Hinchey was always true to himself and his constituents

Having a hero is a wonderful thing. For years, my hero has been the soon-to-be-retired Congressman, Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from Saugerties, New York. As a young man, he served in the Navy and worked his way through college as a toll collector on the Thruway. We met many years ago when Maurice, a SUNY New Paltz graduate, was running for the state Assembly. I was a pretty young political science professor working one evening a week at New Paltz. I was asked to moderate a candidates’ debate between Hinchey and his opponent, a Republican mainstay by the name of H. Clark Bell, who everyone thought was unbeatable. No wonder Democrats from that district never won. Hinchey was not only a Democrat but he was a very liberal guy. I turned to a colleague and said, “This guy can’t win.”

Boy, was I ever wrong. He won and went on to be a legend in the state Assembly as the environmentalist of the century. From that day forward, he couldn’t be touched. Oh, the Republicans tried their best to get rid of him but people respected a man who fought for his principles. Then, when Hinchey was one of the most respected members of the Legislature he ran for Congress and won.

The great thing about the man was how accessible he was. The people who worked for him adored him. It’s one thing to be a staff member for a mundane politician but to work for a man you really admired, that is something quite different.

When the Iraq war came along, based on a lie, Maurice was furious. Not only did he take on his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he took the president of the United States to task. He did what he always has done, fearlessly, and told the American people what they needed to hear. He took some abuse for his position but he remained true to himself and the people who elected him.

Not that long ago, Maurice was diagnosed with colon cancer and had a series of operations. The situation was deadly serious. To the great unhappiness of his constituency, Hinchey announced that he was stepping down. The unthinkable had happened — the iron man of mid-Hudson politics was leaving. The people who voted for him and who worked with him, on both sides of the political spectrum, were very unhappy. They should have been. One of the jobs of a congressman is to make sure that your constituents are not left out when it comes to getting their share of the federal budget that their tax dollars support. The former head of the County Legislature, Republican Gerald Benjamin, told me, “We were often on the opposite side on issues but I always admired Maurice’s extraordinary success in advocating for his district and bringing home jobs and resources.”

One may have argued with some of his positions like supporting the construction, at great cost, of a presidential helicopter manufactured in the district, but in an America where everyone is looking for jobs, there are worse examples of spending than a project which was designed to protect the life of the president.

The tributes have come pouring in. Hinchey has been lauded again and again by colleagues and constituents. New York state is losing two members of Congress under the constitutionally mandated reapportionment and his district was eliminated. Hey, when Mickey Mantle left baseball, the Yankees retired his number. I can’t think of a bigger tribute than retiring a Congressman’s district.

So retire to an easier place, Maurice. Get your health back and just try to remember all of us who have benefitted from what you have done. You have been a conscience of your district and your House. Most of all, personally, think of all of us who love you. When you do that, you realize what a special life you have already lived.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/17/12

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