Despite an allegation (later recanted) that could have sunk another campaign and the release of an expletive-ridden audio recording, state Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin declared victory in the Republican primary race for Rensselaer County executive last week over establishment candidate Chris Meyer.
Meyer, who worked under outgoing executive Kathy Jimino for most of her 16 years in office, formally conceded on Monday. “It is with great disappointment that I have come to the realization that I will not be the next Rensselaer County Executive. Therefore I have decided to suspend my campaign,” Meyer said in a statement.
McLaughlin will go up against Democrat Andrea Smyth. Smyth faces an uphill battle, as a Democrat has never been elected to county executive since the position was created in the 1970s.
McLaughlin’s victory took many political observers by surprise, and many have drawn comparisons to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election win, raising the question: Is this kind of controversial, abrasive political candidate the new normal?
“It appears to seem that way. Ultimately, voters are the ones that decide these elections and it’s their decision to make, but it does seem to appear to be a trend that way, yes, in my opinion,” Meyer said. “I think there’s a lot of mistrust in the media on both sides. I think there’s a lot of mistrust in people that decide to run for office. Nothing seems to be normal anymore when it comes to politics.”
In the primary race, both Meyer and Republican political consultant John McArdle listed small voter turnout as another reason McLaughlin had an edge.
“I think primaries are all about turning out your vote,” McArdle said. “So, it’s a question in a primary of identifying and pulling your vote and who more motivated voters and I think he proved that he did a good job in getting his vote out.
Another factor, McArdle said, is identifying what voters are paying attention to in an election. During the campaign, McLaughlin was accused by an aide of physical assault (she later retracted that accusation) and was caught on an audio recording verbally berating that same aide.
“Some of the stories were not quite what they seemed, but at the same time you have audio recordings – they’re not helpful,” McArdle said. “But President Trump proved that, as well, that people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and I think that’s probably what happened here.”
About a month before election day last year, a 2005 video surfaced of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women to “Access Hollywood” TV host Billy Bush.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … grab em’ by the pussy. You can do anything,” Trump was recorded saying. He later discounted the comments as “locker-room talk,” and the recording obviously didn’t cost him the presidential election.
Repeated calls to McLaughlin’s district and Albany offices went unanswered.
Like Trump, McLaughlin has also never hesitated to be a loud voice during his time in the Assembly, even against his own party and the governor. He has been one of the most vocal elected officials with respect to water contamination in Hoosick Falls.
Meyer said one thing he took for granted during the primary is that he believed people were generally happy with how the county operated. “Steve ran on a change platform bluntly and it seems that it seemed to resonate with voters and we’ll see how that plays out in the general.”
McLaughlin’s campaign could signal how the 2018 gubernatorial race will go. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will run for reelection again, and some possible Republican challengers include state Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco, another outspoken critic at the state Capitol. DeFrancisco has a reputation for saying what’s on his mind and having a blunt, no-nonsense personality – a sharp contrast to Cuomo.
With the current mistrusting attitude towards politicians, DeFrancisco could be successful in 2018 when past Cuomo opponents have not been.
In 2010, Cuomo ran against Republican Carl Paladino, a brash developer known for making offensive comments with little to no remorse.
“I bring values, resiliency, a thick skin and I’m not afraid to be confrontational,” Paladino told the Buffalo News in 2010.
During the 2010 campaign, emails sent and received by Paladino that contained hardcore pornography and racist comments were leaked to WNYMedia.com. He also defended his derogatory comments toward the LBGTQ community and criticized Cuomo for bringing his daughters to a gay pride parade.
The emails, his personality and scandals are largely believed to be one of the major reasons he ultimately lost the election to Cuomo after his surprising victory in the Republican primary, which he won running against a much more mild-mannered, establishment candidate.
In 2017, is it possible those same traits and scandals would be a positive quality to voters instead of sinking a campaign? Paladino is not oblivious to the change in politics and has already said he is considering once again running for governor in 2018.
If he decides to run, it could be the most compelling evidence of the changes in the political world if he were to be successful this time around.
While a Democrat has never been elected to the county executive’s office, if Meyer stays in the race it could give Smyth a greater chance during the general election.
Smyth said that despite McLaughlin’s previous scandals, she will focus solely on policy and issues facing Rensselaer County during the general election, but has condemned McLaughlin’s comments in the audio recording in the past.
“Why scandals don’t resonate is because they’re used too commonly and Mr. McLaughlin’s behavior was hard to understand. In my opinion, abuse is abuse – verbal abuse, physical abuse – but people didn’t understand what was being said and so it didn’t resonate and what I hope resonates isn’t a continued discussion about his behavior, but on the issues,” Smyth said.
Smyth added that despite refusing to run a negative campaign against McLaughlin, she does not believe she will see the same results as Meyer when she runs on her work experience and qualifications.
The general election day is on Nov. 7.