Seeking change, county GOP elects Bashwinger as chairman, DeGroff as secretary

— Photo from the Albany County Republican Committee 

Randy Bashwinger this weekend was elected the Albany County GOP’s new chairman, replacing former county legislator Christine Benedict.

ALBANY COUNTY — As three out of the four rural Hilltowns have Republican-dominated town boards, the Albany County GOP has elected Berne’s highway superintendent and town Republican leader, Randy Bashwinger, as its new chairman.

The county Republicans have also chosen Westerlo’s GOP chairwoman, Lisa DeGroff, as secretary.

While Hilltown enrollment, as in the rest of Albany County, remains solidly Democratic — all county-wide offices are held by Democrats — the rural tide turned with the 2016 presidential election. In 2008 and 2012, the Hilltowns had gone for Barack Obama, but in 2016, they went for Donald Trump.

Bashwinger will replace former Albany County Legislator Christine Benedict, 68, of Colonie, who stepped down from the position after eight years.

“I have a lot going on right now,” Benedict told The Enterprise, “and I have a second home in Florida and I would just like to start spending more time down there.”

Benedict said that Bashwinger, who was her second vice-chair, voiced his desire to take over.

“He stepped up and wanted it and I couldn’t think of anyone better,” Benedict said. “… Randy was my poster child. He’s very effective.”

Benedict said that Bashwinger’s greatest asset to the party is his “boots-on-the-ground” campaigning.

“Randy is all over the place. It doesn’t matter where — Colonie, Guilderland, his strengths are really boots on the ground. He’s grassroots, and that tells it all. He’s excellent.”

As the quasi-official GOP chairman of the rural Hilltowns, Bashwinger played a major role in flipping three out of the four town boards from long-time Democratic majorities to GOP-backed majorities in 2019, having established inroads during the 2017 election.

In Berne’s 2017 election, Bashwinger helped elect Republican Sean Lyons as supervisor and Republican Dennis Palow as a town board member. For his efforts, the state GOP named Bashwinger a “rising star” shortly after the 2017 elections. 

The GOP secured its majority in Berne in 2019 when it backed Bonnie Conklin, a Conservative, and Mathew Harris, an Independence Party member — both were elected, leaving Joel Willsey as the town board’s lone Democrat. 

In Knox, all five town board members are GOP-backed, two of whom were elected in 2019. In Westerlo, three out of five board seats are occupied by Republicans, one of whom was newly elected in 2019 while another defended her seat.

Rensselaerville is the lone Hilltown exception, incorporating officials from nearly every political party. “Rensselaerville’s a tougher area,” Bashwinger said. “It’s hard to get people to even vote.”

When asked about his success in towns where Democrats outnumber Republicans by enormous margins, Bashwinger said that it results from his willingness to talk across party lines, a strategy that he’ll continue employing at the county level, where similar margins exist. 

“You have to get people to join in with you and jump lines,” Bashwinger said. “We proved it up in the Hilltowns where people have jumped lines. When I ran in ’17, I had almost 800 votes. And at the time we only had 340 [or] 350 Republicans. So it tells you a lot of people crossed the line to vote for me. And that’s really what it’s about. You need all those [party] lines. 

“As the underdog, such as we are, we need the minority lines to also help us,” Bashwinger went on. “We value their votes also, and the Democrats. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone campaigning and I’ve heard ‘I’m only a Democrat because of my state or county job.’ And that’s frustrating because you shouldn’t be held to a job based on your enrollment; it should be based on your performance.” 

Bashwinger said he aims to take the Republican momentum in the rural areas of Albany County and bring it to the suburbs.

“The Republicans have taken that whole area all the way from Coeymans to Knox,” Bashwinger said, “and hopefully we can extend it and come down further into the suburbs and hit Guilderland and Colonie and Bethlehem and change some things up.”

DeGroff echoed Bashwinger’s sentiment and added that there will be a push to incorporate younger voters into the party’s base going forward.

“I think we do a really good job based on where we fall in the age category,” DeGroff continued. “We can reach the Millennials, we can reach the people in our age group, and we have enough life experience that we can reach voters older than us. But because [Bashwinger and I] have young kids, kids that are either voting age or just approaching voting age, I think we’re in a unique position to tap into the Millenials.

“So that’s kind of what we’re looking to do is grow the county,” DeGroff said, “grow the participation, bring in more eligible candidates, and host some fundraisers so we can support these candidates.”
 

Trump’s influence

The Republican insurgence in the Hilltowns corresponds with the election of Trump, a fiery populist.

In 2016, Trump won a majority of Hilltowns voters, who in 2012 chose Democrat Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, both fairly moderate candidates.

In Westerlo, for example, where only 21 percent of voters were enrolled as Republicans, 64 percent of votes cast for president went to Trump in 2016.   Rensselaerville voters awarded Trump 62 percent of all votes cast for president in a town where only 21 percent of voters are enrolled as Republicans.

The two remaining Hilltowns — also majority Democratic — went for Trump, too, but not  as decisively as their neighbors to the south and east.

Bashwinger agreed that Trump’s election has been a boon for conservatives down the line and said that the GOP will “ride that as much as we can and get some good people in place and hopefully we can get past this COVID and get everything back open and get the economy booming again.”

Bashwinger, who flies a Trump flag at his home near Berne’s town hall, hews closely to Trump’s style of social media engagement, speaking directly to voters through his Facebook page rather than more traditional media, allowing for immediate connection while also bypassing editorial review and factchecking. 

DeGroff seemed less willing to connect Trump’s 2016 victory to the Hilltowns’ ensuing conservative boom — “The majority of the residents here have a certain set of ideals … so no matter who the presidential candidates are, that’s always been true,” she said — but asserted that Bashwinger’s new role relates directly to the political crossroads at which the country sits.

Trump is seeking re-election on Nov. 3 against the backdrop of a pandemic, national protests around police brutality, and a Supreme Court vacancy following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court’s progressive anchor. He’s challenged by former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat whose moderate politics are being reluctantly embraced by an increasingly leftist Democratic party aiming to unseat Trump at all costs.

“It’s a unique time in this country right now,” DeGroff said. “It’s very unique, and now is a great time for change. The political climate is ripe for that. We need to refocus, we need to reimagine, and we need to retool our county committee and thereby our local committee. So with these things in mind, I think that the new slate of officers are better poised to secure our candidates and reach those objectives.”

“We’re looking for some change and to improve the party,” Bashwinger echoed. “That’s really the game plan.”

Platform

Despite the change, the Republican platform as Bashwinger described it is conventional: more businesses; lower taxes; and a focus on law and order, with the latter taking on a new urgency amid a significant increase in shootings and homicides in the city of Albany. 

Referencing the increase in violent crimes, Bashwinger said, “We need to nip this in the bud. It’s pretty sad when Albany is one of the top-rated areas for shootings. I think that is a huge one for me, is the safety and the violence.

“And standing behind the police,” Bashwinger added. “Support the blue. Republicans are huge with that. I think every one of the candidates this year have the backing of the sheriff and the police departments. I think you’ll find that all the unions have supported Republicans because of that. 

“And another big issue is bail reform,” Bashwinger went on, “which isn’t as big an issue up in Berne — we’re fortunate not to have a whole lot of activity in there — but the sad thing is it’s coming up there and into the suburbs from the city, so we still have to be concerned about that.”

 

Berne perspective

While Bashwinger has earned bipartisan support in the area, it’s likely that news of his unanimous election as county GOP chair will exasperate steadfast Democrats in Berne, where Bashwinger is controversial. 

His most ardent critic is Willsey, the board’s sole Democrat and a retired Department of Transportation employee, who constructs elaborate slideshows that detail various shortcomings related to safety, from the placement of election signs along roads in town to subpar or absent shoulders.

Last year, a woman totaled her minivan after driving it into an eight-feet-deep hole in a Berne road that had been closed except to local traffic. She said that glare from the sun prevented her from seeing properly.

Willsey wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor that, in addition to the “Road Closed” sign, workers should have been guiding vehicles or that a barrier should have been put up around the hole, while Bashwinger said that he followed the proper procedures.

Willsey also says that, under Bashwinger’s leadership, the GOP has been harassing him with investigations into alleged misconduct, all but one of which have turned up no instances of wrongdoing. 

That allegation, which led the other board members to censure Willsey, came from Councilman Palow, a combat veteran, who accused Willsey of discriminating against him on the basis of his veteran status. The investigation was carried out by a private law firm that has never responded to Enterprise requests for more information on the weight of the findings, which Willsey says were based on false information.

The GOP also launched investigations into then-Democratic board members Dawn Jordan and Karen Schimmer. Jordan and Schimmer each voted against giving Bashwinger a raise and denied him the opportunity to serve on the Youth Council prior to their investigations.

The investigations cost the town more than $15,000 in legal fees.

Bashwinger has also butted heads with former Berne supervisor, Kevin Crosier, a Democrat, who had overlapped Bashwinger’s tenure as highway superintendent for two years until Lyons’s election in 2017. 

After Bashwinger requested that he be able to schedule his highway crew to work four 10-hour days each week instead of five eight-hour days, Crosier laid off two highway workers without consulting Bashwinger, who found out when one of the former employees called him.

In response, Bashwinger led a march of 50 protesters to Berne’s town hall but Crosier didn’t budge on the four-day workweek, instead using it as leverage when Bashwinger requested a raise later that year.

Under the GOP majority in Berne, Bashwinger finally got his four-day workweek in addition to a 10-percent raise for his workers over a three-year period when the town voted to accept the new highway labor agreement earlier this year. 

The steep increase alarmed residents who were questioning the town’s financial standing as news of plummeting sales tax revenues emanated from the state comptroller’s office throughout the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Residents were also upset when it was revealed last year that, while serving in the full-time highway superintendent position, Bashwinger had been working a part-time job, a political appointment, with the Albany County Board of Elections from 8:30 a.m until noon on weekdays, managing his highway workers remotely. Bashwinger said he makes up the time in evenings and on weekends.

Bashwinger also came under fire for his role in the creation of Berne’s 2020 budget, which had been guided by municipal consultant Michael Richardson. Richardson told The Enterprise last year that Bashwinger failed to meet his statutory requirements by not providing expense estimates to the supervisor, which impeded Richardson’s ability to help the town create a precise budget. 

Through it all, Bashwinger, who was also elected to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, has received support from many Hilltown residents who point to his enthusiasm for locals and his performance as a highway superintendent.

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