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“What Just Happened?” Nyack’s Surprising Democratic Primary

Lessons learned about Social Media, Manners, and Experience

nyackvillagehall20160912 democratic primaryby Dave Zornow

“What just happened?” read a Facebook comment in response to news that a first time candidate received more votes than an eight term trustee and a two term Deputy mayor in the Sept 13, 2016 Nyack Democratic Primary.

It was poised to be an epic battle, pitting an anti-development coalition with social media skills (but not so many social media graces) against a board whose accomplishments included freezing taxes, affordable housing, reining in a rambunctious bar scene, and slow but steady road repair. There were loud voices, accusations, recriminations and conspiracy theories galore. Mostly on Facebook.

The Newcomer Wins Big

The biggest surprise on Primary Election Day was that the person with the highest vote count was a newcomer. Donna Lightfoot Cooper finished first with 27.2% of the vote, followed by the two incumbents, Louise Parker (26.9%) and Don Hammond (24.6%). Given the rancor, Lightfoot Cooper’s lack of experience may have benefited her. She was untainted by gritty village politics.

Donna Lightfoot Cooper democratic primary

Donna Lightfoot Cooper

“Facebook is key for reaching voters in Nyack,” said one village resident. “However, it’s notable that the two candidates who have basically no Facebook presence won the primary.” Several people said it was wise — by design or default — for Lightfoot Cooper and Louise Parker to stay away from the online fracas. “Ms. Lightfoot Cooper is perhaps the smartest one in the room, as she seems to stay off Facebook for the most part.”
“I think that the reason Donna Lightfoot Cooper won is that people really like her,” said Nyack Mayor Jen Laird White, welcoming the Nyack Library employee to the Village Board. “She is only an unknown if you do not frequent the library, have not lived here a long time or if you have never attended zoning board meetings.”
The results mark a historic occasion for Nyack. “The Nyack Village Board sure will be more diverse than ever before when the new [Village Board] is sworn in next January. For the first time ever, we will have a VB of four women and one man and for the first time ever, we will have a [board] with two African-Americans, so it was a historic election in its own way,”  wrote former Nyack Mayor Richard Kavesh on Facebook. And for the first time ever, a librarian.

The Veteran is Unseated

While the primary was surprising because the first place finisher bested two candidates who had been elected a combined 10 times, it was perhaps surprising that Don Hammond, a popular community figure with extensive business, administrative and political experience, lost. Hammond is currently the President and CEO of Rockland’s Meals on Wheels program; he previously held similar a title at the Rockland YMCA and the United Way in Dutchess and Ulster Counties. Hammond was president of Nyack’s Board of Education for two terms and is currently Nyack’s Deputy Mayor having been elected twice to the Village Board. He finished third in a race where only the top two finishers get the Democratic nod in November.

Don Hammond 201106 democratic primary

Don Hammond

“I am incredibly sad for Don that he did not prevail.  I’m also sad for Nyack,” said Ken Sharp, Treasurer of the John Green House Preservation Coalition. “Don Hammond is the finest definition of ‘public servant’ I have ever seen, and I feel he was an integral part of the Village Board.  His dedication, his hard work – his passion for doing what is best for this village that he has always called home – these are qualities not easily found and even harder to replace.” Sharp, who also worked on Hammond’s and Parker’s campaign, said he hopes Hammond returns to public service soon and will consider running for mayor in 2017. “Nyack needs people like Don. It always has,” he said.
Nyack’s mayor also had nothing but praise for her second in command. “I do not think Don lost in any way other than a numbers game.  An unlucky numbers game.  No one questions his public service and his dedication to this village.  People admire and respect him.” White said that Hammond is a popular figure whose support crosses party lines and all constituencies. “I do not think Don bore the brunt of anything nor was his loss targeted in any way.  I think the opponents wanted both Don and Louise to lose,” she said.
One Hammond fan lamented that if more people were allowed to vote in the primary, he would have been a shoe-in, as he is a cornerstone of the Nyack community. Republicans and independents couldn’t vote for him because New York State has closed primaries. (There’s some credence in such a theory, though it’s also possible that GOP and independent voters would have favored the Save Nyack campaign.) But it raises a relevant question about New York state’s primary system: What if everyone were allowed to vote with the top two finishers facing off in the November General Election? And while we’re at it, why doesn’t New York allow early voting like the 37 other states that permit this practice?
Because Nyack is overwhelming Democratic — and the last time a registered Republican tried to run for the Village Board they needed to cloak themselves as an Independent — the results of the September Democratic Primary tend to make the November election irrelevant.
Party loyalists don’t necessarily see it that way. “In Nyack, the impact of open primaries would not be to enfranchise Republicans, it would just ensure that two Democrats faced each other in the general election every year,” said a former Democratic candidate. But sometimes, it’s not the result that is an important as creating a process that leads to a result where everyone feels that their vote counts.

TZVistaGedneyStSiteThe Unsuccessful Democratic Primary Insurgents

Barbara Cohig, a candidate who, along with her husband John Gromada, has been sharply critical of the TZ Vista condo development, finished last. Was this a rebuke for their Save The Nyack We Love, you-can’t-trust-the-Village-Board coalition?
“Cohig was convincingly defeated in the trustee race and John Gromada badly lost his primary for a seat on the Democratic Committee,” said one Nyack political veteran. “It is notable that of the challengers, the candidate who was most vocal about no development came in last and the candidate who ran a positive campaign (or really, barely ran any campaign) and kept a low profile succeeded.” Although Hammond finished out of the running, only 45 votes separated the first and third place finishers, suggesting that Democratic Primary voters implicitly endorsed how the Village Board has been running Nyack. “It definitely shows that the village as a whole is not buying what Barbara and John were selling.”
TZ Vista was the only significant issue that Save Nyack raised. Their campaign got a boost with the release of controversial preliminary drawings from the developer only days before the primary. “A majority of residents feel that the board is honest, not corrupt, and that issues are more complicated than they were being presented by the Save The Nyack We Love candidate who was particularly concerned with the project on Gedney Street,” said one resident. “There were lots of folks who were torn about who to support but generally would have supported the incumbents… until the untimely release of incomplete and unimpressive renderings of a giant set of buildings that do not even meet the requirements of the code for a special permit, or even basic code.” Although the drawings have yet to be reviewed by Nyack’s land use boards to determine if they comply with the revised code, the “I told you so” conversations created by Save Nyack supporters probably cost Hammond crucial support.
Nyack’s business community didn’t support Save Nyack — nor did they think the village needs any saving. “Nyack is not going to hell in a hand-basket and it does not need to be saved,” said one small business owner. “Yes, the river view is going to change. That is a shame. But developers hold all the cards. You can’t tell a developer to go away. They can build whatever they want within parameters. All the Village Board can do is guide the process, get concessions out of the developer and do the best they can to make a bad situation decent.”
Business owners are understandably reluctant to encourage too much interference by the Village Board. Because the TZ Vista development is on private property, the construction partnership which owns this parcel has the right to build four stories without any special allowances. The controversial text amendment, opposed by Save Nyack, permits TZ Vista designers to add additional height in exchange for amenities that would benefit village residents, such as a riverfront park with public access. “People need to understand that the VB acts as a caretaker of our ‘estate’… but they are not empowered to implement Marshall Law,” said a local business owner. “Our Village Board is composed of community members who are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. And this is the best group we’ve had in a long time”
The Save Nyack ticket grew out of a social media surge that rallied TZ Vista opponents to “Say No To Six Stories” that surprised and overwhelmed Nyack’s Village Board. But their viciousness online may have led to their ultimate undoing. The Save Nyack team used several Facebook groups to relentlessly draw attention to their cause. “When you go on Facebook and every bold allegation you make is easily refuted, you end up undermining the validity of your own arguments. The more they complained, the less credible they seemed,” said one Nyack resident.
Although it was a factor, it’s hard to tell if it helped or hurt Cohig’s campaign. “Facebook is a self selecting environment,” said Nyack resident JC Brotherhood. “At the end of the day, you need to convince some other people outside your own echo chamber.”
“I think that people going door-to-door saying ‘the end is neigh’ doesn’t work,” said another Nyack resident. “When you look out your window and see an idyllic village, it weakens your trust in the people who disparage it. Despite their sincere sounding name, the partisans behind ‘Save Nyack’ weren’t friendly.  Friendliness goes a long way.” And apparently ‘friendly’ was a factor on Primary Election day, they said. “Donna Lightfoot Cooper was friendly.  By contrast, Barbara Cohig wasn’t connecting with people in person.”

“I’m Not A Member of An Organized Political Party. I’m A Democrat”

Primary elections are about turnout. You can’t win hearts minds and support from your constituency if they are clueless or unmotivated on Election Day. The results suggest that at least one segment of the Democrat party was engaged — but not enough to get Don Hammond re-elected.
The winning candidates, Donna Lightfoot Cooper and Louise Parker, finished in a virtual dead heat, with only a six vote difference (1.2%) in their totals. Political insiders say that African Americans always turn out strong for the primaries — presumably to support Louise Parker — who has been successful in every trustee race since 2001. What if the same people who always vote for Louise also voted for Donna…give or take six votes?
Incumbents Hammond and Parker were outnumbered on lawn signs and, and as previously mentioned, were not as active on Facebook (for better or worse). They worked hard going door to door, but so did their competitors — particularly Ms. Lightfoot Cooper.  The incumbents used no online or print advertising; with the exception of one little noticed letter to the Journal News, there were no op-eds in support of the candidates.
Which is weird, because in 2011, the last time there was a contested campaign in Nyack, the leading contenders pulled out all of the stops with online advertising in multiple publications and regular op-eds to call attention to that campaign. Despite the fact it’s much easier to create an online presence today, Hammond and Parker didn’t effectively use those resources. They created a great website but neglected to include it’s Web address on their lawn signs. It’s likely that the traditional strong support that Louise Parker receives helped newcomer Donna Lightfoot Cooper — an outcome which blindsided Hammond supporters because of the campaign’s hyperfocus on development issues. Future candidates for local office need to take this into account and realize that leaving “no stone unturned” should include an online presence through op-eds and display advertising, too. Put another way: From now on, It Take a Virtual Village to Win a Village Election.
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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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