Just as the Columbia County Fair was about to open, a top local Democratic official stated on Tuesday in the midst of a testy email exchange that the popular event “always attracts lowlife.”
The official, County Democratic Committee Treasurer Deb Shakotko, is said to be resigning her post later this year. A request for comment from Shakotko has not been returned at the time of this post.
The inflammatory comment arose in the context of a seemingly benign suggestion that Democrats join efforts to help a young leukemia sufferer in the community.
That mild suggestion touched off a touchy internal wrangle among committee members—eliciting Shakotko’s eyebrow-raising remark, while also shedding a rather dismal light on the CCDC’s internal dynamics.
The wrangle began as a simple request from Ghent committee members Patti Matheney and Judy Rusk, urging the County Democrats to join others assisting the family of a local child who has been diagnosed with a very rare form of the disease.
Matheney had been informed by the child’s parent at an August 29th meatball fundraiser at the Chatham firehouse that the County Republicans were planning to put out a collection plate at the Fair. (The GOP effort was reported spearheaded by County Clerk Holly Tanner.) The child’s parent, said to be quite liberal, wondered if the Democrats might do the same.
In relaying Matheney’s conversation and the proposal, Rusk wrote to four party officers that “We are always looking for ways to get P.R. for the Dems. This seems like a wonderful opportunity for us while doing a humanitarian act.”
Yet the seemingly uncontroversial suggestion—a “no-brainer,” Matheney assumed—touched off a flurry of emails and phone calls among the Democrats' executive committee, including chair Peter Bujanow, 1st vice chair Debby Mayer, secretary Angela Pace, plus treasurer Shakotko.
Initially, Bujanow, Shaktoko and Mayer questioned or even opposed the idea, concocting a wide range of reasons not to support it. When news leaked of their reluctance, this led to significant pushback among more rank-and-file Democrats.
Within minutes of Rusk’s proposal to the Democratic officers early Tuesday morning, Shakotko shot back via email that
“there are so many worthy causes and we have not vetted them all. It could very well be there are other more worthy causes we should showcase in our booth. We ought to think carefully about this [...] We would also need someone to guard any money collected like a hawk as the fair always attracts lowlife.”
Rather than questioning, let alone denouncing, Shakotko’s characterization of the popular County festival, the Dem leadership on the email thread rushed to support her stance on the issue.
Mayer replied that “Deb has restated my thoughts so clearly, so fairly.”
Bujanow replied that “I concur with both Deb and Debby.”
Shakotko added that former CCDC chair “Cyndy [Hall] indicated to me yesterday that even her tables and chairs were stolen at the fair.”
Mayer chimed in again, seemingly eager to deflect the issue:
“I will be working the booth and my focus will be our candidates by electing progressive candidates we have a better chance at addressing problems like this (funding health care).”
Tellingly, however, at least one local Democratic candidate on the ballot this fall has not been invited to circulate literature or be present at the Dems’ fair booth.
Matheney pointed out the discrepancy: “I thought it was of the upmost importance that the booth represent our local candidates. I posed this question to Debby, but I received no response as to why Matthew [Nelson, Town Council candidate in Kinderhook] wasn’t asked.”
Meanwhile, several Democratic candidates, including State Assembly member Didi Barrett along with Nelson, do not appear on the CCDC’s website list of “candidate campaign websites.”
For his part, Bujanow dismissively stated that he didn’t have time for an “intense” conversation with Matheney. But finally, after hearing from numerous Democrats that they were disappointed, Bujanow announced that
“the Columbia County Democratic Committee wishes to support an effort to raise funds for [...] a 12 year old boy from Ghent/Chatham with a rare form of leukemia and that a donation container will be placed at the Democratic Booth located at the Columbia County Fair. ”
Bujanow profusely thanked and credited Rusk with bringing the matter to the fore—studiously omitting mention of its origination and advancement by Matheney—or the resistance put up by the officers before caving in to common political sense.
So what is really going on here?
It’s a poorly-kept secret among Democrats that Bujanow and other top County Democrats hold some antipathy to Matheney, the founder of GhentCAN who got herself elected to her Town Board last fall—an antipathy which often extends to other Democratic activists and candidates perceived to be allied with her. For example, Bujanow was accused behind the scenes last fall of not avidly supporting Nelson’s bid to unseat Kinderhook’s GOP Supervisor Pat Grattan... Nelson and Matheney being viewed as allies.
The CCDC has been seen as largely ineffectual for many years. In 2013, two of its more visible incumbents lost their re-election bids, Claverack Supervisor Robin Andrews and Copake Town Justice Brian Herman.
In 2015, Democrat Ken Golden’s attempt to unseat District Attorney Paul Czajka fell far short, while the Dems did not even contest the Republicans’ choices for County Treasurer and Coroner. Two Democrats running for Town Board in Germantown failed to unseat a lone Republican there. Perennial candidate and CCDC member Lee Jamison lost yet again in Stuyvesant, this time to Ron Knott, despite having celebrity running mate Frank Serpico on the ballot with her.
Surface gains of Supervisor seats in Chatham (Maria Lull beating Jesse DeGroodt) and New Lebanon (Colleen Teal over Mike Benson) have rung hollow, with Lull and Teal both known as Republicans who wound up on the Dem line only after feuds with their local GOP leadership.
Meanwhile, many GOP incumbents in other towns—including Gallatin, Copake, Stockport, et al.—ran with no Democratic opposition at all.
The progressive efforts of candidates like Matheney (who has gained renown for her effective activism on issues surrounding the County airport, economic development cronyism, and most recently rural broadband access) appear to be resented, rather than embraced by top Democrats in the County.
Such successes are viewed by some Democrats not as a model for how to win elections and prevail on key issues, but rather as a threat to their cozy positions—and a counterexample to their excuses for not being effective in their own right. The County Committee as a whole is viewed by many as at best aloof—with Bujanow notorious for not returning calls—and at worst hostile to those eager to volunteer their time and effort to their party.
Thus when the straightforward, win-win request to assist a local family dealing with a major health crisis came in, the email exchanges between these officers appear to reflect more an antipathy to the source of the request, than an engagement with its substance.
Across the tenures of several recent County chairs, local Democrats seem to be more focused on rivalries and turf wars than on the mechanics of winning elections. The key elements of successful campaigns—such as raising key issues, candidate cultivation, volunteerism, media relations, database development, fundraising, get-out-the-vote mechanics—often appears to be secondary to petty internecine warfare.
(Endnote: Curiously, CCDC 2nd vice chair Gene Keeler doesn’t appear to have been included in the main email conversation. Keeler later wrote that “I support [Matheney and Rusk’s] request and respectfully ask the leadership to support this matter as requested and with time of the essence to have a review of this matter today.”)