Guilderland Democrats switch to a primary 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

Margaretann Paczkowski, a member of Guilderland’s conservation advisory council, was one of many Guilderland Democratic committee members who spoke in favor of changing to a primary system, during a debate on the subject Monday night. After the discussion, members voted to change from the caucus system to a primary. The vote was more than the two-thirds that was required by election law, said committee Chairman Jacob Crawford. 

GUILDERLAND — By a margin of more than two-thirds and after hearing from members on both sides of the issue, the Guilderland Democratic committee voted Monday night to change its system of selecting candidates from a caucus to a primary.

Committee Chairman Jacob Crawford told The Enterprise after the meeting that the change will take effect immediately, but that there is no primary or caucus this year, so the next election will be 2021. 

This was the culmination of a process that began almost two years ago, when Christine Napierski began to call for a change to the long-established caucus system. 

Napierski, an attorney, had already been selected by the town board to serve as a town justice after the arrest of then-justice Richard Sherwood and had started in the post when the town’s Democratic committee decided instead to back fellow member Bryan Clenahan, who then prevailed by just 21 votes several months later in a caucus. 

Napierski, along with her father and law partner, had sued unsuccessfully to stop the Democratic caucus. Clenahan won the judge’s post in the general election in a landslide.

Napierski, who is not a committee member, nevertheless spoke Monday night before the vote, saying that she had knocked on many doors in 2018, trying to get people to come out to the July caucus to vote for her. “I didn’t meet one person outside this committee who knew we even had a caucus,” she said. That’s voter suppression, she said. 

Others speaking for changing to a primary included Dustin Reidy, who ran and won in a primary against Steven Wickham, the committee’s choice for the Albany County Legislature last year. Reidy said that both he and Wickham were out knocking on doors almost every day throughout the months of the campaign, and that he himself probably knocked on the door of every registered Democrat in that election district four or five times.

By the time the primary came around, voters “got to vote knowing me probably better than they wanted to.” He said he thought voters were appreciative that “everyone had their voice.” 

Town Councilman Paul Pastore argued to keep the caucus system. People argue that the voters should be allowed to decide, he said, but the committee members do the lion’s share of the work involved in supporting candidates in any election. Switching to a primary, with the requirement to collect signatures on petitions, will mean “a lot of work,” he said, warning that the committee members will likely be the ones asked to do that additional work. 

Margaretann Paczkowski, a member of Guilderland’s conservation advisory council, said that a primary system offers more “ease of voting” since people are able to vote quickly and easily at a time and place that is convenient and gets “much more of a turnout.” 

Mickey Cleary, who had been a longtime member of the town’s planning board before being elected last year to the Albany County Legislature, also spoke for the caucus, saying, “Having a caucus doesn’t mean you can’t go knock on doors, and ask people to come out and vote.” He pointed out that caucusing has been the Guilderland Democrats’ system for years, mentioning a newspaper article he found recently from 1969 with an article in it about the Guilderland Democratic Party caucus. 

Thomas Remmert, chairman of Guilderland’s zoning board, said he was not arguing for a primary or for a caucus. He pointed out that, with a primary system, candidates will need to spend some money on the primary election and some on the general election. But, he said, districts such as Westmere or McKownville are heavily Democratic, and the primary there “is the general election,” meaning that the candidate who wins the primary will also win the election. Money that a candidate spends on the primary won’t be wasted, he said. 

Herb Hennings, a member of the town’s planning board, argued that there should be “as much participation as possible” in elections. He has been to more caucuses over the years than he can count, he said, and very few have been attended by more than about 30 or 40 people.

“Only recently has it ballooned, when there was a contest,” he said, apparently referring to the 2018 caucus between Clenahan and Napierski, which brought out several hundred people. Of town residents who are enrolled Democrats, he said, “People don’t know that there’s a caucus, usually, and that’s a problem.” 

James Cohen, who unsuccessfully challenged Mark Grimm last year to represent the Fort Hunter area in the county legislature, said, “Things are changing. People are looking for more of a choice.” He added that the caucus was “sort of anti-democratic,” before backtracking and adding, “That’s a strong statement, but I hope you’ll consider a primary.” 

Committee Chairman Crawford spoke last, saying that he had wanted to wait until everyone wishing to speak had had a chance. He then said that he would be voting in favor of the primary system.

Even though elections never have 100-percent participation, Crawford said, they should allow and strive for that possibility, and the committee would be hard-pressed to find any establishment in Guilderland that could hold all of Guilderland’s 10,000 Democrats. Even with the average turnout, there is no centrally located facility that can host that many people.

These days, too, Crawford said, many private businesses are becoming unwilling to host political events. “Because of the partisanship in this country,” he said, business owners don’t always want to be associated with one party or the other. 

There is “a lot of energy” within the party right now, and people want to become involved, Crawford said. 

The state legislature last year passed “historic voter reforms,” he said, including extending voter registration deadlines, and extending the amount of time for voting, with the option of early voting. 

A primary will allow the town’s Democratic committee to “energize and harness the energy of more and more Democrats,” Crawford said.

The meeting adjourned immediately after the vote. A man who smiled broadly at Napierski while shaking her hand could be heard to say, “You started this.” 

More Guilderland News

  • The Altamont Board of Trustees this month accepted the retirement of its superintendent of public works, Jeffrey Moller. 

  • “Guilderland is one of those schools that was historically not fully funded,” said Andrew Van Alstyne, displaying a chart that showed over the last decade Guilderland was underfunded by $4 million to $5 million each year — a gap that decreased with the phase-in until Guilderland was fully funded with $25 million in Foundation Aid this year.

  • In a Jan. 25 memo to the town board, Jacqueline Coons, Guilderland’s chief building and zoning inspector, wrote that, in allowing single-family or two-family dwellings to be occupied on a transient basis, “It seems appropriate that the use be regulated differently than commercial hotel/motel occupancies as it is a less intense use and as such could be compatible with locations that may not be zoned a commercial district.”

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