To the casual observer, Monday night’s peaceful transfer of power from Republicans to Democrats in the Ulster County Legislature seemed like just another pubic meeting. But it wasn’t. Behind the scenes, where they make the sausage, it got ugly. 

Consider: Prior to the 6:30 p.m. call to meeting, Republican Ken Ronk of Wallkill was legislature chairman, minority leader Hector Rodriguez was preparing his acceptance speech as chairman majority leader Mary Beth Maio was counting noses, as usual, Tracey Bartels was settling in for another year in the middle of the pack and Jon Heppner was thinking about a run for assembly some day whenever Kevin Cahill decides it’s time to go. By the time the lights dimmed Monday night, all had assumed new roles. 

Let’s look at the winners, first. 

Bartels, the legislature’s leading non-enrolled member, almost sprained an ankle running up to the podium to accept the chairmanship. It was a strict “party vote” (with five independents siding with one side or the other) and by the slimmest 12-11 margin. For Democrats, Bartels was one the best choices in recent years. The wonder is what with all the smart, talented Democratic women who have served in the legislature, the Gardiner sky diver was the first  elected chairman by the party that says they honor women. As an independent, she’ll play well with an underrepresented minority, the county’s more than 35,000 non-enrolled voters. As a woman, well, enough said.

Heppner, barely 30, is as Cahill likes to say, “a true son of Woodstock,” and the party’s future. Moving him up a notch, with an eye to the chair and beyond, was smart politics.

Maio, a Highland banker, never seemed to have her heart in the day to day business of leadership. She’ll be happier on the bench, to be replaced by the former chairman.

I felt sorry for Ronk, a decent, why-can’t-we-be-friends? kind of guy, who took the path of least resistance with the executive to ultimate chagrin. Ronk’s was a thin margin (like Bartels) with only one vote standing between him and the herd. That vote would be Joltin’ Joe Maloney. Last year, the Saugerties freshman voted for Ronk; this year he didn’t and that was bye-bye Kenny.

Ronk took a $7,000 haircut in dropping down to minority leader, but he’ll have a pulpit – nothing like chairman – and maybe a way back. 

Not so, the biggest loser, Rodriguez, the man who would be chairman, for oh, these many years, is now not even a party leader. One of the more articulate, loquacious legislators, Rodriguez said but two words – “Tracey Bartels” – all night. Exactly what caused Hector’s precipitous plunge from messiah to pariah is yet to be determined, but for sure, he will remain a watchdog, even from the middle of the pack.

Democrats now have their ducks in place. Now, what?

As Bartels noted in a brief acceptance speech, 2019 will be a “year of transition.” Here, the new chairwoman displayed a talent for stating the obvious. The transition started when county executive Mike Hein announced he was a candidate for state job in Albany last Friday. BTW, Hein immediately departed for vacation after dropping that bomb, leaving his soon-to-be former allies, enemies and constituents to speculate about the future of that office. 

Quote of the night on that front came from long-time Hein irritant and sometimes victim, comptroller Elliott Auerbach. “There’s no way I can lose,” he crowed. “Hein’s gone soon and whoever takes his pace can’t be nearly half as bad. Hell, I’d be happy to drive him up the Thruway!” Auerbach’s ultimate triumph would be to succeed Hein as executive, but as he well knows by now, that won’t be as easy as climbing up the outer wall of the Glass menagerie from the fifth to sixth floor. of the county office building.

The bit in their teeth, the wind at their backs, Democrats expect to take at least 15 seats in the fall elections, maybe more. They’ll need to establish the independence and the relevance of the legislature, something that eluded Republicans during Ronk’s three-year tenure. We’ll get an indicator of where that’s going when Bartels names committees later this month. I predict a few major surprises. 

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