Dan Hust | Democrat
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM, CENTER, brings his 12 years on the county legislature to a close on December 31. Yesterday, at the full board meeting of the county legislature, he listens as Legislator Jonathan Rouis reads a proclamation in his honor. At left is Legislator Kathy LaBuda.
Cunningham To Make His Exit
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO December 21, 2007 Chris Cunningham recognizes he’s a controversial figure.
His supporters say he’s a strong leader, able to coalesce deeply opposite sides and move important issues forward. His critics label him arrogant and ineffective, no more than a wannabe policymaker.
If such comments affect him either way, the chairman of the Sullivan County Legislature doesn’t show it. Indeed, he’s more apt to simply laugh at a silly joke or roll his eyes when committee meetings drag on.
In fact, for all the debates that have raged around the 12-year District 1 Legislator, Cunningham’s public persona has not been one of fiery passion but of calm, studied neutrality.
Is he truly neutral? Far from it, and those who’ve gone a few rounds with him in private will attest to his sometimes bullish demeanor.
After all, voters didn’t twice return him to the Legislature to agree with everyone and disagree with no one.
Then again, that’s exactly what he felt tasked to do when fellow legislators named him chair in 2003.
“I was able… to try to help organize the discussion and not necessarily try to get the group to do what I wanted them to do but to see everyone’s point of view,” he recalls.
That’s a fine tightrope the 45-year-old Democrat has walked for the past four years, and it’s one from which he’s about to dismount.
His third four-year term as a legislator representing much of western Sullivan County comes to an end on New Year’s Eve, and he will hand the reins of the Legislature to someone else (likely to be Vice Chair Jonathan Rouis).
Why’d he choose not to run for a fourth term?
“I thought three terms was enough for anybody,” he remarked last week, in the midst of his final committee meetings. “I’d gotten to be chair and felt it was time to move on.”
What that future will be is not something he discusses in-depth. Although he’s an adjunct at Marist in Poughkeepsie with possibilities there and at Daytop, he pretty much confines the discussion to “I’ve got some opportunities in the private sector.”
But for at least the next few days, much of the focus will be on his past.
His political roots
Born to well-known Town of Bethel residents Tim and Yvonne Cunningham, the younger Cunningham grew up near the Hurd and Parks Road house he calls home (and Mom still lives right next door).
A stint in the Air Force took him to Alaska, where he met his wife Reneé, with whom he has two children: daughter Erin, 23, and son Daniel, 17.
After leaving the military, Cunningham earned his bachelor’s in political science and history from SUNY Albany and began work on a master’s in poli sci from Johns Hopkins University, cut short when his father’s ultimately fatal bout with cancer brought him back home.
He found work with a variety of local organizations, including the American Heart Association, the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce, the Delaware Valley Job Corps Center and the Recovery Center.
Since his father was a notable figure in Bethel’s Democratic Party, Cunningham took a run for the town board in the early ’90s and won, serving as Bethel Councilman from 1992-1995, during the intense discussions surrounding Bethel ’94 at the Woodstock site.
Intrigued by the ongoing negotiations that would eventually result in the replacement of the Board of Supervisors by the Sullivan County Legislature, Cunningham decided he wanted a shot at the District 1 seat, which at that time encompassed the entire townships of Bethel, Delaware and Cochecton. (It’s since been restructured to include Tusten but only keep the eastern third of Delaware.)
“I was one of the first ones to announce I was running,” he recalls, adding that Republican challenger Jerry Euker of Callicoon was a worthy and honorable opponent. “It was a good experience and a good campaign.”
When the Legislature first convened in January 1996, Cunningham, Rodney Gaebel and Rusty Pomeroy were the only legislators to have any prior political experience, but even then, he relied heavily on the county’s senior staff to guide him through a steep learning curve.
At the top of that list was former General Services Commissioner Harvey Smith, whom Cunningham still fondly recalls.
Gaebel, too, was “a steady force,” he says, especially when County Manager Linda Green left after the Legislature took office.
But that paved the way for another county manager, Jonathan Drapkin, whom Cunningham calls “a dynamic leader.” (Drapkin’s now head of the Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress, a regional economic think-tank.)
Making the chairmanship
Cunningham himself was named majority leader in those formative years, but it wasn’t until 2003 and a loss, then return, of Democratic control that he was picked to be Legislature Chair. By that time, he was already painfully familiar with triumph and defeat, now serving his third term but having lost a bid to be County Treasurer in 2000.
Both as a legislator and as chair, he’s influenced a variety of decisions, from controversial ones like expanding the landfill and firing former County Manager Dan Briggs to universally lauded ones like hiring new County Manager David Fanslau and holding corrupt Division of Public Works leaders accountable.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job,” he says, admitting that every politician, by nature, has some amount of ego a trait he feels is necessary of any leader.
No one, however, argues with the fact that he gave up a lucrative job at the Recovery Center to spend 50-hour weeks at the Government Center in Monticello in a so-called part-time chairmanship role that pays roughly $29,000 a year.
And the way he paints it, much of that time has been spent listening rather than deciding even going so far as to stay out of committee meetings so as not to overshadow each committee’s chair.
“I like to think I’m a consensus-builder,” he reveals, but also acknowledging, “At the end of the day, we have to sit here and make a decision.”
He’s proud of his legacy, though he feels the Legislature still must prove its relevance and efficacy.
“We’re obviously still trying to find our way.… It’s still a relatively new form of government,” he observes. “But I ultimately think the Legislature has been positive.”
And that’s where much of his praise is directed not so much to himself, but to the county’s governing body as a whole.
“This board worked together pretty well,” he remarks, adamant that important decisions were always made and discussed in open committee sessions. “We’ve had to tackle some difficult issues.”
As leader of the Legislature, that’s sometimes required him to take a strange stance. For example, as representative of the 8,000 residents of District 1, he’s against casinos in Sullivan County. But as Legislature Chair where a majority supports casinos he’s for it.
Black and bright spots
Acknowledging his belief that every legislator has the county’s best interests at heart, Cunningham says he’s proud of how they’ve conducted themselves, from keeping tax increases down to hiring new staff.
“We’ve put qualified people in places, which didn’t always endear us to the political types,” he says, “but we are not afraid to tackle the difficult issues, and we made decisions.”
One of the best, he says, was to hire Fanslau. Ironically, that was a result of Briggs’ firing the year before probably the blackest spot on the public’s memory of Cunningham but one the chair defends to this day as necessary... and apolitical.
“It was the most difficult decision this board has ever made,” he said of determining Briggs’ fate.
Though disappointed his own hoped-for Democratic successor, Patrick Harrison, did not win his District 1 seat in November, Cunningham offers his best wishes to the Republican who will occupy that post come January, David Sager.
“I wish him the best of luck,” says Cunningham.
Best interests of the county
He’s also disappointed less progress than he hoped has been made on the landfill, economic development and studying Route 17B.
That said, he wants residents to feel the Legislature isn’t sitting still.
“People need to understand we’re trying to improve their quality of life and aren’t wasting money,” he explains. “Government is on their side. Everyone at every level is trying to do their best.”
That personal and professional best will be needed, he says, to meet county government’s biggest challenge: providing needed services whilst also being able to fund them.
People want government to perform certain functions, he notes, but they’re often loathe to entertain tax increases in order to pay for them.
“It’s this contradiction that ultimately has to get worked out,” Cunningham observes.
Otherwise, big-ticket items like a new jail and the landfill will simply swallow the county whole.
So what advice does he have for those who will lead the Legislature into the next decade?
“My advice to everybody is to spend more time listening, rather than talking at first,” he offers. “And work very closely with local government.”
Cunningham doesn’t plan on moving out of the county, so it’s a good bet he, too, will be listening, quite closely . . .
Politicians Have Their Say on Cunningham
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO He’s been praised, he’s been criticized, he’s been told off.
And Sullivan County Legislature Chair and District 1 Legislator Chris Cunningham has done the same to quite a few people himself.
For the past 12 years, he’s had his say and listened to others have theirs. So now that he’s leaving, what do those who’ve worked with him the most have to say about the county’s penultimate elected official?
Have a look:
• Vice Chair Jonathan Rouis, Cunningham’s expected successor as chair: “He’s been a dedicated public servant . . . and a fierce advocate for the people of Sullivan County.”
Having served with Cunningham on the Legislature for six years, Rouis, the Democratic District 4 Legislator, considers the leader “a moderating influence” who moved fellow legislators through thorny casino issues and made people feel “like they were part of the process.”
Best of all, said Rouis, “I think he and I developed a close working relationship and friendship.”
• Minority Leader Leni Binder, who’s also served 12 years as a legislator (District 7) and whom Cunningham succeeded as chair when the Republicans lost their majority hold on the Legislature: “We’ve always differed on certain issues and marched parallel on certain issues.”
Binder said Cunningham had nothing to do with her switching from the Democratic to Republican party several years ago, considering him to actually be “the most conservative of us.”
She agreed with Rouis that Cunningham “is a level-headed thinker . . . a steady, sturdy legislator.
“I would have preferred him to be a little more dynamic,” she added, saying his “one deficit” was allowing the cancellation of steering committee meetings that had permitted Democrats and Republicans to, in essence, caucus together.
• District 9 Legislator Sam Wohl, who’s also leaving the Legislature after losing in November to Republican challenger Alan Sorensen: “Chris has been a friend and a mentor . . . and a great chair for the last four years. He’s kept us on the same, even track.”
Wohl, a Democrat, said he enjoyed the camaraderie with Cunningham but also his “words of wisdom,” praising Cunningham’s leadership abilities.
• Jodi Goodman, the District 6 Legislator who has been the only other Republican besides Binder on the Legislature since Cunningham has been chair: “I think a lot of people felt Chris had hidden agendas, working behind the scenes, a grand schemer, but I always felt comfortable knocking on his door. . . . I think he wanted to be known for being a good communicator.”
Goodman, who’s served on the Legislature since 2000, isn’t sure he reached that goal, but she’s seen a definite improvement.
“When I was first elected,” she recalled, “Chris was considered one of the bad boys here . . . a person who would upset the ranks.
“He would push the bar. He had a temper in those days,” she said. “And we fought hard . . . but if we didn’t agree, it was OK.
“I think we developed a respect for one another there were no hidden agendas. . . . Sometimes he got caught up in politics, but he has always been very fair to me.”
Goodman attributes that in part to the fact that she didn’t tell Cunningham what he wanted to hear but what she was actually thinking.
Now that he’s leaving, “it’s kind of sad to see he’s tired of the process, because he really believed,” she remarked. “Chris is very passionate about Sullivan County. . . . He was in there for a fight, and you like to be around people who aren’t passive.”
• Sullivan County Family Services Legal Department Senior Attorney Colleen Cunningham: “I think he was probably perfect for that role.”
She knows the chair well she’s Cunningham’s sister, growing up with Chris and brother Patrick in the Town of Bethel.
Crediting her brother with working hard to create avenues for people to address human and consumer rights’ abuses, she felt his effort was to make county government “something wonderful.”
“He’s taken it seriously,” she remarked of Cunningham’s role as chair. “He is there every day, all day.”
While he’s tried to work together with every legislator, she also felt he’s been treated fairly most of the time by those with whom he works but there’s nothing like family.
“We all are very close and spend a lot of time together,” she confirmed. “Chris is an extraordinary brother.”
Yet he’s also something else.
“He’s my legislator,” she acknowledged. “I’m sad to see him go!”
She’s sure her brother will miss his friends and coworkers in county government, but she’s also sure he’ll find success elsewhere.
“He’s very bright, and I think his abilities will take him many, many places.”
• Majority Leader Kathy LaBuda, who offered some of the more surprising insights: “Nobody in this group of nine fought more than he and I did, yet when we left his office, we always found a consensus.”
You see, while the two Democrats often differed on policy, Cunningham was the one who had coaxed an initially reluctant LaBuda into politics, and that teacher-student relationship never fully disappeared.
“He is one of the most dedicated public officials I’ve ever met,” she observed. “Nobody has been more dedicated. . . . He is just relentless. He doesn’t stop!”
That courage was never more needed, she explained, than during the Division of Public Works scandal that implicated DPW leaders.
“Nobody was willing to take that on but Chris,” she recalled. “He was willing when nobody else was to take on the bad boys.”
• Tim Hill, Democratic Elections Commissioner and chair of the Sullivan County Democratic Party: “He’s been fairly balanced in his approach.”
Though Hill admitted he and Cunningham, a fellow Democrat, haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, he noted Cunningham’s selection to be both the people’s representative and the county’s leader as testament to Cunningham’s personal abilities.
Hill singled him out for particular praise with the creation of the Fire Training Center near Kauneonga Lake.
“I certainly wish him good luck, wherever he goes,” said Hill.
• Republican Elections Commissioner Rodney Gaebel, who served with Cunningham as District 5 Legislator for all but the last year: “Chris is an intelligent, hardworking legislator who worked hard for his constituents.
“If you agreed with him, he was a strong ally, and if you disagreed with him, he was an equally strong opponent,” Gaebel acknowledged. “Politics aside, over a 12-year period, he and I agreed on more than we disagreed on.”
Gaebel valued one thing more than any other with Cunningham.
“If he gave me his word on something, I could count on it, and to me that’s the basis for a workable relationship that would and most of the time did produce positive results for the people of Sullivan County.”
• District 8 Legislator Ron Hiatt, who is expected to become Legislature Vice Chair (although he had originally expressed a desire to be Chair): “Chris focused on objectives rather than being chair and reacting. . . . He said, ‘Let’s do things!’”
Though Hiatt is often credited with helping get the Boys and Girls Club and Discount Drug Program going in the county, he praised Cunningham with being an encouraging, driving force.
“He did the same thing with the Council on Local Governments,” Hiatt added. “He took that suggestion [from Fremont Supervisor Jim Greier] and ran with the ball.”
Yet when important issues arose like casinos, “he let his opinion be known, but he never once tried to force me” to vote a certain way, said Hiatt.
“I never, ever felt he leaned on me to vote one way or another. I always appreciated that a lot.”
Cunningham “has a fiery personality,” admitted Hiatt, but legislators were taught by Cunningham himself to wait to speak for 24 hours when upset “which in his case was very important!” Hiatt said with a laugh.
• District 3 Legislator Elwin “Woody” Wood, relatively new to the Legislature but not to Cunningham: “I’ve known Chris for at least . . . 15 years.”
Wood was once County Coroner and thus interacted with multiple officials, including the Town of Bethel when Cunningham was on its board.
“He was basically the one who talked me into running here,” the Democrat recalled. “I have a lot of respect for him. He’s fair and honest he listens to you.”
Wood credited Cunningham with helping bring in County Manager David Fanslau, who he believes has been very good for the county.
“I’m going to miss Chris. It’s going to be different,” Wood concluded. “I wish him well and hope to continue our friendship.”
• Ira Cohen is currently the elected County Treasurer, but he was the appointed County Attorney for eight years, till Cunningham and other legislators decided to appoint Sam Yasgur instead yet Cohen avoided bitterness in his comments: “I was impressed with the fact that Chris recognized that being chair of the Legislature was a full-time job.
“. . . That’s something for future Legislature chairs to think about,” he continued. “County government is so complex, it’s like running a $200 million-a-year corporation with 1,000 employees. No businessman would think of doing that part-time.”
• District 5 Legislator Frank Armstrong is another Democrat who Cunningham encouraged to run for Legislature: “I appreciated Chris’ consideration of me for that. He had a great concern for the county in general.”
Though only on the Legislature since being appointed in March (and re-elected in November), Armstrong said he’s grateful for Cunningham’s guidance and availability.
“I appreciated him being here.”
• Alexis Eggleton, Sullivan County Legislative Aide: “He has been a tremendous advocate, not only for his district but the county as a whole.”
Calling him a patient mentor, “as a leader, Chris’ strongest suit has always been as a listener,” she added.
Though employed for the past two years by the Legislature, Eggleton often works most closely with Cunningham, preparing press releases, coordinating schedules and following events of significance or relevance to the county.
“I love my job because I love the public service aspect of it,” she explained. “[Chris is] one of the best examples. . . . He taught me to serve the public to the best of your ability.”
As for why he departed, Eggleton offered this assessment: “Twelve years is a tremendous amount of time for any one person. I don’t think, however, that Chris will ever grow tired of public service.”
• Sullivan County Republican Party Chair and Lumberland Supervisor John LiGreci: “Chris was very knowledgeable. Although we didn’t agree on all the issues, he always had the best interests of Sullivan County at heart.”
Though LiGreci agreed that it’s time for a change in the Legislature, he felt Cunningham “did the best he could for Sullivan County.
“Quite frankly, he will be missed.”