations of street money distributed to voters; the backstabbing of Haddad by certain prominent Democrats who had pledged their support; the deleterious effect of a contentious primary, the manhandling of infirm absentee votes; and more. Some rumors are more plausible than others, but it is difficult or even impossible to determine their validity. More to the point, it isn't necessary to test those theories to see the big picture of what happened.
Setting aside all these claims and theories, three more telling and relevant observations can be made based solely on the available data:
A. Terrible Turnout. A lot less than half of registered voters participated in this Hudson election cycle. Put it another way: More people stayed home than voted. And it’s the first time that’s happened in memory, at least when there were two viable mayoral candidates. Nearly 20% fewer people voted this time than the last four contested elections. At least two reasonable explanations present themselves: either that people were unexcited about their choices, or felt their votes didn’t matter... or perhaps both. Either way, the historically low turnout is a strong indictment of both major political parties. Over the past few years, the Hudson gang of political insiders has been talking mainly among themselves, and treating the public like bystanders at best, nuisances at worst. A public alienated from the process will come to feel there is no point in participating.
B. Downtown Disarray. In the 2nd and 4th Wards (euphemistically called “downtown” by some), turnout was even worse than the rest of the City, with only two out of every five registrants showing up to vote. Without strong participation by more elderly, committed absentee voters in Providence Hall and the Fireman’s Home, those numbers would have been even weaker. Hundreds of voters “downtown” went missing. Turnout was lowest in the 2nd Ward, which many assumed would make or break both candidates. Only 38% voted, and their vote was split very evenly between Hallenbeck and Haddad. Both the turnout and the results raise eyebrows, especially since the perception was that a host of political players—such as Bill Hughes, Linda Mussmann, Quintin Cross, Abdus Miah, George Dejesus, and more—were ostensibly working over voters in these two wards throughout Election Day. Again, there are at least two reasonable explanations: Either downtown voters have finally grown tired of being hustled to the polls by these operatives, or someone was actively telling people not to vote. Or, again, some combination of the two.
C. It’s 5-2’s World; You’re Just Living In It. As noted in Part I of this piece, Hallenbeck’s 50-vote margin of victory would have been a 60-vote loss if not for his huge victory in a single election district, known as “5-2." 5-2 has less relation to Warren Street and "downtown" than any of the City’s six EDs. Geographically, demographically, and even architecturally, it has a lot more in common with Greenport than Hudson. While much of this campaign’s issues and activity centered around the rest of the City, this time around 5-2 determined Hudson’s fate for the next two years, with all sorts of cascading consequences.
These three points are adequate to explain the outcome. The actual data suggest a relatively simple take on the 2011 Hudson mayoral election: That both Hallenbeck and Haddad got the bare minimum number of votes they each would have received anyway, had neither campaigned at all. As it turned out, the money each spent on signs, bumper stickers and other campaign swag was largely irrelevant, as their final vote totals—877 and 824—represent their “natural” bases. Neither candidate, in victory, could have claimed a mandate from such a result—though of course that didn’t stop George Bush after the 2000 election. Missing on Election Day were those voters who needed to be motivated or convinced why their participation was important.
If both candidates were to examine the Board of Elections list of who voted, they both might be surprised and dismayed by the number of supporters who didn’t participate at all. With a little more effort, Haddad might have won, or Hallenbeck might have won by more. One hopes that both Democrats and Republicans (in particular, their party committees) are duly humbled by the big-picture message from the electorate: That voters just didn’t find this election as important as the players imagined themselves to be.
The next time around, one hopes that more people run for office, more people vote, clearer choices are offered, and a more resounding, positive message is sent.
ENDNOTE: For full disclosure, I wish to note here that I was closely involved with the Haddad campaign through the Democratic primary, leaving it shortly thereafter; I was not involved with the remainder of the campaign through Election Day. After those votes were cast, I was asked by Nick to provide technical assistance with the absentee ballots in terms of gathering data and serving as a poll-watcher.
With Sherlock Holmes back in movie theaters and 2011 winding down, it seems appropriate to apply some ratiocination (as opposed to rationalization) to the November election results in Hudson. What really happened?
In the wake of any election, people naturally will float theories to answer the questions: Why did Candidate Dick win? Why did Candidate Jane lose? And, what “message” were the voters sending? But it’s rare for such theories to get tethered to any verifiable facts. Instead, these tend only to reflect the victors’ desire to project a mastery of politics (that everything happened according to their master plan) and the losers’ need to deflect blame.
This two-part article will aim to avoid both of those predictable postures by first reviewing the limited—but telling—data available, discussing a few of the theories which have been floated, and then drawing only those conclusions which can be reasonably derived from the facts.
First, then, below are 10 key data points worth pondering:
Less than half of those eligible—46.8%, to be precise—cast votes for Mayor. 1,700 did show up and assert their preference. But nearly 2,000 others did not.
As the chart above shows, that turnout was unusually, even historically, low. I cannot find evidence of a lighter turnout for any contested Mayoral race in Hudson any time in the past generation, and certainly not in the past decade.
This turnout crash can’t be attributed to a loss in registered voters, as the number eligible to vote has remained pretty constant during the period considered. (For example, the number registered to vote in Hudson in 2002 was 3,697; today it’s 3,687.)
50 people showed up at the polls, yet did not vote for either Mayoral candidate.
Hallenbeck’s margin of victory was 50 votes.
Turnout was especially low in the 2nd Ward, dropping from a high of 483 in 2007 to just 290 in 2011. That’s almost 200 “missing” voters, four times the margin of victory.
Turnout hovered around 50% in most of the City, except for the 2nd and 4th Wards, which were way down at 39% and 42%, respectively. (And without the high level of participation via absentee ballots by residents of the Firemen’s home, the 4th Ward’s showing might have been even worse.)
There was only a small percentage difference (52% vs. 49.5%) in turnout among Republicans vs. Democrats. But since there are over three times as many Dems as GOP members in Hudson, that small percentage difference got magnified in terms of actual votes cast, with the former in effect losing 50 more potential supporters.
Turnout likewise wasunusually light among members of the Bangaladeshi community. Historically, these recently-minted registrants have participated at impressive rates well over 90%, enjoying their newfound citizenship. But this time around, their turnout was more like 50%.
Hallenbeck won a single suburban district—5-2, which is the northernmost part of town, nestled among the “boulevards” of Greenport—by 112 votes, more than double his margin of victory. In other words, the result would have been reversed if not for that district, which in recent years has felt increasingly alienated and distant from Hudson’s downtown.
In Part II tomorrow, I’ll move from these hard data to a few ratiocinated conclusions.
It’s underway now on Warren Street, with the Santas working their way downstreet from
bar to bar to benefit the United Way... They've made it as far as Spotty Dog (5 pm) and are vowing to continue all the way to PM—the South Pole?—in the 100 block, then return upstreet to Wunderbar—the North Pole—from whence they came. Donations are being collected by Kate Laporte, a/k/a Mrs. Claus.
Every third person I ran into this weekend in Hudson breathlessly told me the “hush-hush” rumor that Ian Schrager had bought the Warren Inn here. Striking me as dubious, the rumor (after some casual investigation) appears to be wholly untrue.
Instead, an existing Warren Street property owner who has explored hotel ideas here before is said to be in negotiations with the Inn’s owner.
But the 700 block does seem to be a hotbed of real estate activity lately... Just up the street, a buyer is said to be discussing purchase of the Ackerman's building, possibly for conversion to loftlike condos. Meanwhile, renovation of the former Keystone building from an antiques store to a farm-to-table restaurant appears (from what one can see by pressing noses against the glass) to be progressing rapidly.
By the way: It may be useful for readers to know that real estate transactions are entirely public information. Just go to the Columbia County Real Property Department, which is located on the second floor in the back of the D.M.V. building on the corner of 6th and Warren. The County maintains books of monthly transactions which anyone can inspect. They also post online, but only once a year, a summary of all sales within the County. The current file (click here) includes sales from July 2010 through June 2011.
NOTE: The well-known Warren Inn sign, pictured above (thanks to Lisa Durfee’s Tainted Lady Lounge site) is one at which I raised an eyebrow way back in 1997, in my weekly column for The New York Post. I’ve heard it claimed that for a while, these official-looking historical markers were available to most anyone who paid the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (a/k/a OPRHP) a modest fee to defray the cost of production—back then about $100. In theory these were supposed to be carefully vetted by historians, but many typos, inaccuracies and frivolities seem to have slipped through...
I’ve added a bunch of new items to my annual Hudson Under $100 holiday shopping site... Click here to check ’em out. (Since there are now about 100 items, I’ve divided these into two batches; so be sure to click through to both Part 1 and Part 2.)
It often happens that scientists say: “You know, that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” And then they actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
A tip passed along by Hudson resident Steve Walsh: There'll be a 5pm service at St. Mary's Church to commemorate the Festival of Our Lady of Guadulupe (Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), proceeding at about 6 pm to the old St. Mary's School at the corner of 3rd and Warren. The event in the gym will feature authentic Mexican food, a Mariachi band, piñatas, and other family entertainment… Sounds like fun; they're expecting at least a couple hundred people.