Grassroots democracy in Highland

Posted 6/25/21

ELDRED, NY — A red coffee canister passed from hand to hand. Shouts and interruptions rang from the crowd. Grassroots democracy was in full vigor at the Town of Highland Democratic …

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Grassroots democracy in Highland

Andy Boyar, left, and Jim Gutekunst preside over the Highland Democratic caucus, while John Pizzolato watches from the wings.
Andy Boyar, left, and Jim Gutekunst preside over the Highland Democratic caucus, while John Pizzolato watches from the wings.
RR photo by Liam Mayo

ELDRED, NY — A red coffee canister passed from hand to hand. Shouts and interruptions rang from the crowd. Grassroots democracy was in full vigor at the Town of Highland Democratic caucus. 

The caucus, held to nominate Democratic candidates to run in November’s general election, happened in a ballroom at the Eldred Preserve, in the evening of June 23. Over a hundred people attended, with Jim Gutekunst and Andy Boyar arranging and leading the meeting. 

It was an “outrageous turnout,” Gutekunst said. “It’s good for democracy.” 

Procedures and formalities

The caucus started smoothly. Boyer nominated Gutekunst to serve as caucus chairman. Gutekunst nominated Boyar to serve as caucus secretary. 

“Anyone else want the job?” Boyer joked. “Ok, that carries.”

The first few nominations passed, similarly, uncontested. Sue Hoffman, the current deputy town clerk, was nominated to run for town clerk. Kathryn Sweeny and Thomas Ebers, current town justice and highway superintendent, were nominated to run again for their positions. All three nominations were uncontested, and Boyer cast a single vote for each, confirming their candidacies. 

With preliminary business settled, the caucus came to its two contested positions: the candidacies for town council member and town supervisor. 

Three people were nominated for the two open candidacies for the town council. Kaitlin Haas, a current councilmember, was nominated, together with Chris Tambini and Laura Burrell. 

As the nominations were confirmed, a voice called from the back of the audience, “Are these guys Democrats?”

The answer came back from several attendees: no, they weren’t. Not Tambini and Kaitlin Haas, anyway.

“Are any of these candidates a registered Democrat?” asked Boyar. 

“Laura,” said John Pizzolato. “Laura is.”

The same process was repeated for the position of town supervisor. Of the two nominees, Pizzolato, proprietor of the Stickett Inn and chairperson for the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway, is a registered Democrat. Current town supervisor Jeffery Haas, the other nominee, is not. 

The rules of the caucus process, rules governed by state election laws, allow any citizen of Highland to be nominated regardless of party affiliation. Only Democrats registered in Highland can participate in the nomination process, but those Democrats can nominate anyone they want. 

Especially when one party fields no candidates for a position, it’s not unusual for the caucus to nominate the opposing party’s candidate, a process known as cross endorsement. “This is not unusual with an open caucus we have,” said Boyer. “We do have cross endorsement.”

Speeches of support

Under normal caucus procedure, as overseen by Gutekunst and Boyer, voting would have started immediately after all nominations were completed. For both contested positions, attendees made sure to interject time for speeches on behalf of the nominees.  

Both Pizzolato and Burrell spoke for themselves, giving speeches that were passionate and polished. Burrell said she would advocate for transparency, for support of the town’s seniors and youth, for planning that thought 20 years ahead instead of 2. She spoke of her time working with nonprofits, saying that it taught her “to never rest, because the job is really never done.”

Pizzolato focused his speech on the work he had already done to support Highland and the surrounding region. “I’m running here because it’s my chosen home,” he said; “we have to lift each other up and trust each other.” He spoke of his love for Highland’s stretch of the Delaware River, and of his experience running the Stickett Inn; “I love and am passionate about having a small business in this town and serving the community.”

Their opposing candidates were not present to speak - while caucus rules can’t restrict members of other parties from being nominated, they can keep said members out of the room where that nomination happens. 

The attendees who nominated Tambini and Kaitlin Haas made speeches in their support. Kaitlin was praised for her presence with the community during her time as councilmember: “Through all the disasters we’ve had over the past four years, she’s been there.” Tambini was called “one of our great citizens,” and mention was made of his service to the community. 

But no speech was made for Jeffery Haas. One of his nominators had left for a planning board meeting; the other declined to speak. 

And the ballots are in

Voting happened in two rounds, one for the council members, one for the supervisor. Ballots were handed out to participating attendees—118 for the first round, a few less for the second—and an emptied coffee canister was passed around for their collection. 

Burrell and Kaitlin Haas won the candidacies for town council. Pizzolato won the candidacy for town supervisor. 

“Just know that I’m an open door at all times,” said Pizzolato. “Anything you guys want to see done… come to me at any time.”

The caucus ended with emphasis on its transparency and fairness. Gutekunst made reference to accusations of behind-the-scenes dealing, asking anyone in the audience to raise their hand if he’d contacted them and asked them to vote one way or another. 

“Why are you doing this?” asked one attendee. “We had a vote.”

“Bury the hatchet, Jim,” said another. 

“I’m trying to clear my name,” said Gutekunst.

No one in the audience raised their hand, and the ballots remained available for anyone to inspect. But the process left some unconvinced that the caucus format was the best available for the Town of Highland. 

“We can change this,” said one attendee. “We can be a primary town.”

Another, while walking out of the meeting, echoed that sentiment. “I hope it’s different next time,” she said, “when we have our own leadership.”


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