2010-10-28 / Front Page / Politics

Putnam’s Biggest Battle

Legislator Odell poses a surprisingly strong challenge to Senator Leibell
Staff Reports

Back in May, State Senator Vincent Leibell said he was looking forward to a “respectful exchange of ideas” with his county executive race opponent, Legislator Mary Ellen Odell. Since that declaration, the race has grown progressively less respectful, and increasingly more contentious.

Although they belong to the same party, the two candidates represent different desires of Putnam citizens, each leading one portion of what appears to be a Republican divide within the county.

Leibell has spent the last 28 years working in Albany, splitting his time between the assembly and the senate. He has all the experience, friends, and enemies that come with almost three decades in New York politics. He keeps a loyal following of voters who trust his ability to know where to go, what to do, and who to talk to.

In the other corner, Odell has spent just five years in the county legislature. Aligning herself with Tea Party candidates, Odell has become the choice of Putnamites who follow the growing national trend of demanding new faces, and less cronyism, in government.

On September 14, Odell shocked herself and pretty much everyone else in Putnam, losing to Leibell by less than 200 votes in the Republican primary. Rejuvenated after nearly pulling off one of the biggest upsets in county history, Odell decided to stay in the race against Leibell on the Independence Party line. “The momentum is there to go right through November,” she told the COURIER after the primary. “The Republicans that came out … are just a handful of all the voters in Putnam County.”

Controversy swirled both before and after the primary. As reported by the COURIER in June, the FBI subpoenaed the town of Patterson for documents relating to the construction of Leibell’s home. At first, Odell was hesitant in using this to her advantage, but more recently has said things like, “The FBI is in his house, not mine.”

Leibell, who maintained that everything regarding his home was perfectly legal, pointed a finger at his political enemy, Assemblyman Greg Ball. “In terms of Greg Ball, he’s had a pattern; anytime he doesn’t like somebody he calls the FBI,” Leibell told the COURIER in June. “I think it’s a bizarre way to approach politics.” Ball, who is the Republican candidate for the 40th district senate seat Leibell is about to vacate, is the biggest Tea Partier in Putnam and a supporter of Odell.

Carl Albano, a Carmel businessman, announced in March that he would challenge Odell for her seat on the legislature—a move some say that was backed by Leibell. Odell then announced she would seek the assembly seat being vacated by Ball. But in May, James Borkowski, another politician thought to have ties to Leibell, departed from his state senate battle against fellow Republican Ball to challenge Odell in a primary for the assembly seat. Two weeks later, Odell surprised many by announcing her county executive candidacy against Leibell, a man with whom she had once worked fairly closely.

“It is wrong that one individual should control all three major parties in this county,” Odell said at the time. “I am seeking the office of county executive … because I cannot, and will not, stand by and allow the political machine in Putnam County to decide the future.”

LEIBELL ON THE OFFENSE

During the summer, the battle became heated. In July, Odell accused Leibell of trying to “subvert the Democratic process” when he challenged the authenticity of 500 of her signatures to ballot on the Republican line. The challenge was initially submitted to the Putnam County Board of Elections, but unsatisfied with their ruling in favor of Odell, Leibell took his objections to the Supreme Court. Many of the signatures were thrown out, due to what Odell called “administrative” reasons, but they were not enough to remove her from the ballot.

As it turned out, the challenge was about more than Leibell objecting to some of Odell’s signatures. He was trying to prove that there was an “inherent conflict of interest” in Anthony Scannapieco holding the positions of co-commissioner of the board of elections and Republican county chairman at the same time.

Leibell, who was endorsed by the county Republican committee, accused Scannapieco of supporting Odell against the committee’s wishes, and of using his job as co-commissioner to keep Odell on the ballot despite invalid signatures.

A headline grabbing battle between Scannapieco and Leibell ensued.

“He endorsed [Odell], campaigned for her, and maligned me,” said Leibell in July. “This is the first time in history that a commissioner has done this.” Leibell went on to say that the BOE had become a “cesspool” under the leadership of Scannapieco. He even filed a formal ethics complaint against Scannapieco to Vincent Tamagna, chairman of the county legislature.

In August, Scannapieco wrote a letter to local news outlets, saying he would not be responding to anything else Leibell had to say. He accused Leibell of using him as a “smokescreen” so he would not have to address issues and campaign.

Three weeks ago, Scannapieco was voted out as county chairman, losing to Jim DiBella, chairman of the Southeast GOP committee. Although Odell offered her support to DiBella, she referred to his election as a “power play,” essentially saying that Leibell is the main reason Scannapieco lost. “Tony was the chairman for 14 years, and Leibell has been in control for 28 years,” she said. “It was a clash of the titans. There was definitely pressure put on [committee members], no doubt.”

The battles did not stop there. In September, Leibell was asked by the Journal News if Putnam County needs a sheriff’s department, and if he would consider creating an office of public safety like Westchester has done.“I’ve had individuals talk to me, and law enforcement officials in the county, who are pretty high up, say they think it’s time to explore that,” he responded. “Westchester does very well with a consolidated department underneath the county executive … It is something that clearly has to be looked at.”

The comments prompted a swift response from Sheriff Don Smith, who wrote a letter to the COURIER defending the independence and importance of his office. He called Leibell a “bully” and referred to the comments as “vintage vindictive Vinnie.”

“The fact that he wants to take away the people’s right to vote and elect the sheriff they believe in, so that he can appoint a crony who will be beholden to him, should be a wake-up call to all the citizens of Putnam County,” Smith told the COURIER.

Leibell said that in no way did he endorse bringing a police department under county executive control. “Anything the legislature wants to consider in order to save tax dollars, I will consider,” he said. “That was one question out of many questions that was asked. I think the sheriff is overly sensitive.”

Leibell also said that Smith is the real bully, accusing him of using his office to promote Odell. “I don’t like a guy with a badge and a gun running political campaigns,” he said.

Smith denied any endorsement of Odell, saying he “scrupulously avoided” using his official authority for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the nominations or elections of any political candidates.

ODELL ON THE OFFENSE

Odell has been using her comparative lack of experience to her advantage, going after Leibell’s connections to various influential people throughout the county. “[Senator Vincent Leibell’s] senate payroll over the last several years boasts an alphabet list size of who’s who in Putnam County,” said Odell, at the PCN&R/ COURIER Republican Primary Debate on September 7. “Not only does he have other government employees on the state payroll but many of his family members as well.”

Leibell said that his staff was formed in order to meet the needs of voters. “My payroll is half of what the county legislature’s payroll is,” Leibell told the COURIER in response. “And, I might add, that I head up the Committee of Homeland Security, Military Affairs, and Veterans. I have to service constituents all over the state of New York. In addition, my own district is over three times the size of Putnam County. And she is saying my staff is too large? I don’t think so.”

Odell has also taken issue with Leibell’s not-for-profit organizations. “My opponent’s Hudson Valley trust recently applied to the town of Patterson for a variance to renovate a barn,” she said in September. “It was stated that there was $1 million in Albany ready to be allocated for this project.”

“That barn will hopefully be a center for the study of American history, aimed at teaching young children and high school students in our history,” Leibell countered. “That, to me, seems like a very worthy and noble goal … And I stand behind it … American history is given a second rate status in my opinion.”

Despite the immense amount of back and forth and headline worthy material, both candidates have been relatively quiet in the last couple weeks leading up to the November 2 election.

Regardless of who wins, the next county executive will have a tall order in working to reduce the tax burden on Putnam, which is currently the 12th highest taxed county in the nation.

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