Something to chew on at breakfast

I expected few sparks at Tuesday’s congressional candidates breakfast sponsored by the chamber of commerce and a fistfight almost broke out. Clearly, 18th district congressional candidates Pat Ryan and Colin Schmitt don’t like each other.

To begin with, they come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Ryan the liberal, Schmitt the conservative, reason enough to get testy.

Ryan seemed prepared to play nice in sticking to the issues that carried him to a special election victory last month over Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro. Schmitt had other ideas after it became apparent that the crowd at Kingston’s Best Western was mostly on Ryan’s side.

Molinaro, facing an empty seat – Josh Riley, his Democratic opponent in the new 19th CD, was a no-show – observed the escalating tension between the other candidates with what appeared to be mild amusement.

Ryan launched the first salvo by calling those (like Schmitt) who supported the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade as “extremists.” “This is out of step,” he said. “It goes against what we are as a country.”

Retorted Schmitt, “I’m pro-life. That’s my record. I am not an extremist.” Schmitt in turn accused Ryan of being an extremist on the abortion issue. Sandbox politics?

Schmitt, at 32, is one of the younger candidates running for congress. He’s finishing his fourth year in the assembly. Ryan, 40, has served just over 30 months as Ulster County executive.

All three candidates were long on their respective records, at times eloquent on issues, but rather short on solutions.

More federal money seemed the universal answer, though Molinaro repeatedly made a case for holding government accountable for the spending it does.

The two executives were able to point with pride to some of the programs they initiated during their terms in county government. For a while I thought they were both running for reelection as county execs.

Schmitt wasn’t for sealing the border, Trump-like, but did call for “fully-staffed border patrols.”

Declaring fentanyl, the leading cause of death among 18 to 45-year-olds, Schmitt got the audience stirring with, “Just one backpack of fentanyl coming across the border is enough to kill everybody in Ulster County.”

Capt. Ryan wasted few opportunities to reference his combat zone army service record, while Sgt. Schmitt played catch-up about his hitch in the National Guard working state-wide on the pandemic. There is really no comparison; Schmitt would be wise to drop that tactic.

At one point during a back and forth over cyber security, Schmitt, with nothing to back it up, accused Ryan of “selling American data.” Ryan was an intelligence officer in the army specializing in cyber security and after leaving the service started a company in New York that specialized in those issues.

“I literally don’t know what he’s talking about,” an indignant Ryan replied. He knows.  Pro-Schmidt ads are already hitting that topic.

With the floor to himself, Molinaro was free to say just about anything he wanted. To his credit, he barely mentioned his AWOL (Absent with Out Leave) opponent. With its 51,000 Democratic enrollment, Riley was foolish to duck what probably will be the biggest crowd he’ll face in Ulster. It could cost him the election.

Like Schmitt, Molinaro offered a pledge of independence if elected. “I’m not running for congress to be on someone’s partisan team,” he said, a veiled reference, perhaps, to former Congressman Antonio Delgado’s allegiance to the House Democratic majority.

The candidates offered some insight into the rigors and disappointments of government.

Ryan, with a sigh, said, “I ran a few years ago and I thought the pandemic would bring us together. It has not happened.”

Schmitt served up one of those good news-bad news scenarios common to campaigns. Claiming he’d contacted 140,000 people during his run for congress, he complained that “the other side is spending $500,000 a week against me.” Welcome to the show, Colin.

 I suspect competing sides won’t like this, but I thought Schmitt fought Ryan to a near draw, a decent showing considering the venue. That said, Ryan came across as more likeable, while Schmitt seemed uptight and defensive.  Molinaro sounds like he’s ready for prime time.  

Molinaro wasn’t asked, but chose to defend himself against charges of “professional politician.”

“I find it curious that someone attacks a person who holds elected office while seeking elected office,” he said.

Then speaking to his 29 years in offices ranging from village council member to county legislator to assemblyman to county executive, he said, “I am passionate about public service. I will not run from the fire. My job is to meet you where you are (in order) to get to a better place.” It drew one of the few applause lines from the chamber crowd.

                                                                                *****

BREAKFAST NOTES – Candidates played to less than a full house, unusual for chamber breakfasts coming off a summer hiatus.   

Republican senate candidate Sue Serino of Dutchess came over to hear the show. Democratic opponent Michelle Hinchey did not attend. The two are scheduled to appear at the Chamber’s Oct. 18th breakfast, same time, same place.

Serino is about the same height as the lanky Metzger, tall for women. “I may have an image problem,” she quipped. “Some people think I’m a short blonde.”

Republican assembly candidate Pat Sheehan worked the crowd, lamenting here and there about the problems of raising money. Democratic candidate Sarahana Shrestha was not seen, but has no such issues.

A note on Shrestha, all but invisible since her June 28th primary win over Kevin Cahill. I wrote last week that she did not attend the Democratic convention that nominated Jen Metzger for county exec. (I pay strict attention to who is at these affairs, and perhaps as important, who isn’t.) A number of Shrestha supporters have advised me she was in attendance, but chose to greet delegates at the door. She was also among the handful of attendees wearing a mask. The president’s declaration of the end of the pandemic notwithstanding, maybe local Democrats should host a masked ball for their next convention.

It’s hardly worth mentioning Jim Quigley, Republican candidate for executive; he’s everywhere. Jen Metzger missed an opportunity to work a friendly crowd, but the pair are scheduled for the breakfast program on Nov. 1.

Chamber president Ward Todd said the audience filled out 51 League of Women questionnaires for candidates to address. Time limits allowed only about six subjects.

NEXT – Me and Mario will chew on some of the above and much more on our bi-weekly broadcast on WGHQ-92 beginning at 7 a.m. Friday. Tune in.

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