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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday on my mind

Some things running around my brain this morning:

* The government reported today that the U.S. economy in the final quarter of 2008 shrank at an annualized rate of 3.8 percent. That's pretty bad, no two ways about it. But weren't all the doom-and-gloom economists predicting a plunge of about 6.5 percent? Now they're predicting the contraction of the Gross Domestic Product in the current quarter, which ends March 31, will be 5 percent. Forgive me if I choose to wait for the actual data instead of believing people who, just a year ago, didn't even see this recession coming.

* It looks like the Republican candidate for New York's 20th Congressional District seat in the upcoming special election (necessitated by the elevation of Rep. Kirtsen Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate) will be state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco. Just one problem: Tedisco lives in Schenectady, which isn't in the district. Yes, I know it's legal in New York to represent a congressional district without actually living it. And, beyond that, I know that Tedisco claims to own a house in Saratoga Springs, which is in the district. (I'm guessing it's a weekend place or a rental property.) But the simple truth is that people in a congressional district want to be represented by someone who shares their experinces and concerns - in other words, a full-time resident of the district. With all the qualified Republicans living in the 20th - state Sen. Betty Litte, former state Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, state Assemblyman Marc Molinaro - Tedisco is the best the GOP has to offer?

* Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, just before being thrown out of office on Thursday, gave a 47-minute speech to the state Senate - the jury in his impeachment case - in which he ticked off a list of his accomplishments as the state's chief executive and argued that none of them were impeachable offenses. No one said they were, Rod. You were shown the door because you tried to sell a seat in the United States Senate to the highest bidder. Funny, but I didn't hear you mention that among your accomplishments.

* Just picked up the new Bruce Springsteen album, "Working on a Dream." What a disappointment. People who know me and/or read my blog regularly will attest to the fact that I've been a huge fan of Springsteen for nearly 30 years and that I rave about virtually everything he does musically. So you can believe me when I say "Working on a Dream" sounds like a hurried project - rushed to completion so it could be in stores before the Boss does the halftime show at this Sunday's Super Bowl - made up mostly of rejects from 2007's outstanding "Magic" CD and several other subpar songs that aren't worthy of Springsteen's legacy.

* Bill Hemmer, the once even-handed CNN anchor who sold his soul and his objectivity to get a similar job at FoxNews, was on the air, offering political play-by-play and commentary, as President Barack Obama signed a bill on Thursday mandating equal pay for equal work - long a hot-button issue among women and minorities. The bill is named for Alabama resident Lilly Ledbetter, who sued her former employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for paying men more than they paid her for performing the same tasks. Ledbetter, now 70 and retired, stood next to Obama as he signed the bill, and Hemmer commented: "She's 70. Doesn't she look great?" Wonderful. The president signs a bill mandating that employees not be judged by their gender, and Hemmer marks the occasion by making a sexist remark. Just another dubious moment in the laughable history of FoxNews.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

No politics for Paterson

Say what you will about Gov. David Paterson selecting Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill New York state's vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, but this much is certain: He wasn't thinking in terms of political gain for either himself or New York's Democratic Party.

If politics had been Paterson's main motivation, he would have picked state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Picking Cuomo would have benefited Paterson directly by eliminating a potential Democratic primary opponent to the governor in 2010. And it would have benefited the Democratic Party in New York because Cuomo would have been a safe bet to keep the Senate seat in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Instead, the governor hurt himself by leaving open the possibility of a Cuomo-Paterson gubernatorial primary in 2010 - a primary that Cuomo has a good chance of winning - and he hurt the state's Democratic Party by opening up Gillibrand's seat in New York's heavily Republican 20th Congressional District.

Gillibrand was able to win the 20th District seat in 2006 because of the nationwide swing toward Democratic congressional candidates that year and because her opponent, Republican incumbent John Sweeney, found himself embroiled in a couple of personal scandals right before the election. Put simply, Gillibrand was the right person in the right place at the right time.

And Gillibrand was re-elected fairly easily last year because, let's face it, members of the House generally have no trouble keeping their seats unless they've done something hideously wrong. (Just ask John Sweeney.)

But now, with no scandalized Republican incumbent or popular Democratic incumbent in place, the race is wide open. And given that registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a roughly 2-1 margin in the 20th District - which stretches from Dutchess County to the Adirondacks - the chance of a Democrat winning the seat in the upcoming special election seems slim.

And then there's the issue of the Senate seat Gillibrand now holds. Firmly in Democratic hands for generations - before Clinton, the seat was held by such party stalwarts as Pat Moynihan and Bobby Kennedy - there's a real chance that a Republican, albeit a moderate one like Rudy Giuliani, could win the seat in the 2010 special election or the 2012 regular election because there already rumblings among Democrats in the state the Gillibrand is too much of a centrist or conservative to be considered a true Democrat. (The best-case scenario for Democrats may be Gillibrand losing a primary in 2010 to a fellow Democrat who then can win the subsequent election.)

No one can be sure how this will play out - this is, after all, the New York political arena, which has been nothing short of a circus in recent years - but it says here that the state's 20th Congressional District seat will be in Republican hands before the flowers bloom this spring, and, come Jan. 1, 2011, Gov. David Paterson and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand probably will have the word "former" before their titles.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

This is not change

In one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered federal agencies to be more responsive to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act - part of his effort to create a more open and transparent government after eight years of Bush/Cheney secrecy.

Obama then barred the news media from taking pictures of him in the Oval Office and, hours later, barred them from photographing him retaking the oath of office (an event necessitated by Chief Justice John Roberts botching the oath during the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday).

Actions speak louder than words, Mr. President, and your actions to restrict the press on Wednesday were quite disturbing.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Just a few thoughts about Tuesday's inauguration of President Barack Obama:

* Having been no fan of George W. Bush and having longed for change for so many years, I thought I would feel markedly different after Obama took office. But I didn't. Perhaps the stock market falling more than 300 points reminded me that even if "change has come to America," the change won't be realized overnight.

* When Obama finished his inaugural address, a colleague at the Freeman commented to me that it was nice to finally have a president who can string together a complete sentence. Too bad the same can't be said for Chief Justice John Roberts, who, by my count, made not one, not two, but three mistakes in administering the presidential oath. The president's name not included, the oath is all of 35 words long. A man who's supposed to be a brilliant lawyer can't memorize 35 words? Or isn't smart enough to have them in front of him on an index card? But then again, look who appointed Roberts. So I guess we shouldn't be suprised.

* Speaking of people not doing their jobs very well, a note to Rev. Rick Warren, the self-important blowhard who delivered the Invocation on Tuesday: The line from the Old Testament is "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one," not "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." It's from the Hebrew, in Deuteronomy: Shema, Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) Adonai Elohenu (the Lord our God) Adonai ehad (the Lord is one)." If you're aiming to be the next Billy Graham, Rev. Rick - which, clearly, you are - it would behoove you to know biblical passages that any first-grade Sunday school student can quote.

* The best line of Obama's speech was, sadly, all but ignored by the TV talking heads: "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."

* I was unpleasantly surprised to see that spectators were allowed to stand on rooftops and balconies and hang out of windows along the inaugural parade route, especially with the Secret Service knowing Obama was going to walk part of the way. Did Dallas teach us nothing?

* And speaking of Dallas, I'd like to close by thanking Sen. Ted Kennedy for not dying after suffering a seizure during the post-inaugural lunch in the Captiol on Tuesday. That would have been a bit too much for news editors like myself to handle on such an already-hectic day. Seriously, though, glad to hear Sen. Kennedy is doing better. I hope he's back at work sooner rather than later.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Senatorial sexism

A group called the Ulster County Democratic Women has sent a letter to New York Gov. David Paterson, urging him to appoint a female to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Julie McQuain, the group's president, told a Freeman reporter on Thursday that the group is not advocating for any particular woman, only that whoever is appointed be female.

Excuse me?

Aren't these the same people who, just five months ago, said it was an insult to Democratic women to suggest that Clinton supporters would back GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin simply because Palin and Clinton have genitalia in common?

Now, all of a sudden, any woman will do?

Allow me to repeat something I wrote last August, when commenting about Palin's implication that fellow women should back her simply because she is female: Supporting someone solely because of their gender is as bad as not supporting someone solely because of their gender. It's sexism either way.

My hope is simply that Gov. Paterson appoints to Clinton's seat the most qualified person for the job.


Thursday, January 15, 2009


Has anyone else noticed that weather forecasters have been completely incapable of predicting snowfall totals this winter?

When they tell us to expect 10 inches, we get 5. When they say 4 to 8 inches, we get 2. And last night, when a "winter weather advisory" from the National Weather Service said Ulster County would get 3 to 6 inches, we got barely a dusting (which, of course, prompted most local school districts to delay their openings by two hours this morning).

Shouldn't weather forecasting be getting more accurate, not less, as time goes on? That would have been my prediction - but then, I was expecting to find 6 inches of snow on my driveway this morning, so what do I know?


Monday, January 12, 2009

Best Performance in a Motion Picture By an Actor in a Supporting Role ... before dying

And the winner is:

Heath Ledger, for his performance as The Joker in the umpteenth Batman movie, "The Dark Knight" ...

... first at the Critics' Choice Awards, then at the Golden Globes and undoubtedly next at the Oscars.

What an insult to the intelligence of movie-goers. And shame on the voters in the various academies for choosing Ledger simply because he died of a drug overdose at age 28 - the only reason he's winning these things.

Ledger gave an OK performance in a summer blockbuster/popcorn flick. Worthy of millions of dollars at the box office? Of course. But the most prestigious awards in the business? C'mon!

What's next - giving Owen Wilson the Best Actor Oscar for "Marley and Me"? Oh, wait. His suicide attempt was unsuccessful, so he doesn't qualify.

The sad reality is that, in the celebrity world, greatness always is exaggerated in death - especially death at a young age. James Dean. Marilyn Monroe. Freddie Prinze. Kurt Cobain. Now Heath Ledger. The list goes on and on. All were good at what they did, but none would be held in such high regard if not for checking out early.

Put another way, we have an odd habit of honoring entertainers for untimely death more than for accomplishments in life. Does that make any sense? Not to me.

There are at least a dozen movie actors who gave better performances in supporting roles in 2008 than Ledger did. But I have no doubt that Ledger's will be the name inside the envelope when the Oscar winner in his category is announced on Feb. 22 ...

... making it a dark night, indeed.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sn-overreacting, Part II

• At 1:43 p.m. Wednesday, the Freeman newsroom received a fax from the Ulster County Legislature that stated the following: "Chairman David B.Donaldson has determined that the safety and welfare of the public and members of the Ulster County Legislature may be compromised by the inclement weather and has announced the postponement of the Ulster County Legislature's meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, January 7, 2009." The weather outside when the fax arrived? Rain. The local roads? Just wet. Does that mean tonight's make-up meeting may be postponed, too? After all, it is pretty breezy outside right now.

• The recording at the Kingston school district's main phone number this morning stated "The Kingston school district is on a two-hour delay." My 14-year-old son, upon hearing this, suggested it be changed to "The Kingston school district is on a two-hour delay because of clear skies, clean roads and paranoia." I couldn't have said it better.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009


If you’ve read my profile, or know me personally, you know I was raised in the Rochester, N.Y., area.

I was born in 1963 and last lived in Rochester full-time in 1981, when I went off to college.

During my years there, Rochester had the dubious distinction of being the snowiest large city in the United States – yes, snowier than neighboring Buffalo – averaging just under 100 inches of accumulation per winter, according to the National Weather Service.

Suffice it to say, it snowed a lot in Rochester when I was growing up – sometimes day after day after day. Three inches at a time. Maybe six. Often 10 or more.

And how many “snow days” did my school district have during my 13 years as a student?


Not one per year. Not one-hundred.


In 13 years.

In my adopted hometown of Kingston, where my son in a ninth-grader, “one” is how many inches of snow on the ground it takes to create widespread panic and shut down everything, starting with the schools.

Today is Jan. 7. The winter of 2008-09 is a scant 18 days old. And the Kingston school district just used its third snow day. Unbelievable.

I went out for a drive this morning. There was an inch or two of snow on the grass, covered with a thin glaze of ice from the freezing rain that began falling overnight. But most of the roads – thanks to vehicles keeping them warm and the city doing a pretty good job of plowing and salting – were just wet; not much worse, really, than on a rainy day in May.

But the Kingston schools are closed today, as are most schools up and down the eastern portion of New York state – from the Adirondacks to the lower Hudson Valley.


Is it because school district officials are spooked by hysterical forecasters who use phrases like “winter storm warning”? Is it the fear that’s brought on by seeing an ominous white (or, worse yet, pink) blob moving toward the region on those in-motion radar maps? Is it taking the principle of “erring on the side of caution” do ridiculous extremes?

Or is it, perhaps, the fear or liability?

DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! Congratulations, Mr. Schiffres! You answered correctly and solved the mystery!

School districts – at least the ones around here – close at the drop of a snowflake these days because they fear that any amount of wintry precipitation on the roads could cause a school bus accident and that any school bus accident could result in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

The reality is that school buses are big, safe vehicles that very, very rarely are involved in serious accidents, regardless of the weather. But our society has become so much more litigious since my school days that districts simply are not willing to do anything that could put their finances in jeopardy.

I guess I see the reasoning in that. And I understand that societal changes, more than changes in perceptions about wintry weather, probably are to blame here.

But there still is no getting around the fact that our children spend way too many winter weekdays at home when they should be in school. And only the school districts can reverse this ever-accelerating trend.

Here’s hoping.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Sticker shock, Part II

While the one-day jump of 13 cents a gallon at a local gas station that I cited three entries ago appears to have been an aberration, my fear that prices at the pump are on their way back up has been confirmed.

Driving from Kingston to the town of Ulster this morning, I noticed that Stewart's at Albany and Foxhall avenues had jumped from $1.58 to $1.64, QuickChek on Albany Avenue had gone from $1.59 to $1.64, and Stewart's at Morton Boulevard and Boice's Lane had risen from $1.58 to $1.65. The only station resisting the trend was Hess on Ulster Avenue, which remained at $1.58, but I'm sure that price will jump in the near future now that all the surrounding stations are charging more.

I can't help but wonder, though: Are the days of 1- and 2-cent increases gone forever? Do the gas price hikes need to be so large? It seems to me that people would be less angry about a 5- or 10-cent jump if it played out over the course of a week or two, rather than occurring overnight.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Service for none

Watching TV yesterday, I was struck by one of those commercials for a "Barack Obama Commemorative Plate."

It wasn't the ridiculous product that caught my attention - I've grown accustomed to sleazy hucksters trying to cash in on other people's successes - but rather the announcer's declaration that "each plate comes with a certificate of authenticity."

What, exactly, about this cheesy souvenir needs to be authenticated? That it's a plate? That the man pictured on it is, in fact, Barack Obama? That Obama won the presidential election?

I'm willing to accept those facts without a piece of paper declaring them to be true. But then, I'm not willing to fork over my hard-earned money for the tacky item being sold, so I guess I won't be getting the certificate either.


War trumps tabloid trash

Avid watchers of the Big Three cable TV news outlets should be thankful that Israel sent ground forces into Gaza on Saturday.

Not because war is a good thing, but because without the military escalation to cover, CNN, Fox and MSNBC most certainly would have spent the entire day reporting on the death of John Travolta's teenage son.

Who knew there was an upside to the Middle East conflict?


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sticker shock

Though gleeful about the historic drop in gas prices over the past six months, I’m smart enough to know the nosedive can’t continue indefinitely and that prices at the pump eventually will either level off or start to tick up.

But a 13-cent jump in one day?

Driving from my house back to the Freeman after my dinner break on Friday, I noticed the Getty station at the corner of Washington and Lucas avenues in Uptown Kingston was charging $1.66 for a gallon of regular unleaded – a price that had been in place for a few days and was in line with what stations nearby were charging.

About four hours later, driving home at the end of my shift, the same Getty station, which had closed for the night, had jacked its regular unleaded price to $1.79.


I realize the price of oil has risen in the last week after falling to a five-year low just before New Year’s, but nothing in the marketplace justified an all-at-once 13-cent increase at the Getty station – especially when the Stewart’s shop and Exxon station less than half a mile down Lucas Avenue still were charging $1.66 last night and gas in the region could be had for a little as $1.55.

If all is right with the world, the Getty price is just an aberration, and it will come down just as quickly as it went up when the owner realizes the error of his ways.

But if other local stations start to follow suit, which often happens when one makes such a dramatic move, I fear this could be the start of an ugly trend.