Bethel Dems tosses disloyalty charges
By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE A flap over charges of disloyalty within the Bethel Democratic Committee may end up changing the way the county Democratic Committee has operated for decades.
In November, White Lake resident Steve White, a registered Democrat for the past decade, wrote a letter to Steve Wilkinson, the chair of the county Democratic Party, charging Bethel Democratic committeepeople Ted Yeomans and Vicky Vassmer-Simpson with disloyalty.
During last year’s hotly contested race for the town council seat then held by Yeomans, Kauneonga Lake resident Denise Frangipane won the Democratic caucus and subsequently won on that line during November’s general election.
Yeomans, who had originally said he would not seek the seat after losing the caucus to Frangipane, decided to run on the Let’s Keep Ted line, and Vassmer-Simpson, also a fellow town councilmember, helped him distribute petitions to be put on the ballot. Reflective of the split at the caucus, other town Democrats signed Yeomans’ petitions.
White and other Frangipane supporters, however, took issue with Yeomans and Vassmer-Simpson refusing to work toward the successful election of the Democratic candidate, especially when a Republican, Margaret Hazen, was also seeking the seat.
“This action is not only disloyal to the party but a violation of trust to the registered Democrats of Bethel,” White wrote to Wilkinson.
“In addition, I ask that the Committee comment on the responsibility of [Bethel Democratic Committee] Chairperson Colleen Cunningham,” White continued. “There was no action taken by her in response to the disloyalty of Ms. Simpson and Mr. Yeomans. What is the role of the chairperson?”
After several discussions, the county Democratic Party’s Executive Committee met in January and unanimously voted not to pursue the matter.
“The decision, after the honest, in-depth discussion, was that we would not take any action for past acts since the county committee has been culpable in these situations in the past,” Wilkinson wrote to White earlier this month. “... Many members felt it would be ‘selective’ enforcement of something the county committee should have dealt with more firmly all along.”
Though Wilkinson did not detail past sins of the committee, he promised White that the Bylaws Committee would be tackling the issue of ensuring party loyalty.
In an interview with Wilkinson this week, it became clear that county Democrats are planning to review far more than disloyalty rules, but the entire structure of the party.
“The bylaws haven’t been looked at in 40 years,” Wilkinson said between meetings with Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, for whom he works as legislative director.
Wilkinson was just chosen leader of the local Democrats last year and has infused a new energy into the party, resolving financial issues and taking a closer look at how the committee operates.
He and the party’s other leaders have tasked the Bylaws Committee with reviewing, for example, how the transfer of party leadership occurs and reporting back to the Executive Committee in March, likely with recommendations for changes.
He sees a particular need to have “more clarity” about codes of conduct.
“People felt we’ve been kind of lax about this over the years,” he admitted.
However, while he acknowledged that the Executive Committee agrees that “as a party, we should be supportive of Democrats,” Wilkinson added that “I want to leave it to the committee to say, ‘Where do we draw the line?’”
Thus, the Executive Committee chose not to address the Bethel issue at this time.
“They wanted the past to be the past,” Wilkinson explained.
“I was really disappointed in that kind of reasoning,” White remarked in a subsequent interview. “That makes it even worse.”
He feels party leaders are simply trying to circle the wagons and avoid confrontation, at the expense of ethical and procedural propriety. White said he didn’t want to embarrass anyone just maintain the integrity of the party.
“The Sullivan County Democratic Committee is the ruling body for the Bethel Democratic Committee,” he said, pointing out that the county committee already has a disloyalty clause in its bylaws. “As a registered Democrat, who protects me from this kind of behavior?”
Frangipane shares that concern.
“How would we overcome racism, sexism and homophobia [in this country] if we said, ‘It happened in the past and we can’t do anything about it’?” she remarked.
She has no issue with people supporting the candidate they feel most strongly about, but she feels party leaders “need to step away from their official role” if their candidate is not the party’s choice.
“It’s about process and accountability,” she remarked.
As of this week, Frangipane has yet to be officially informed of the Executive Committee’s decision, though she was already aware of it.
She said she knew about and agreed with White in his pursuit of formal charges, but she did not join him in making the charges herself.
“My immediate responsibility was to fulfill my role as a town board member,” she explained. “It was not about me, Denise. I didn’t get elected to take on the Bethel Democratic Committee.”
But she remains displeased with how the committee dealt with her during her campaign, saying leaders promised her the committee’s support but did not follow through.
“They didn’t get behind the campaign,” she remarked.
Yeomans declined to comment and Vassmer-Simpson could not be reached, but Cunningham replied that the matter is settled.
“It is my understanding that the Executive Committee voted to take no action regarding Mr. White's letter, so there is nothing to comment on,” she said. “I look forward to working with the county committee as we update our committee bylaws.”
And she agreed with the county Democratic leaders that the past should stay in the past.
“It is time to move forward. The 2008 election is over. Our Democratic candidates won. The Bethel Democratic Committee worked to elect these leaders,” Cunningham said. “We have a full slate of county and town races this year. As it always is, the Town of Bethel Democratic Committee's priority and focus is electing Democrats to these offices.”