A Catskill Catalog: April 9, 2008

The congressional district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is known as the Silk Stocking District. Now, clearly, that nickname reflects the wealth of the people of that neighborhood, but it also suggests a congressional district that has a history and an identity beyond the identity of the particular person holding office, a district that exists to be represented by a series of elected representatives over time. Kind of like basic democracy: the district exists before the representative.
The Catskills, unfortunately, have never been recognized as a distinct and integral region whose people share a mutual identity and community that deserves to be represented in Congress. To be fair, even the most generous geographic definition of the Catskills can only yield a population that is a couple hundred thousand short of the required population of a congressional district.
So the Catskills have always been a part of a larger district, or, more accurately, parts of the Catskills are added to a number of congressional districts whose real population centers are somewhere else.
In the 36 years I’ve lived within the boundaries of the same town in the same county, my congressional district has been changed, something like, four times. I think we’ve been part of the 27th, 28th, 25th, and 20th congressional districts.
A few years ago, the towns of Shandaken, Middletown, and Halcott, contiguous on the map and homogenous in culture, were represented by three different members of Congress!
Right now, the Catskill region is divided among three congressional districts.
Most of the Ulster and Sullivan county Catskills are presently within the 22nd Congressional District, a district that stretches across the state from Poughkeepsie and Kingston on the Hudson, to Binghamton and Ithaca in the Southern Tier. Presently represented by Maurice Hinchey of Hurley, the district seems to have been created to contain several communities of urban Democratic voters within a single district.
The 20th Congressional District runs from Essex, Warren, and Washington counties in the eastern Adirondacks, through Saratoga, Rensselaer, and Columbia counties on the other side of the Hudson, before jutting suddenly west across the river to take in the Greene and Delaware county Catskills. It seems designed to bring together rural Republican voters from a variety of geographic locations, making particularly surprising the victory of Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand in a brutal contest with incumbent John Sweeney in 2006.
All of Schoharie County is tacked onto the Albany-Schenectady-Troy-Amsterdam-based 21st Congressional District, held now by Mike McNulty, who’s retiring.
This cutting and pasting of congressional district lines helter-skelter through the Catskills has been a constant since the beginning of our national life. I’ve been trying to research the history of our representation in Congress. (Who else would do this for you?) It is confusing because the congressional districts, and their identifying numbers, change with the new census every 10 years.
In the first Congress of the United States, 1789-1791, John Hathorn of Orange County represented New York District 4, the lands west of the Hudson below Albany. Hathorn was succeeded by Cornelius Schoonmaker and then Peter Van Gaasbeck of Ulster County before being elected once again in 1795.
Serving a term and then letting the other guy serve was common in the first decades of American political life. Artisan Republicanism was the prevailing political spirit of the day, and it called for each citizen to take his turn serving in the government, each white male Protestant citizen, that is.
As the state’s population grew, new congressional districts were created every 10 years. In 1802, much of the western slope of the Catskills was in the new District 14, and Erastus Root of Delhi was elected to Congress for the first of his four terms. Root was a migrant from Connecticut to what was then, in 1796, Ulster County’s backcountry. Called “General Root” by his neighbors, he pushed for, and helped preside over, the 1797 creation of Delaware County.
But Congressman Root’s four terms were spread over four decades, as others took their turn. For a while, civic leaders from Delhi and Cooperstown passed the congressional seat back and forth. Later, as the congressional district lines were redrawn once again, Delhi and Catskill seemed to take turns sending a Congressman to Washington. Woodland Cemetery in Delhi is the present home of at least five Congressmen, and the separate Delhi cemetery boasts one other.
The last Delhi-based Congressional Represent-ative was Marian Williams Clarke who served out the term of her late husband from 1933 to 1935. John D. Clarke was killed in a fiery automobile crash near Delhi the Sunday before Election Day in 1933. He had already served two terms in Congress when, in 1924, he lost a new-fangled primary to a Binghamton candidate. By then, willingly taking turns was so in the previous century! Clarke won his seat back two years later, won three more times, and was a vigorous 60 when he was killed. He and his wife are buried in Hobart.