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November 9, 2011

Dems gain two seats on Otsego board

COOPERSTOWN -- Democrats in Otsego County, with a boost from the anti-fracking group Sustainable Otsego, picked up two seats on the Board of Representatives in Election Day voting Tuesday, leaving them matched seven to seven against Republicans -- though the GOP still leads in weighted voting.

One of the most aggressively anti-drilling candidates in the county, John Kosmer, a co-founder of Sustainable Otsego running as a Democrat, toppled two-term GOP incumbent Rep. Jim Johnson of Fly Creek for the District 8 seat on the county board by a vote of 631 to 543, with all election districts reporting.

Democrats also scored a major victory in District 7, where Beth Rosenthal, the Roseboom town clerk who also ran with Sustainable Otsego backing, defeated Republican Ray Holohan of Middlefield, 614 to 510, for the seat being vacated by Rep. Floyd "Sam" Dubben, the chairman of the county board.

In another hard-fought contest, for District 5, Republican Pauline Koren emerged with a victory over Democrat Barbara Monroe, who also had the Sustainable Otsego line, 827 to 698. That race was for the seat held by Rep. Steve Fournier, a Republican who did not seek re-election.

Having an easier time of it in District 4 was incumbent Rep. Rich Murphy, D-town of Oneonta, who coasted past challenger Scott Gravelin, a Republican member of the Oneonta town board, 964 to 429.

Republicans kept power countywide on the shoulders of Rep. Jim Powers, R-Butternuts, who bested anti-fracking Democrat Teresa Winchester, 791 to 679, according to final Board of Elections numbers. In District 11, in the city of Oneonta, Democrat Gary Koutnik beat Republican Barbara Jass, 353 to 165.

While the results are bound to pump new drama into the work of the Board of Representatives, with 7 Democrats jockeying with seven Republicans, the GOP, in weighted votes, has a lead of 3,530 to 2,638 according to an unofficial tally.

"The Republican Party has lost its dominance of the county board, and the anti-fracking candidates have reached essentially what is parity with the Republicans," said Adrian Kuzminski, the moderator and founder of Sustainable Otsego.

Political leaders said turnout was robust on day graced by unseasonably balmy and sunny weather -- and with thermometers vaulting past the 60 degree mark.

For many voters -- in a county where the natural gas industry holds drilling rights on tens of thousands of acres of leased land -- races for the county Board of Representatives amounted to an impassioned referendum on hydrofracking.

"This is the single most important issue not just for now but maybe for the next hundred years," Sally Goodwin, a retired State University College at Oneonta librarian, said as she emerged from Otsego Town Hall after voting for only candidates who held both the Democratic and Sustainable Otsego lines.

Sustainable Otsego and the Democrats also achieved dramatic victories in Milford, where their candidate for town supervisor, Chris Harmon, handily defeated incumbent Thomas Gale, and in the town of Otsego, where challengers Julie Huntsman and Bennett Sandler shellacked incumbent GOP town board members Bill Michaels and John Schallert.

The message from several Republican incumbents during the political slugfest leading up to Election Day was more nuanced: They said they wanted strict regulations to protect water supplies and other natural resources in the event the state gives final approval to hydraulic fracturing of shale. And they argued while towns can try to keep drilling out with zoning changes, county governments will have very limited oversight of any fracking that may occur.

"The Democrats' core people who ran on fracking just didn't have enough support" to upend GOP control of the county's legislative body, said Republican Chairwoman Sheila Ross. "The people wanted to have representatives who will be there for them on all the issues -- not just one."

By all accounts, the gas drilling issue figured as a major factor in the high tide of voting.

Before polling places closed Tuesday night, the county's Democratic elections commissioner, Hank Nicols, said: "It looks to me that this is going to be one of the best attended elections in Otsego County in 25 years. And from what we are hearing there were remarkably few problems."

Agreeing with that assessment was county GOP Chairwoman Sheila Ross. "The turnout has been great everywhere," she said. The surge in voting, she said, was expected to help most GOP candidates in towns where Republicans hold a distinct advantage in voter enrollment.

At Otsego town hall, Democratic election inspector Tom Heitz said that by known 187 voters had cast ballots -- a pace of 37 per hour. He predicted the full day turnout would end up being much heavier than the average flow for balloting that had no national or statewide candidates before the electorate.

Nicols, at the Board of Elections, said: "I think this has been one of the most hotly contested, cantankerous and less congenial elections here in history. That came out because t here was a real difference in the candidates. Some of the language that was used was challenging and unfortunate. I spoke to (Republican county Rep.) Jim Powers about this, and while the two of us have had our political differences, we were both lamenting that you can no longer talk in congenial fashion. A majority of people don't like that kind of politics."

But Nicols also believes that some of the rough and tumble of the election season and the hard charge made by the insurgent Democrats could pave the way to what he predicted will be "a complete change in the demeanor of the board" -- one that will make the majority party more respectful of their colleagues in the minority.

One of the prime targets of Democrats was Johnson, who rankled Democrats during a Cooperstown debate when he said Sustainable Otsego had backed "radical" causes, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been critical of the capitalism.

While most Democratic candidates made their opposition to hydrofracking the centerpiece of their campaigns, they also staked out positions on many of the most challenging issues facing the Board of Representatives: such as the future operation of the county-owned Otsego Manor nursing home and urging the hiring of a county manager to oversee the day-to-day handling of county affairs.

"Our opponents tried to pigeon hole our candidates as one-issue candidates, which was not the case," Otsego County Democratic Party Chairman Ed Lentz said.

He said turnout appeared to be brisk throughout the county. In his own town, New Lisbon, where his son worked as a poll watched, he said about 100 people voted by noon -- far more than the typical turnout for that time of day.

"The weather certainly helped," he noted.

Democrats, he said, strategically poured most of their resources into the fledgling candidates they felt needed a boost, figuring those holding seats considered safe, such as city of Oneonta Reps. Catherine Rothenbreger, Linda Rowinski and Katherine Stuligross, and town of Oneonta Rep. Rich Murphy required far less backing from the political organization.

One of the only glitches of the day involved a malfunctioning optical scanning voting machine that wasn't accepting information on the paper ballots cast at St. Mary's Parish Center in Cooperstown. County elections officials said they replaced it with a working machine and scanned in the ballots that had been rejected by the troubled device.

In addition to high-priority items such as the nursing home, the county's system for managing its solid wastes and the ongoing effort to streamline county spending, the board that is seated in January may reassess its decision five years ago to move to a weighted voting method.

Nicols argued that the current weighted voting system -- giving representatives with higher numbers of constituents in their districts more clout at board meetings but equal say in committee sessions with colleagues representing far fewer citizens -- is fundamentally unfair and should be scrapped.

"That is one of the issues that we're going to have to talk about," he said.

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