GOP rides high in Berne, confounding Dems

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who is also chairman of the Albany County GOP, stands with Republican Town Board candidate Thomas Doolin, right, as they await election results at the Canaday Hill polling place in Berne.

BERNE — Hoping for the best, Democrats in Berne may very well have gotten their personal worst. 

At the end of an unusually combative election year, the Republican candidates have trampled all of their Democratic opponents, according to unofficial election results, and the forthcoming absentee ballot count is likely to boost the Republican advantage and deliver them an official victory. 

If that’s true, the Republicans will carry forward the revolution they staged in the majority-Democrat town when they took over the town board in 2020, after making inroads two years earlier when they elected Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons, who didn’t seek re-election because of the Hatch Act, and town board member Dennis Palow, who is likely the next supervisor.

For supervisor, Palow — currently the town’s deputy supervisor — won 589 votes to Democrat Peggy Christman’s 562, or 51 percent to Christman’s 49 percent.

For full-term town board seats, appointed board member Leo Vane and newcomer Thomas Doolin won 581 and 635 votes respectively. Their opponents, Democrats Patrick Martin and Jennifer Merrill-Fuller, won 486 and 516 votes, respectively. Grouped together, the Republicans won about 55 percent of votes to the Democrats’ 45 percent. 

For a two-year town board seat, left vacant because of a resignation, Republican-backed Democrat and current town clerk Anita Clayton won 648 votes to Democrat Tim Lippert’s 499 — a 56-to-44 percent split.

For highway superintendent, Republican incumbent Randy Bashwinger won 622 votes to Democrat Barbara Kennedy’s 531 — a 54-to-46 percent split.

For town clerk, Republican Kristin Francis received 614 votes to Jean Guarino’s 525 — a 54-to-46 percent split.

For town justice, the uncontested Democratic incumbents, Albert Raymond and Alan Zuk, each got a little more than 800 votes.

For tax collector, uncontested Democrat Debra Flagler won 763 votes, with 101 people writing in (Republicans had launched a late-stage write-in campaign for resident Kim Collins). 

For assessor, uncontested incumbent Democrat Melanie Bunzey won 767 votes.

 

Dem reaction

Berne Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin Crosier seemed shell-shocked over the phone after the election results were released, and listed a few of the major scandals that have hit the town in the five years since Republicans started gaining ground in the town government: namely, the death of highway worker Peter Becker at the town garage, the woman who drove a minivan into a town-excavated hole in a road that was unsupervised by highway workers, and a recent state comptroller report that detailed financial mismanagement by the Lyons administration.

“I mean, everything they’ve touched, they’ve messed up,” Crosier said. “Maybe people think that’s good government.”

He said that someone theorized that the results were a reflection of people’s feelings about President Joe Biden, who, of course, defeated incumbent Donald Trump in November.

Bashwinger, who has Trump paraphernalia adorning his Helderberg Trail home, is in many ways an avatar of the former president, having adopted social media as the main way of communicating with the public and decrying traditional media all the while. 

Fivethirtyeight shows that Biden’s disapproval rating as of Nov. 2 was 50.8 percent over a 42.8-percent approval rating. In a relatively low-income town like Berne, which had voted for Trump in 2016 despite voting for Obama in the last two elections, fears about inflation may exacerbate that disapproval. 

“It’s the only thing I can put my hand on,” Crosier said. 

When asked at the Canaday Hill polling place what he would tell voters in the event of a victory, Bashwinger said, “Thank you to all the residents.”

 

Absentee ballots

The vote totals reflect all ballots except those that are absentee, which Albany County Democratic Election Commissioner Kathleen Donovan said this week would be counted all at once, even though many have been delivered to the board of elections already. Absentee ballots can be sent in by mail as late as Election Day, requiring a wait-period before the election results are certified.

Donovan told The Enterprise that 274 absentee ballots were requested in Berne, and that 208 were returned by the afternoon of Nov. 2. She said that Bashwinger delivered 139 of those himself.

Democrats have been vocal about Bashwinger’s tactic of going around town distributing absentee-ballot forms and collecting the ballots himself, claiming that it makes voters liable to intimidation on Bashwinger’s part. The Enterprise has not been able to independently verify that any intimidation or malfeasance has taken place, however. 

Donovan said that it’s unusual for so many ballots from a small town to be hand-delivered, even with the new no-excuse voting system, which allows anyone to request an absentee ballot because of anxieties over COVID-19.

“I think a lot of the no-excuse voting, with COVID, happened through the New York State application portal,” Donovan said. “It’s the people that are picking up for other people that seems unfair … When one candidate picks up so many ballots for people in a town the size of Berne, it just doesn’t look valid.”

Before the election, Berne resident Fallon Wright posted a video on social media that showed Bashwinger at her family’s door to collect absentee ballot paperwork. In the video, Wright criticizes Bashwinger for attempting to solicit votes from her grandparents whom she describes as “very, very sick.”

She also says her grandfather, who apparently Bashwinger doesn’t know, was in a temporarily incapacitated cognitive state. “He’s actually hallucinating so he’s not able to make his vote for you,” Wright says in the video, after which Bashwinger leaves.

Above the video, Wright has written, “The lengths they won’t go I’ll tell ya. Nice guy though he even filled the paper out so all my grandfather had to do was barely get an eye open to sign.”

Wright told The Enterprise in September that Bashwinger had run into her father at a local convenience store the day before the video was recorded, and that Bashwinger had given him a filled-out request form to give to Wright’s grandfather, who happened to be suffering an infection and was hallucinating as a result.

Although it gained some traction on social media, the video is not evidence of wrongdoing.

“I mean, there’s nothing we can point to specifically, but it doesn’t look good,” said Donovan, who was aware of the video. 

Bashwinger campaigned against the amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed no-excuse voting to continue outside of the COVID-19 pandemic — one of three amendments supported by voting-rights advocates, all of which were defeated on Tuesday.

Bashwinger told The Enterprise on Election Night that he had beaten the Democrats — who support no-excuse voting — “at their own game.” 

When asked why he was against a voting method that he was so willing to leverage this year, he said, “It worked out for us this year because of COVID,” but he criticized it as a system that the Democratic Party had set up. 

Last November, Democrats nationwide were more likely to vote absentee because of COVID-19. This became less of a factor by the primaries in June, after the vaccine rollout, but Bashwinger had submitted many absentee ballots that favored his candidate in the Berne Democratic primary — Anita Clayton — which squeezed Timothy Lippert’s once-healthy lead into a marginal one. 

Assuming that all of Bashwinger’s hand-delivered absentee ballots go to the Republican candidates — unlikely, but a good rule-of-thumb, based on the primary — the Democrats would still be unable to overcome the gap.

More Hilltowns News

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  • The Berne Town Hall.

    Berne Planning Board member Lawrence Zimmerman resigned in November over frustrations that the town is not following the guidance of its own comprehensive plan. Former town board member Dawn Jordan says that ideology and partisanship got in the way, along with some more prosaic — and even healthy — obstacles.

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