Where Have the Republicans Gone?

democratic winners

Democrats swept the Beacon council elections in 2019, winning all seven seats, including the mayoral race. (File photo by J. Simms)

Once a GOP stronghold, the city has shifted Democratic

Clara Lou Gould’s five terms as Beacon mayor were noteworthy for a number of reasons.

She was the first (and remains the only) female mayor in Beacon and the longest-serving female mayor in state history. In office from 1990 to 2007, she presided over the early stages of Beacon’s revitalization, guiding the city out of debt and helping to combat crime while ushering in an appreciation for open spaces and the arts, both of which would fuel a resurgence that continues today.

She was also a Republican — a rare breed in Beacon these days, at least in elected office.

In 2003, the same year that Gould won her fifth term, Beacon voters elected four Republicans and two Democrats to the City Council. Four years later, when Steve Gold, a Democrat, became mayor, voters installed five Democrats and Randy Casale, who was registered with the Independence Party.

The next mayoral election, in 2011, would see Casale elected to the first of two terms as mayor, running as the Independence and Republican candidate. The City Council members elected that year were split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but beginning in 2013, Democrats have taken nearly every seat, with Casale the notable exception.

By 2019, Beacon Republicans put forth only one candidate and, in 2021, six Democrats ran unopposed for six council seats. (The mayor is elected every four years and the other council members run every two. The next municipal election will be this fall.)

The trend is not surprising in the context of state voter registrations. There are nearly 23,000 more Democrats in Dutchess County than there are Republicans. Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1.

According to the most recent data available from the county Board of Elections, Beacon in 2020 was 56 percent Democrat and other left-leaning parties, such as Green and Working Families. Twenty-four percent of voters were unaffiliated and 15 percent were registered as Republican or Conservative.

“It’s very hard to convince someone to run for office with those kinds of numbers,” said Peter Forman, a Republican who was Beacon’s city attorney from 1990 to 1999. Forman, who later served more than 20 years as a Dutchess County judge, recalled that in 1989, when he managed Gould’s first campaign, Beacon was closer to 40 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican and 30 percent unaffiliated.

That split allowed Gould to build a coalition between Republican and independent voters that put her into office.

Forman cited his own loss in 2020 as a Dutchess County judge and a loss in 2021 by longtime City Court Judge Tim Pagones as the latest evidence of Beacon’s shifting political allegiance. He suggested that older city residents who may have voted Republican have died or moved away and “their houses were bought by Brooklyn, by and large.”

Gold served five terms on the City Council before being elected mayor in 2007. He remembers knocking on residents’ doors during his first campaign, in the mid-1990s, and meeting only one family that had relocated from Brooklyn. “Now, that’s impossible,” he said.

Decades ago, “when Beacon was populated by people who worked in its factories and many of the same families lived here for generations, voters backed candidates whom they knew from work, church, school and their neighborhood, rather than based on political affiliation,” he said.

It’s unclear how active the Beacon Republican Committee is these days. The most recent activity on its Facebook page was a post more than a year ago expressing support for former President Donald Trump. An image at the top of the page lists the party’s candidates for the 2017 municipal elections, and its site at beacongop.com is not operating. Susan Pagones, the wife of the former judge who managed his campaign, said she would forward a message to the committee chair but did not provide a name, and no one responded.

Justin Riccobono, who led the committee a decade ago but no longer lives in the city, said he does not know who the party’s leaders are in Beacon, and Michael McCormack, the chair of the Dutchess Republican Committee, did not respond to an email seeking information.

It could be challenging, Gold said, for a candidate to navigate New York State’s rules for collecting voter signatures and filing nominating petitions without guidance from party leadership. “It’s not something you could approach as a layperson and overcome those hurdles,” he said. “Without a strong party behind you, it could easily collapse.”

Clara Lou Gould said she viewed her time as mayor as working for everyone in the community. “I always considered it community service, not politics,” she said recently.

Gold also noted the adage that, on the local level, there aren’t Democratic or Republican ways to pave roads.

But as national politics become more divisive, are local voters inclined to solely support the candidates aligned with their favored party?

Lisa Jessup, the chair of the Beacon Democratic Committee, and Yvette Valdés Smith, a Democrat who represents part of Beacon in the Dutchess County Legislature, each suggested that Beacon Republicans had engaged in what Jessup called “very sly voter suppression” by not fielding candidates in the most recent municipal elections.

“It’s derelict of them not to give people in their party candidates to vote for,” said Jessup. She acknowledged that in the upcoming election, Democrat Eric Eckley will face a tough challenge in East Fishkill, where he is running for a legislative seat representing District 21. Voters there have historically supported Republicans, “but we put forth a candidate,” Jessup said.

In addition, if fewer Beacon voters turn out because Democrats are running unopposed for the City Council, “that can have an effect on the countywide races,” where Republicans and Conservatives hold 17 of the 25 seats in the Dutchess Legislature, Valdés Smith said.

In 2019, with only one Republican on the municipal ballot, voter turnout in Beacon was 44 percent. Two years later, with Democrat Greg Johnston challenging Pagones for City Court judge and the six Democrats running unopposed for council seats, turnout was 32 percent.

“It’s always good to have meaningful debate,” said Forman. “It helps to keep elected officials accountable. If you don’t feel any pressure from the other side, you’re in a different position than if you’re in a more balanced community.”

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