Gov hopeful speaks to a spirited GOP crowd in Berne

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Marc Molinaro, the Republican pick for governor of New York, stands with members of Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s Young Republicans. Molinaro himself started young in politics. He was just 19 when he was elected as the mayor of Tivoli in Dutchess County.

BERNE — Gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro, a moderate Republican, spoke on July 26 before an audience of Trump Republicans fresh off a series of upsets last fall in the rural Helderberg Hilltowns where Democratic enrollment dominates.

Molinaro held a town-hall style event with a question-and-answer session in the auditorium of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo secondary school on Thursday. Christine Benedict, the Albany County Republican Chairwoman, began the event by acknowledging local Republican politicians — many sitting in the front row — and their victories. The GOP upsets stand out in the rural Hilltowns, which is about a 45-minute drive from Albany, where enrollment skews Democratic. The majority of votes went to Donald Trump in 2016, after the Hilltowns had voted along the Democratic Party line for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“Berne made some inroads here,” noted Benedict. Republican Sean Lyons ousted  the four-term incumbent, Kevin Crosier, a Democrat, in November, and the Republicans fell one vote short of winning a town board majority on a formerly all-Democratic board.

Republicans had similar victories in Knox and Westerlo last fall: Republican Richard Filkins ousted a Democratic incumbent on Westerlo’s town board — bringing the number of Republicans there to two out of five; in Knox, the GOP ticket — which included both Democrats and Republicans — took every seat up for election.

So the atmosphere at last Thursday’s event — where the about 60 people did not fill the auditorium — was both optimistic and defiant. Westerlo’s Republican Chairwoman Lisa DeGroff followed Benedict’s speech, proclaiming that she would not say, “I tried, I gave up,” in the face of high taxes and the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013. DeGroff said she was confident Molinaro would fix these issues.

Molinaro steered away from issues President Donald Trump has ignited. He was most animated over what he described as the “cesspool of corruption,” in New York State government, and over the multi-billion-dollar deficit he said New York is heading towards.

Like former congressman and fellow moderate Chris Gibson, who is chairing Molinaro’s campaign after deciding not to run himself, Molinaro has said he will set his own term limits as governor — to two — and is in favor of enacting term limits in New York State.

Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive, began his career on the village board in Tivoli in Dutchess County, and was elected mayor of the village at age 19. He went on to become a county legislator and state assemblyman before being elected Dutchess County Executive at age 36 in 2011.

When asked by an audience member about the city of Albany becoming a sanctuary city and the possibility of the entire state doing the same, Molinaro said he did not support the “concept of a statewide sanctuary.”

“I don’t think you get to pick and choose the rules you have to follow,” he said.

But when another audience member — who mentioned with disdain Governor Andrew Cuomo’s multiple trips to Puerto Rico — asked how Molinaro would win the downstate vote, Molinaro was quick to empathize with New York City residents, saying that the long-documented problems with the city’s subway system and conditions in public housing that include the presence of lead paint, would sway city dwellers to vote for an alternative to the current administration.

When Molinaro was asked about addressing welfare fraud “in Albany and New York City,” the gubernatorial candidate stated that his mother — a single parent following a divorce — had used food stamps to support her family. He added that his daughter was on “welfare” — he added air quotes when he said it — or Medicaid, because she suffers from seizures. But he did add that the welfare system needs to be scrutinized and those committing fraud should be punished. When asked about concerns over split families, he noted that he was a child of divorce and married a second time himself.

Molinaro also said he was against the SAFE Act — legislation so unpopular in the Hilltowns that several towns have resolutions stating their opposition to it — but said he would not use executive authority as governor to repeal it.

“I don’t agree that I have the right to do away with legislation with the flick of a pen … ,” he said, adding that there would need to be action on the part of the state legislature and an opportunity for public scrutiny.

Discussing gun reform and gun violence further, Molinaro was vague on the root cause — “We live in a society that’s too urgent and too violent,” he said — but did voice support multiple times for providing mental-health and addiction treatment as well as for removing the stigma of both addiction and mental illness.

Molinaro also subtly opposed arming teachers — “a teacher should be focused on teaching,” he said — and instead voiced support for school resource officers, a practice that has been adopted locally with a plan by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office to place a deputy in the BKW and Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk school districts; Sheriff Craig Apple, a Democrat, joined the crowd later in the event.

Molinaro, when asked his views on the legalization of marijuana, hedged his bets.

“At least for medical,” said the man making the query, when Molinaro asked him to clarify if he meant recreationally; the man added that his brother had used the drug while undergoing treatment for cancer. Molinaro said he believed that medical marijuana needs to be more accessible, and that possession of the drug doesn’t deserve jail time, but said that he is “not ready to embrace total recreational use,” to overwhelming applause.

“I think we need to answer some questions before we rush to change the law,” he later added.

In July, responding to the governor’s budget request, the New York State Health Department released a study that states legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana offers more beneficial effects than negative ones. (See related story.)

Molinaro’s fiscal stance was summed up in a brief question about the state budget: “Cut it! Cut it!” he said excitedly, to applause.

He was critical of the Excelsior Scholarship — which offers free tuition at state schools to families with an income under $110,000 (the threshold is set to increase in the coming years) — due to his beliefs that the program is not sustainable and does not make the tuition affordable for families making more than $100,000 a year. When asked by a University at Albany student about the financial state of the State University of New York and City University of New York schools, Molinaro suggested private-sector partnerships and to “refocus priorities.”

Political corruption was a major theme in both Molinaro’s speech and the discussion between himself and audience members. References abounded to Eric Schneiderman, who resigned as the state’s attorney general in May after The New Yorker ran a story in which four women accused him of abuse; Sheldon Silver, the longtime speaker of the State Assembly convicted on felony corruption charges; and Clare Bronfman, the Seagram Company heiress who was recently charged in connection to the NXIVM case and who owns West Winds horse farm in Knox. Audience members sounded fed up with the current administration, something that energized Molinaro.

On Friday, the day after his event in Berne, Molinaro and state GOP Chairman Ed Cox filed a lawsuit against the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to find out if the commission is answering earlier requests to investigate Cuomo and his former top aide Joe Percoco, who was convicted in March on corruption charges. In April, Molinaro had filed with JCOPE, alleging that the governor had used state resources for political gain.

In jest, Molinaro described for the Hilltown crowd how he felt sorry for the next guy who would be dealing with what Cuomo would be leaving behind.

“Oh wait,” he said, to laughter from the audience.

More Hilltowns News

  • Lee Thomas inspired the Black Lives Matter rally

    About 140 people gathered for a peaceful, home-grown Black Lives Matter rally in Berne on Sunday. Most of them listened to speeches in the park pavilion while two dozen stayed near their motorcycles and pickup trucks on the edge of the parking lot — several saying they saw themselves as protectors since they view the BLM movement as destructive.

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Schanz said she is grateful for what she learned from the audit and new procedures have been put in place.

  • The Berne Town Board has spent more than $15,000 on investigations according to documents received by The Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Law request. All the investigations appear to have been of Democratic town board members. One recently led to a censure by partisan vote; the others were unsubstantiated.

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