Last week was a big one for Columbia County politicians to back down from indefensible, controversial positions.
In Claverack, two outgoing officials—Supervisor Robin Andrews and Town Board member Bob Preusser—made a 180˚ change of course in deciding not to remove Churchtown firefighter Nathan Chess from the Planning Board. They were joined by Board member Katie Cashen to override two Republicans still in favor of punishing Chess for refusing to just “go along to get along.”
The reversal came as a huge surprise to many. Andrews herself had signed and pushed for the tendentious complaint against Chess, with the unanimous support of Preusser, Cashen and the two GOP members. Allies and foes of Chess alike expected that despite the thinness of the case against him (plus the evaporation of the Town’s attorney almost immediately after a less-than-impressive Star Chamberish prosecution), the Board would again vote unanimously for removal.
What explains the change of mind? One would like to think that the three came around due to the (lack of) evidence and the obviously subjective nature of the complaint. Chess made a strong, concise case the Town Code did not support the allegations. And as the intensely personal of the dispute came into focus at last Fall’s hearing dragged on for several excruciating hours, the ongoing prosecution seemed to become a costly embarrassment for all involved.
One would like to think that this was a case of cooler heads prevailing. But given the pettiness of what preceded the final outcome (including the non-hanging offense of Planning Board meetings “not being fun anymore”), the change from a 5-0 to 2-3 vote likely derived from less noble sentiments.
As Supervisor, Andrews had bent over backwards to ingratiate herself to the Claverack Republicans—much too far backwards for many Democrats’ taste. She became a huge booster of the Pine Haven nursing home boondoggle-in-the-making, a pet cause of Tea Party elements such as Albert Wassenhove. She refused to take a courageous stand on key issues which crept into Claverack from neighboring Ghent, such as the TCI fire, or the County airport expansion.
Likewise, in her failed attempt to vault from one-term Supervisor to the State legislature, Andrews opposed common sense gun regulations just before the Sandy Hook tragedy, and opposed increasing the State minimum wage.
Thus the attempt to nail Chess to the cross had every appearance of yet another move rightward by Andrews. Yet despite all her accommodations and cop-outs, the incumbent Supervisor lost not only her State Senate campaign, but her local re-election bid. Any of the above issues could have cost her the 20 votes by which she trailed winner Kippy Weigelt. (In a bitter and undignifiied email circulated by Andrews’ partner, the candidate’s other half blamed weekenders for not mailing in their absentee ballots, though absentees cut her deficit from 80 to 20.)
In this context, the changed votes look less like listening to reason, than a departing middle finger to the GOP: We played nice and knuckled under to the GOP agenda for four years, but didn’t get any credit. So here’s something for you Republicans to remember us by. (Chess’s term runs through 2016.) Had Andrews shown that spirit earlier, galvanizing her base rather than demoralizing it, she might be getting sworn back in on January 1st, 2014.
The second instance of backing down last week came from New Lebanon Supervisor Mike Benson, who grudgingly declined to make his threatened motion to suspend the County Airport Committee’s work before it had begun.
Like the end of the Chess game in Claverack, Benson’s retreat seemed based more in calculation than reason: by the end of last Wednesday’s standing-room-only meeting, he must have realized he did not have the votes to carry such a motion. But unlike the Claverack situation, one did not get the sense that Benson had heard the public’s concerns, or recognized any error in his ways, and so his push to use eminent domain against Carmen Nero may well come back at a future meeting.
A more detailed run-down of Wednesday’s illuminating airport meeting will follow in the next day or two.