Building a local political party from the ground up is no easy task, but a group of enterprising Democrats in Shawangunk are attempting just such an undertaking in a town that has been controlled politically for decades by Republicans. With the entire town administration controlled by the GOP, including the supervisor’s chair and the whole town board, the Shawangunk Democratic Party has a long way to go, but the organization hopes to give voters options going forward in a town where general election Republican candidates usually run unopposed.
The group was formed in the spring, and has held four meetings to date on the second Saturday of each month at the Shawangunk Town Hall. “We started in May with six people, then increased to 13 the next meeting and 22 the next meeting,” Democratic Chairperson Adrienne Gelfand-Perine said. “Over that time, we elected a board, we set up a bank account, we have a fundraising committee that’s operating. So people are very, very energized, and just want a chance to talk and share information.”
While the Democrats will not contest the two town board seats up for grabs this fall in Shawangunk (Councilmen Adrian DeWitt and Matthew Watkins are up for re-election in November – the Republicans are supporting DeWitt and newcomer Alex Danon) and Republican Ulster County Legislature Chairman Kenneth Ronk will also run unopposed this fall, a pair of Democrats on the ballot that are challenging for spots on the Ulster County Legislature are being assisted by the Shawangunk Democrats. Andrew Zink of the Shawangunk district and Tracy Bartells, whose district is split between Shawangunk and Gardiner, are each running to represent their zones with the support of the local party.
The party’s presence in the town has been negligible for years, as there hasn’t been an official Democratic committee in the town since 1965. Attempts over the years to establish a Democratic party in Shawangunk have routinely fizzled, but resident Harold Chorny says that the results of last November’s presidential election has given new momentum to citizens wanting to get involved in the political process. “I’ve been trying personally for years, with no success to get this going,” he said. “I would get two people, three people, and then it would just die. Somehow (President) Trump has done some good in the world, because he’s sparked enough outrage. So there’s been quite an outpouring of interest.”
Chorny, 80, said it’s been difficult in the past to challenge the entrenched Republican tradition in the town. “It’s been frustrating,” he said. “Before, we would try and nothing really took hold here. Shawangunk has the reputation of being a Republican stronghold, fast and firm. I’ve carried petitions to put people on the ballot in Shawangunk, as has my wife, and even that has been very hard work. But we’ve done it over many years.” Chorney couldn’t recall a Democrat winning a major race in Shawangunk in the last two decades. “There have been virtually no Democrats elected in Shawangunk for years,” he said. “There was a Democratic judge who was voted out, but we’re the first Democratic presence in years.”
(Democrat Charles “Bud” Flynn served as town supevisor in the late 1970s.)
A few dozen locals have signed on to the group’s email list, and Ulster County Democratic Elections Commissioner Victor Work also lent the local party an early helping hand. The group scored an early victory when they helped to elect Kristi Kheiralla to the Pine Bush School Board in May. United behind a theme of “It’s Time,” the party is hoping to take the next steps to become a formidable challenger in town elections. “We want to inform the public about the fact that there is a Democratic Party in Shawangunk and we’re looking to have a dialogue,” Gelfand-Perine said. “Secondly, our prime focus is trying to get people to run for office. Along with that, and since I’m relatively new to the community, I’ve realized that people do not talk about the Democrats in our area. So we want to inform people about the goals of the Democratic Party, which I realize are in flux right now, to mobilize people to get involved and to energize them to realize that there are a lot more of us than they might have thought. Then we want to get people elected.”
Gelfand-Perine moved to the town from Queens in 2009, but has owned a house in the area since 2001. The party leader recently visited the Plattekill Democratic Party to observe their caucus system and attended a meeting of their Gardiner counterparts to learn more about party building. Finding Democratic candidates for this fall’s election cycle in Shawangunk proved impossible due to the time crunch, but the group hopes that won’t be the case in the future. “We attempted to get a petition signed to get an opportunity to ballot so that maybe we could put somebody on come September, but the turnaround time was so short that we didn’t have an opportunity to do that,” Gelfand-Perine explained. “But our goal is to get someone to run for every position. Getting someone to run for our town board from our party, so that’s also something on the table.”
Chorny believes that having another option on the ballot for voters to consider would be healthy for the local political process, and it could actually be beneficial for both sides. “I’ve heard from several people that (Shawangunk Supervisor) John Valk, who is a very good supervisor, has lamented the fact that it’s a one-party town,” he said. “Because there’s no discussion of controversial, difficult things. It would be nice to have that. I don’t have any hopes beyond that, if we can have a presence and we enter into discussions. We don’t have to win all the time, but we have to be there. At this point, we’re not there and we haven’t been considered.”
The Shawangunk Democrats are building slowly, but surely, with plans to become a real alternative in the town for years to come. “There hadn’t been an active Democratic Party here since the 1980s,” Gelfand-Perine said. “In the state of politics today, a lot of people wanted to do something constructive. We’re not talking about ‘Down with Trump,’ we’re talking about how we can mobilize people to understand that they have to participate in order to make a democracy work.”
By Ted Remsnyder