In a new marketing campaign, the county is doing its best to convince people who are looking for “solace in a more secluded setting”—polite code for city dwellers looking to escape Covid-19—that our small, rural county is the right place to be. Realtors say they don’t have enough houses to meet the demand, and sales prices are up.
I wonder how many Republicans are aware of the political implications of what is going on: The more the county encourages people from the heavily Democratic New York metro area to relocate here, or even just to buy a second home here—which entitles owners to vote here if they choose—the more quickly the Republican Party is apt to find itself losing its grip on power.
Right now, that may seem hard to believe. The County Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, as are the vast majority of officeholders at the town level. But underneath, even before the virus, Democrats were quietly making gains.
“In the last two or three years, we’ve had many more registered Democrats than we’ve ever had before,” the head of the local Democratic Committee told me. Our Durham town board is still all Republican, but last year, two Democrats ran for seats and, while neither of them won, they made sufficiently respectable showings that one is planning to try again.
It’s the same story elsewhere. In nearby Windham, whose ski resort is a draw for affluent New Yorkers, Democratic registration jumped 40 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to Crane Davis, who for years has studied data patterns for the Democratic County Committee. In Catskill, the county seat, the jump was 30 percent. He says he used to tell his wife (Doreen Davis, the former Catskill town supervisor) that Democrats “will run this town by 2040.” Now, he says, “it looks like it’s going to be sooner.”
In the town of Lexington, Crane Davis’s analysis of New York State Board of Elections figures shows, Democratic registration grew by 15 percent in five years and now outstrips the combined Republican and Conservative total. “We started three or four years ago, at farmers’ markets and similar places, to get weekenders to switch their registration,” says Bennett Wine, a first-term Democratic town board member. “I have to assume that’s part of it.”
Craig Paull and Tom Kalin, two Democratic neighbors of mine, originally switched their registration from New York City to Durham in 2018 after learning that such a thing was possible. Over several months, they convinced a dozen other local second-home owners to do the same, helping to raise the number of registered Democrats by 10 percent over five years. Getting involved “was like a coping mechanism” to deal with the Trump era, says Kalin. “It seemed that urgent.”
The most dramatic indicator of growing Democratic power in this area was the election of Representative Antonio Delgado in the 19th district two years ago. His victory over a Republican incumbent was the result of many factors, but the increasing number of registered Democrats was certainly a key one. In 2012, the first year of existence for the then-new 19th district, registered Republicans and Conservatives together outnumbered Democrats by about 15,000. But by early this year, Democrats had taken the lead.
To be sure, the path to Democratic dominance may not always be smooth, at least until Democrats further close the registration gap. Doreen Davis was narrowly defeated for reelection in Catskill last year by her Republican opponent, a loss that Crane Davis blames on a lack of support from younger Democratic newcomers who have a more “radical” agenda. In a situation in which Republicans are still in the majority, he says, “the only way to win is crossover votes.”
And Bennett Wine cautions that it’s important not to make too much of the virus-induced surge of new residents. “There was a huge interest in buying homes here after the attacks in 2001,” he says. “But that lasted only a year or so and then petered out.”
There’s also the matter of broadband, which is sorely lacking in many rural areas, including my own. Craig Paull and Tom Kalin say they and three neighbors have just agreed to pay a total of $28,000 to bring cable to their stretch of country road, thus enabling them to live here full-time and work from home.
Despite this and other problems, however, there are strong reasons to think that the Democratic political gains will continue no matter what the course of the virus. Last year, two researchers reported in an article for the US Department of Agriculture that the decline in the US rural population had been reversing in rural areas “with attractive scenic qualities, or those near large cities.” Since 2011, the article said, “fewer people have been moving out of rural areas and more people have been moving in.”
I’m certainly not saying that Greene County is going to turn blue overnight. But after living through several elections here, I’ve come to the conclusion that if the Democratic Party is going to start winning races in rural areas like mine, it’s not going to be because it can convince enough existing voters to change their allegiance. Rather, it will be the result of new voters who choose to be Democrats from the start.
Greene County, by all means, put out the welcome mat!