It has been said that a community gets the government it deserves. Whether this is true for the village of Croton-on-Hudson after the 2007 election remains to be seen. Now that the dust has settled from that bitterly fought contest, introspection may be in order. As elections go, it was not a pretty spectacle, marked as it was by vicious incidents of malice, prevarication and spite. Nevertheless, enough time has now elapsed for conclusions to be drawn and lessons to be learned.
After the invasion fiasco at Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy, who accepted total responsibility for the ill-advised attempted invasion and disastrous defeat, remarked at a 1961 press conference, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Let us now examine the 2007 election in an attempt to trace and uncover its paternity and learn something about its family history.
In the bridge game of local politics there are some truisms that have become rules of the game. First, emotion trumps logic every time. Another truism is that a single issue, repeated endlessly to the exclusion of all other issues, trumps every other issue, especially if it is accompanied by lies, innuendo, and libel and slander. It is no exaggeration to say that the Croton Republicans ran on a single issue, subsumed under the all-inclusive term of Metro Enviro, although that entity was long gone from the village.
In the 1992 and 1996 national elections, Democratic campaign manager James Carville advocated the formation of “truth squads” to respond to Republican lies. These squads, traveling with Bill Clinton, sprang into action immediately with press releases and position papers to set the record straight. Yet, in the 2007 election, Democrats passively allowed supporters of the Republican stand-ins (called the Alliance Party because they had lost the Republican line on the ballot) to preempt the letters pages of The Gazette newspaper with lies and false charges that invariably went unchallenged.
This year, Republican Mayor Gregory Schmidt was handily reelected with 56% of the vote, a plurality that any candidate in a national election would kill for. His Democratic opponent, Trustee Ann Gallelli garnered only 44%. This was not the first time these two candidates have squared off in a mayoral bid. Rather, it was a repetition of Ms. Gallelli’s loss to Mr. Schmidt in 2005, only worse.
However, in the recent past victory has not always been as elusive for Croton’s Democrats. As former Democratic Governor of New York and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for President Al Smith was fond of saying, “Let’s look at the record.”
In 2001, Republicans were so disorganized they could not find a sacrificial lamb to run against Robert Elliott, who had won the mayoral election five times. He ran unopposed and won, bringing with him four-term Trustee Georgianna Grant and newcomer Leo Wiegman. Left in the dust were Gregory Schmidt and Carole Mahon.
In 2002, with two trustee seats vacant, Democrats fared badly. Despite her impressive credentials as a computer scientist, Fran Allen and banker Jon Gopelrud were defeated handily. The victors were chiropractor Gregory Schmidt and attorney Deborah Yurchuk-McCarthy. The magic ingredient was Metro Enviro, which has been used by the Republicans as a club to beat Democratic candidates ever since.
In 2003, Mayor Robert Elliott narrowly beat one-year Trustee Gregory Schmidt by margin of only 2%. Thomas Brennan, who had been a frequent and outspoken critic of the Democratic administration on the Metro Enviro issue, threw his hat in the ring with retired gym teacher and former Trustee Don Daubney. Both lost. Repeating their wins in 2001, Trustees Georgianna Grant and Leo Wiegman retained their seats.
In 2004, Republican Trustee Gregory Schmidt was re-elected, joined by political newcomer Democrat Charles Kane. Losing for the second consecutive time was Thomas Brennan. Democrat Tom Burniston, a former trustee, also failed to garner enough votes. Deborah Yurchuk-McCarthy, making preparations to move from Croton to Scarsdale, did not seek re-election.
In 2005, after seven terms, Mayor Robert Elliott, busy with career concerns and perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, did not seek re-election. With another year left in his second term as trustee, Republican Gregory Schmidt ran again for mayor and won with 53% of the vote. His opponent, former Trustee and Planning Board Chair Ann Gallelli garnered only 47% of the vote. In the race for trustee, winners were Democrat Leo Wiegman and Republican Thomas Brennan. The losers were Democrat Georgianna Grant and Republican newcomer James Steinberg, an attorney. Despite his failure to win, newly-elected Mayor Schmidt appointed Mr. Steinberg as a trustee to serve for the remainder of his term.
In 2006, defeated mayoral candidate Ann Gallelli ran for trustee with Trustee Charles Kane and won easily. On the Republican side, trustee-by-appointment James Steinberg failed again to win an election. Running with Mr. Steinberg and trailing him in the vote was virtually unknown substance abuse recovery executive Jose Gonzalez.
In 2007, every Democratic candidate for office was rejected by voters. Most notable was that Ms. Gallelli, the lowest vote-getter of all, received fewer votes than newcomer running-mate Sally Odland, who never spoke at a single village board meeting in the run-up to the election. Although eminently electable in prior years, Leo Wiegman was defeated, an upset that was a surprise to many. However, this is not surprising considering that only 39% of registered voters went to the polls.
What happened? The Republicans have single-mindedly run on one emotional issue for the past six years: Metro Enviro, as if it were the only crucial concern for Croton. Also known as 1A Croton Point Avenue, this construction and debris transfer station, most recently operated by Regus Industries, has also polarized the voters of Croton. Preferring to explore all legal options including a negotiated settlement, Trustee Ann Gallelli and her running mates found themselves on the wrong side of a very complex issue this year.
And the simple negativistic approach of “no negotiating” advanced by supporters of the Schmidt ticket prevailed. As a matter of fact, Republican campaign insiders and Schmidt core supporters stopped at nothing in their quest to win this election. For example, a dummy letter was planted in the agenda for the February 5th board meeting, and Republican supporters used the letter as the jumping-off place for an evening’s organized electioneering by supporters that stalled village business for the evening.
At the same time, the Democrats can hardly be called victims of the Republican’s manipulations. They willingly played the part of sacrificial lambs.
For example, when Charles Trendell got up at this same February 5, 2007, public meeting and accused the Democrats of taking bribes from the waste industry, they did nothing. The popular wisdom that public figures or public officials cannot be libeled is incorrect. It so happens that such demonstrably false statement statements constitute slander when made publicly and it is incumbent on the accuser to prove the statement, not the responsibility of the accused to prove the untruth of the statement. But when broadcast over TV, the same statements constitute libel, with significantly higher penalties for making them. Did the accused trustees immediately bring suit for libel? They did not. They sat there and took their verbal drubbing like good little lambs.
Every time a critical and often untrue letter to the editor from regular contributors like Mark Aarons, Thomas Brennan, Maria Cudequest, Don and Doris Daubney, Susan Konig, Joann Minett, James Moore, Robert Wintermeier and Marie Yurchuk would appear in the Gazette, their lies and misstatements went unchallenged and unanswered.
When Richard Pellicci’s cartoons depicting them as cockroaches or calling them the “cash for trash trio,” also appeared in the Gazette, they failed to respond in kind. Are there no Democratic cartoonists in all of Croton?
When the Schmidt ticket proclaimed that 30,000 trucks, up from a previous figure of 20,000, would rumble through Croton spewing noxious gases and leaving a harmful trail of debris, not one Democratic candidate demanded that they substantiate their astronomical numbers—even though they knew they had no basis in fact, but had been plucked out of the air. Yet every one of the Republicans’ exaggerated claims about threats to the public health, safety and welfare of Croton’s population were modern adaptations of the “big lie” technique of the master liar, Adolf Hitler: Tell whopping big lies and repeat them often enough and soon the people will believe them. The Bush administration has fine-tuned this technique and uses it regularly on a gullible American public.
When Croton Republicans distributed a color flier by mail with rats and roaches on it reading, “The threat is real!!! Rats and Roaches infest Croton-on-Hudson!!!” the Democrats never challenged the false flier’s statements.
There it is. The Alliance party won because they were willing to win at any cost—including libel, slander, lies and deception. The Democrats lost because they never bothered to nail those lies to the barn door every time they surfaced. Shame on them.
Quo vadis, Croton Democrats? If any conclusions are to be drawn from this brief history, it is that “local boy (or girl) makes good” is still a significant watchword. Witness two Democrats, Bob Elliott, a proven vote-getter and a local boy, and the same for Charlie Kane, another local boy. Deborah Yurchuk-McCarthy, a local girl (Croton Harmon High School, Class of 1977) made good for the Republicans.
In the meantime, the Democrats have an enormous problem on their hands: How to stop the aggressive Republican juggernaut? Two seats will be at stake in the 2008 local election: those of Charlie Kane and Ann Gallelli.
Will voters decide that preserving a “loyal opposition” makes for good government? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.