“There is not a single solitary donation that I’ve ever received that can be tied to favorable legislation that I supported on behalf of somebody who made a donation to me, with the exception of the donations I get from my community.”
— Assemblymember Kevin Cahill
“It’s obvious to people. People in this district are very engaged, very high-information voters. Nobody is being fooled as to what exactly is going on. People do want change. People do want a robust and vibrant democracy…”
— Sarahana Shrestha, Mid Hudson Valley DSA
The June 28 primary election between incumbent Kevin Cahill and challenger Sarahana Shrestha is drawing near. In recent years, primary challenges against hometown favorite Cahill, who has represented his district for the last dozen election cycles, have been non-existent. Cahill most recently breezed to victory in the 2020 general election with 70 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Rex Bridges. Some 65,000 members of the electorate voted in that race.
The right to print the big D next to the candidate’s name on the ballot in a district that trends heavily Democratic may decide who serves the next two years in the state Assembly. But political winds change, and old-guard Democrats have been facing more frequent contests from an impatient progressive wing within the party.
Ulster County co-chair for the Mid-Hudson Valley chapter of Democratic Socialists of America Sarahana Shrestha organized the successful 2021 primary campaign to unseat chair David Donaldson of the Ulster County Legislature. She did it by fielding a complete political unknown. The primary victory was toothpick-narrow. Phil Erner, now county legislator, defeated Donaldson in the Democratic primary by just eight votes.
DSA supporters estimate it will take somewhere round 8000 voters though to knock Cahill out of the catbird seat. Cahill won the county convention nod for the office with about three-quarters of the vote, meaning most of the party organization remained behind him.
Who’s the environmentalist?
Invariably, a challenger facing an incumbent relies upon the playbook of turning out a “change” vote to turn the incumbent’s major strength, a record of public service, into a liability.
Shrestha, who describes herself as an environmental activist, is attempting to focus the electorate on her environmental efforts, contrasting them with Cahill’s public record of contributions taken over the years from industries which sell coal, natural gas and oil.
A May 12 forum at the Senior Citizen Center in Saugerties highlighted their platforms and contrasted their visions. The candidates were asked what they thought the most important issue facing Saugerties residents.
“The most important issue for Saugerties residents,” answered Cahill, “is the same as the most important issue for all of us right now, and that is addressing climate change and helping our communities be resilient.” He described Saugerties as a river community, impacted “when the tides rise” and “when the atmosphere is impacted by carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses.”
Later in the forum, Cahill described himself as one of the leading environmental legislators in Albany. “And I have no right to be anything but. I got this seat because Maurice Hinchey asked me to run for it,” he said. “We in the Hudson Valley are proud to be environmental leaders. I am proud to be an environmental leader. And no campaign from right-wing Conservatives to left-wing Democratic Socialists will change that.”
Hinchey, a longtime Ulster County assemblymember and then a congressman, was a native son of Saugerties known for his championing of environmental issues as chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee.
It didn’t take long though for Cahill’s environmental bonafides to be challenged. An audience member submitted a question which accused him of receiving the second most contributions from the fossil-fuel industry in the Assembly.
Cahill used the opportunity to malign Shrestha’s door-to-door operation. “Somebody thinks [this question is] a trap,” he responded, “but actually it’s an opportunity, it gives me an opportunity to point out exactly what my opponent’s supporters and my opponent have been doing since [her] campaign has been announced, and that is utterly and completely distorting my record. I am not the person who receives the second most contributions from fossil-fuel companies in New York State. I am not even remotely close to that. Knocking on doors, my own sister’s house, making up stories about what I support and don’t support.”
Cahill moved defiantly on, asserting his support for over 200 environmental bills, waving some papers in his hand.
Taking the money
Cahill’s statement denying the amount of donations he received from the fossil-fuel industry was misleading. While he is not the person who receives the second most contributions from fossil-fuel companies in New York State, expanding that category to include the list of top amounts contributed to an assemblymember in New York State by the oil and gas industry, Kevin Cahill ranks near the top of the pile, having received the fifth largest amount of donations this century. He is also in second place for the largest donation in this century from the electric utilities industry to an assemblymember in New York State.
In the 2010 election cycle, he received $6500 from the oil and gas industry and $13,500 from the electric utility industry. And if one considers that the electric utilities do burn primarily coal and natural gas to generate power, one can see where the characterization of Cahill as receiving the second most contributions from the fossil fuel industry comes from.
If one focused just on the electric utility industry, Cahill actually received top contributions for any Assembly member three years running, in 2008, 2010 and 2012. He would never reach the high-water mark again, as his contributions from the oil and gas industry (Empire State Petroleum Company and Constellation Energy Group) fell dramatically after the 2012 election cycle. Ditto from the top contributors in the electrical utility industry (Independent Power Producers of New York and CH Energy).
Cahill moved from being the chair of the Assembly Energy Committee to being chair of the Assembly Insurance Committee. Over the four most recent election cycles, Cahill received his largest contributions, $243,628, from the insurance industry, consisting of finance, insurance and real estate, as chair of the Assembly Insurance Committee since 2014.
That industry interests more often than not contribute the largest amounts to committee chairs tasked with the responsibility to oversee their corresponding industries buys them a certain amount of access, and certainly the intimation of more. The difference between feathering their own campaign nests or working an unseemly system for the benefit of their constituents can be hard to discern. The system of contributions for elections is made intentionally opaque.
Money means influence
As a debate topic, the influence of money in politics is a perennial issue. Both candidates were asked whether they would pledge not to accept corporate or PAC money in the coming election.
“We made a pledge right away when we launched this campaign,” answered Shrestha,“that we would not be taking corporate money, fossil fuel, real-estate executive PAC money, and so on,” answered Shrestha. “There is no such thing as money without influence. It’s very important to run a race that is clean rather than influenced. We have zero corporate donations .… It’s not easy, but it’s all individual donations. The median donation when we did our first filing was $25. We are very much looking forward to the public campaign financing laws in 2024.”
If county legislator Phil Erner’s filings are any indicator, the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) will contribute from both local and national sources both moneys and donations-in-kind, which cover services rendered.
Assemblymember Cahill’s response was more nuanced.
“My colleague mentioned the campaign finance laws will change in 2024,” he said. “That’s something I voted for. The next time around we’re going to have public financing of campaigns. I intend to adhere to those laws as I currently adhere to all existing laws.”
Cahill asked himself a rhetorical question. Where do campaign contributions come from? He mentioned party support, individual donors, as well as some other entities, singling out Big Labor. He mentioned his own volunteers, and then pivoted to attacking Shrestha’s volunteers. He ended his segment by apologizing that he was out of time.
Asking an incumbent to dispose of political advantage is like asking a cat to declaw itself. Cahill had an answer to how long elected officials should be allowed to serve.
“My thought on term limits is that they are a very important tool to check the power of executives,” he replied. “There is a reason to think the concentration of power in one individual becomes small C corrupt over a period of time …. “The same is not true of legislators. Legislators are a mix of communities.” He intermeshed his fingers and wiggled them to illustrate his words.
“The sponsor of the New York Health Act has been in the legislature longer than any other human being has ever served in the New York State legislature, 52 years,” he continued. “We have members who have started up there this year who just got there. We have members who have been there an in-between time, like me. We all have something good to offer, and we all have an opportunity to do so with a group that is diverse.”
Both candidates have pledged not to run as a third-party candidate if they do not receive the party endorsement. State law now allows a major-party candidate to decline third-party ballot acceptance, such as Shrestha’s acceptance of the Working Families line, for which they have already been designated.
Whoever wins will face off against apparent Republican challenger Patrick Sheehan on November 8.