ALBANY COUNTY — Politicians sending a monetary donation to a different political organization is a common practice, but canceling it soon after is not.
This was the case when Albany County Legislator and Bethlehem Democratic Committee Chair Joanne Cunningham (D-34 Delmar) and BDC member Jeffrey Kuhn each sent donation checks to the county’s Independence Party for a fundraiser only to stop payment once endorsements were announced a few days later.
Of the Bethlehem Democrats running for office this year, the county Independence Party endorsed town Supervisor David VanLuven, Town Board member Joyce Becker, town Clerk Nancy Moquin, and Receiver of Taxes Alicia Roney. For the county Legislature, the party endorsed George Harder for District 34 and Sean Raleigh for District 35. Neither Cunningham, who is seeking her second term on the Legislature, nor Kuhn, who is seeking to represent the Legislature in District 35, received an endorsement.
Albany County Independence Party Chairman Paul Caputo said he and its Executive Committee interviewed candidates seeking the party’s endorsement from late January through mid-February. He said the party “has long been known to have the most arduous interview process of any political party.” He said that during such interviews, an hour is devoted to asking all the candidates questions about what is going on in their respective communities and districts, their stance on issues like traffic and parking, fiscal responsibility, paid sick leave and more.
After the interviews, candidates were informed of a Feb. 25 fundraiser, for which attendance was not mandatory. A monetary donation was required to attend but the amount is up to the donor’s choosing. “Donations were generally $150 but we’ve also sometimes received $25, $50 and $75 donations from some people who were not able to attend the fundraiser,” said Caputo. “It’s okay if some people can’t make it but their generous donations still showed their support.”
Donations from representatives of other parties is commonplace. According to financial disclosure forms filed with the state Board of Elections by the Independence Party in 2015, donations were received by scores of candidates from both Republican and Democrat parties, including current Bethlehem Town Board member Jim Foster (R) who donated in 2015 and challenged then-incumbent Supervisor John Clarkson (D).
Clarkson received 4,733 votes on the Democratic line while Foster earned 3,829 votes on the Republican line. Clarkson received 414 more votes on the Working Families line while Foster got 1,308 more votes on the Independence Party, Conservative and Reform lines. In the end, Clarkson edged out his opponent by only 10 votes which shows how important votes and support from minor party lines can still help a candidate.
In 2015, Kuhn was chairman of the BDC. Since taking the chair in 2011, he said he would try to convince party members to avoid contributions to the Independence Party. Clarkson did not appear on financial disclosure statements as a contributor to the Independence Party. Democrats Nanci Moquin, the Bethlehem town Clerk, and Bethlehem Town Board member Joyce Becker each appeared on the Independence line in 2015. Moquin and Mark Becker each contributed to the Independence Party. Each won their respective races.
However, Cunningham earned her seat in the legislature on the strength of her party line. That year, the Independence Party had its own candidate in Thomas Cotrofeld. Cunningham earned 54 percent of the vote in District 34, to Republican candidate Douglas Shulz’s 34 percent and Cotrofeld’s 12 percent.
Nonetheless, of the 203,621 enrolled voters in Albany County, 10,516 are Independence Party members. It is the largest minor party in the county followed by Conservatives with 3,248 and 697 in the Working Families Party. There are 103,227 enrolled Democrats, 37,642 Republicans and 47,249 who are not enrolled in any party but have still registered to vote, according to the latest enrollment figures at the state Board of Elections.
Cunningham said she initially sent her $150 check because she had first reached out to the party when talk of endorsements began earlier in the year. “Caputo then offered to me and the Bethlehem Democrats slate together to be interviewed and I thought that was great,” she said. “So we went in together and knowing the history of the BDC’s relationship with the Independence Party, I was looking for an opportunity to turn the page and I originally saw it as being part of a new era of perhaps having a more built relationship between the two party committees.”
However, she added that she “was taken aback by how lacking the party was in its legitimate interviewing process” since she said it lasted no more than 15 minutes. She also said the party’s committee did not have any lengthy discussions with her about her stance on policies and issues, “and then [Caputo] handed out flyers of the fundraiser to pass around in the end. It all lacked any substance and process.”
Kuhn said that within the past few months, he had heard whispers of a possible “rapprochement” between Bethlehem Democrats and the county Independence Party, saying that did not have a smooth relationship. Believing a rapprochement may not happen, he decided to go in to be interviewed by the Independence Party among 11 other interviewees and he wrote his $100 check “in that spirit of being part of the team. I’d thought, ‘Let’s try and see if we can all turn over a new leaf.’ … If the party was offering an olive branch, I was willing to cautiously go along with that. But I could not bring myself to come to the party’s fundraiser.”
He then agreed with Cunningham about the interview process, he said, “it was a sham and they asked one question that was so generic, like ‘Why did you want to run?’ I spoke for 40 seconds and then they moved on to ask the next candidate. The entire process was such a sham.”
Caputo said that Cunningham’s and Kuhn’s allegations, about how their interviews were too short, were “false. I asked them questions about the county’s plastic bag ban for instance and other issues in town.” Cunningham is a sponsor of the proposed plastic bag ban law.
Cunningham and Kuhn each canceled their checks after the Independence Party announced its slate of endorsed candidates earlier this month. Cunningham said that did not factor into her canceling of the check. She said she had tried to call Caputo several times on the day following the fundraiser to ask about the slate of Bethlehem Democrats.
“He didn’t call me back after several tries but when he finally called me back, he basically said I had two minutes to speak to him, and he was rude, belittling and demeaning on the phone,” she said. “I was kind of taken aback and I’m the chair of the BDC and he’s the chair of his party so we were talking chair-to-chair. I thought it was disrespectful to the whole of BDC and me that he could not be bothered. As a woman, I saw it as patronizing too and I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to support that committee anymore.’”
Kuhn, who said he also did not like the interview process and how Cunningham was treated, expressed dissatisfaction with how the Independence Party had chosen to endorse George Harder instead of Cunningham.
“Mr. Harder has run for office for over a dozen times and he’s never won. It was such an absurd thing on the Independence Party’s side,” he said.
“So I could not in good conscience financially support a political organization whose leadership appears to have no principles … I also felt it was just an operation where they’re trying to generate money for their line and it’s all just transactional. So the fact that the party is so upset about a canceled check for a fundraiser I did not even attend just proves the point that it’s really just about the money,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn said that for the above reasons, he canceled his own check, “If my small act of protest can finally turn the rock over and expose what I think is this very problematic system, then fantastic.”
While reasserting that buying endorsements is illegal, Caputo said, regarding Cunningham specifically, that he “always returns phone calls” and that he and the committee were just disagreeing with her on the plastic bag ban issue. “First of all, it’s not that we as a party don’t support the banning of plastic bags, we just feel that it’s better suited for the statewide level. If it were on a statewide level, it creates a full playing field so all counties are on equal footing.”
In addition, Caputo said he believed that Cunningham and Kuhn canceled their checks because the party did not endorse them. “It’s a complete lack of their characters on their parts for giving a donation and then stopping them, it’s insulting to our party and our process.”
Caputo confirmed that his party did not pull any other endorsements from other Bethlehem Democrats because of their association with Cunningham and Kuhn in terms of being on the same political party, would be “taking childish behavior and reinforcing it with more childish behavior.”