GOP selects Conklin and Harris for Berne board, incumbent Dems aren’t running

Bonnie Conklin

BERNE — This rural Helderberg Hilltown, long dominated by Democrats, saw a Republican resurgence two years ago, nearly flipping the town board majority. Two Republicans — Supervisor Sean Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow — both won their first-ever elected posts and the third GOP candidate lost by a single vote.

Now the two Democratic incumbents — councilwomen Karen Schimmer and Dawn Jordan — say they will not run to keep their seats. Many controversial town board votes in the last two years have fallen along party lines, with the Democrats winning, 3 to 2.

GOP Chairman Randy Bashwinger says that the town’s Republican Party is again “going with people, not party.”

Bashwinger, who is also the town highway superintendent, has led the Republican resurgence, experienced in other Hilltowns, too. He told The Enterprise this week that Berne Republicans at their March 6 caucus nominated four people from three different parties, none of whom are Republicans.

Bonnie Conklin and Mathew Harris were unanimously nominated for town council by the 36 people at the caucus, said Bashwinger. Conklin is a Conservative and Harris is not enrolled in any party. Harris said he has submitted his name to be enrolled as a member of the Independence Party, but he will not be a member until after the election cycle.

Meanwhile, Jordan, a Democrat who has served on the board since 2013, says she wants to spend more time with her family.

“It’s been an honor to serve the people of Berne,” said Jordan. “It’s not like a regular job; it’s public service.”

Schimmer, also a Democrat, has been on the board since 2012 and said that after nearly eight years it is time for her to move on.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.

When Schimmer served with the former supervisor, Democrat Kevin Crosier, who was ousted by Lyons, and with Councilman Joseph Golden, a Democrat who retired, the board was “professionally handled” and there was “a strong team effort to work together,” said Schimmer.

“It is different, there is no question,” she said this week, of the current board. But Schimmer emphasized that her main reason for not seeking re-election has been the large amount of time she spent on town work.

The part-time council post pays $3,635 annually.

Gerald O’Malley, the town’s Democratic chairman, told The Enterprise that his party’s caucus has not yet been scheduled.

Bashwinger said that town assessors Brian Crawford and Christine Valachovic, both Democrats, were unanimously backed by the Republicans because they were satisfied with the assessors’ work for the town.

Conklin previously served on the Berne Town Board after being elected with 31 percent of the vote in 2011; she was the first Republican to win a seat on the board in more than 20 years in a town where the number of enrolled Democrats is more than double the number of Republicans.

Conklin resigned in November 2013 in the midst of her term, citing increasing responsibilities at her job and discomfort in voicing her disagreement at board meetings; Jordan was appointed in her place. The other four board members at the time were Democrats.

Divisive issues on the current board have included whether to appoint Bashwinger to the youth council; expanding the hours of the building inspector; having board members serve as liaisons to town departments, boards, and committees; town maintenance of Switzkill Farm; and solar energy.

The two Republicans recently voted against continuing a moratorium on industrial solar arrays. While the supervisor said the vote was simply meant to indicate the law should be changed, Jordan said it was irresponsible because proper legislation needs to be put in place first.

Conklin

Conklin, 48, told The Enterprise this week that she decided to return to politics partly because she was inspired by her mother, the late Linda Carman. Both women were diagnosed with cancer around the same time.

“She has inspired me to work with the public again,” said Conklin of her mother who was active with the Hilltown Senior Citizens.

Her faith has been a large driver for her and is partly why she is running, she said. She attends Center Point Church in Guilderland Center.

Conklin hopes to find out what residents are concerned about while asking them questions on the campaign trail with Harris. Some of the issues Conklin is concerned about include bringing in more businesses to the town; senior housing and transportation; adding sidewalks; increasing internet and cell service; and increasing participation in the youth council.

Conklin, a Berne native who works at the Knox Nursery School, believes that by adding more amenities like a more active youth council, better transportation, and more businesses, families might be more apt to stay in the Hilltowns. At the other end of the age spectrum, Conklin is working with a group of people to again try to bring senior housing to the Hilltowns.

“You’re born and bred in the Hilltowns, you want to stay in the Hilltowns,” she said.

Conklin said that she has contacted a Stewart’s Shops official who said that the company is not interested in the Hilltowns, and so she intends to start reaching out to other businesses like Cumberland Farms. It would be important, she said, for people in town to get gas and groceries, particularly in the Berne hamlet.

When she first was elected, Conklin said she didn’t feel as much support from residents or board members. She feels that is different now, with backing from people such as Bashwinger and Supervisor Lyons.

She said she resigned shortly after an executive session was held where she felt a conversation about a town employee was not appropriate.

“I just felt like I could no longer be a part of the board,” she said.

She believes there’s more support from the town Republican party now, and that even residents who aren’t Republicans are voting outside their party.

“People are voting for the person, not the party,” she said.

Harris

Harris said that, after he retired as an engineer at the United States Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, he moved to Berne about three years ago. Originally from Connecticut, he and his wife chose to move to the area because it was a central location to see their family.

He said that he became involved in Berne’s local government after he was complaining to a neighbor about a town board decision; the neighbor suggested he attend the meetings to express his opinions.

“And the rest, I guess, is history,” he said.

He was particularly vocal about the town’s solar laws, and spoke at public hearings for the town’s residential solar law, making suggestions that he said made the law more technically correct or less of a burden for a resident using solar.

Harris feels that town board members have not always respected the “general taxpayer” speaking at meetings, and have not taken what residents have to say into account. As someone currently not enrolled in any party, he said that he also would help end the board’s division along party lines.

“I don’t do what the party wants me to do; I’ll do what the people in town want me to do,” he said.

One of the issues he would like to address is updating town infrastructure. But he said that he won’t be fully aware of all the issues that need to be addressed until he is on the board and listening to what residents want.

Harris, 66, has done the paperwork to enroll as a member of the Independence Party, although he won’t be enrolled until after the current election cycle. He said he chose to run on the Republican Party line because in Berne the GOP has supported candidates despite their party affiliation.

“That made a difference,” he said.

Minor parties

Harris and Conklin also both have the backing of the Albany County Independence Party, and the Conservative Party, said Bashwinger.

“We’re very excited to work with these individuals,” said Paul Caputo, the chairman of the county’s Independence Party, of the Berne candidates, whom he said were “exemplary” and would help their community.

A movement underway in New York State would end fusion voting, in which minor parties endorse major-party candidates rather than putting up their own candidates. New York is one of only eight states that allows fusion voting.

His party interviewed around 300 to 400 candidates in Albany County this year, said Caputo. “We would probably have two or three if this were passed,” he said. “It would really narrow the field.”

“My understanding is its still in its infancy stages,” Caputo said of legislation that would end fusion voting.

Both Bashwinger and Caputo said that new election laws that have moved up dates for caucuses have impeded the campaign process, making it harder to get people to run for office in the first place. Caputo said the change would especially affect smaller towns.

“It’s so tough getting people to run in a political position to begin with,” said Bashwinger.

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