Former Allies Duke It Out In Weird, Wild Westchester State Senate Race

greg ball speaking1 Former Allies Duke It Out In Weird, Wild Westchester State Senate Race

Senator Greg Ball (Photo: Facebook)

“I view a political campaign as a guerrilla effort, not the furry type of gorilla,” State Senator and former Air Force Captain Greg Ball told The Politicker recently. “In the military, the saying is, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ And we’re going to win this primary handily. We’re going to teach the assemblyman a lesson in civility and in loyalty.”

The assemblyman in question is former ally Steve Katz, who is challenging Mr. Ball for his Hudson Valley State Senate seat in the Republican primary. The two have been enmeshed in a protracted campaign that has gotten ugly enough for Mr. Ball’s bellicose metaphor to be increasingly apt. In a former life, the candidates were friends—even donating to each other’s past political efforts—but the race has devolved to include outlandish costumed characters, nasty nicknames and even calls for a ceasefire from local party officials.

The differences in their outward appearances is marked. Mr. Katz is a veterinarian with bushy gray hair, glasses and a penchant for suits. Mr. Ball is relatively youthful, with a strong build that bespeaks his military background. He often favors a baseball cap, jeans and flannel shirt, emphasizing his image as an outdoorsman. But their political tactics have been similarly bizarre.

Mr. Katz, who blamed Mr. Ball for the contentious tone of the race, pointed to the chicken suit. Within a week of Mr. Katz’s announcing his candidacy, a person donning the costume showed up at one of his appearances holding a sign that read, “Dr. Do-Liberal, Why Did You Vote Against Pension Reform?” It is unclear who was inside the chicken suit.

“This is, you know, Greg Ball and seeing that, you’re looking at the mark of the man. I know that it’s getting no traction and it’s just another example of his being immature and trying to be a bully,” Mr. Katz said. “That’s what you get with Greg Ball. The words that come to mind generally are immature, self-promoting bully.”

However, Mr. Ball has also faced personal attacks. Most recently, on March 30, an anonymous Twitter account began sending a photo Mr. Ball posted on his Twitter page showing him wearing a costume at a charity event. The angle of the photo and the small size of his shorts made it appear that Mr. Ball was not wearing pants. Mr. Ball’s campaign quickly sent out pictures of the event to prove the get-up was a costume and a statement blaming the episode on “Krazy Katz.”

Mr. Katz denied any involvement.

“If it came off of Greg Ball’s Twitter account, how can I have anything to do with that?” Mr. Katz asked before continuing, his voice heated. “The idea that, you know, he thought that that was appropriate, to put a picture of him in his underwear in a bathroom alone. I mean, honestly that’s what you want in a state senator?”

Mr. Ball, on the other hand, said things turned negative last December when Mr. Katz’s wife, Nicole, posted an “exceptionally odd” video online, depicting herself gagged with duct tape to protest being banned from Mr. Ball’s Facebook page.

Mr. Ball makes no apologies for the unorthodox tactics he has employed in the campaign. He said the chicken suit and “Krazy Katz” press releases help illustrate Mr. Katz’s shortcomings as a legislator.

“There’ll be more chickens, and other animals,” Mr. Ball said. “The chicken does a damn good job.

“The relationship has faded … I think it’s unfortunate,” Mr. Ball added. “People want to see their senator and assemblyman working together … I don’t think there’s any particular rush for him to run, leapfrog to the next seat and stab me in the back in the process.”

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Steve Katz (Photo: Facebook)

Mr. Katz—who will give up his chance to be re-elected to the Assembly if he pushes on with his primary challenge—said he was inspired to risk his seat because he sees Mr. Ball and the other members of the Republican majority in the State Senate capitulating to the Democratic Cuomo administration.

“I am not happy right now and that is why I’m running. I want to be a voice for the true, Republican conservatives,” Mr. Katz said.

On April 2, the local party held its convention in the ballroom of the White Plains Crowne Plaza. Chairmen of the three counties sat on a raised stage in front of an audience of party members on folding chairs. Mr. and Mrs. Katz met Mr. Ball with a stony silence when he greeted them as he entered the room.

Before the votes were cast, speakers came up to nominate Mr. Ball and Mr. Katz. Even the supporters who spoke on behalf of both candidates also decried the nasty nature of the race so far.

James Chisholm, chairman of the Republican Party in Somers, who endorsed Mr. Ball, described the campaign as “Republican beating up Republican.”

“I thought we were very happy with having a state senator and having an assemblyman, but no, we’ve got to mix it up,” Mr. Chisholm said. “Democrats will now start sneaking in and who’s to blame? Every single one of us.”

The three county GOP chairs all said local party leadership spoke to the candidates and urged them to run a kinder, gentler race.

“We always ask for a civil type of approach toward politics,” Putnam County chairman Jim DiBella said. “Unfortunately, they don’t always heed our requests.”

Westchester Republican Party chairman Douglas Colety said he hoped Mr. Katz would abandon his challenge to Mr. Ball and focus on being re-elected to the Assembly if he didn’t receive party backing for the primary.

“We’re hopeful that we can leave united, that the candidate that loses tonight will support the winner and that we can move on and compete for the race in November against the Democrats,” Mr. Colety said. “Hopefully, if Steve Katz doesn’t prevail tonight, he’ll run for his old Assembly seat and not continue in a primary against Greg Ball.”

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Steve Katz playing piano during the convention.

As the votes were counted, Mr. Katz stood behind a piano in a lobby outside the ballroom and played a waltz. His tinkling provided a soundtrack to the proceedings, which ended with the announcement that Mr. Ball won by more than a two-to-one margin. In his victory speech, Mr. Ball indicated his hope Mr. Katz would give up his primary bid.

“This Senate seat is critically important to the balance of power, we know that,” Mr. Ball said. “I think it’s fundamentally important for people in this district … that they know they have an assemblyman and a senator who, regardless of any personal differences in the past, work together hand-in-hand to deliver.”

Mr. Katz, however, was nowhere to be found. He had left the ballroom sometime before the result was announced—a fact that did not bode well for the fence mending hoped for by fellow party members.

In the weeks since the convention, Mr. Katz, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the matter, hasn’t indicated whether he plans to continue challenging Mr. Ball in the primary without the party’s endorsement.

Regardless of Mr. Katz’s decision, the primary fight is just a prelude to the general election. As Mr. Ball and Mr. Katz duke it out, Justin Wagner, the Democratic contender for the seat, has been running unopposed. Mr. Wagner, who’s clearly pleased with the tough tone of the Republican race, is bullish on his chances considering redistricting doubled the Democrats’ voter enrollment advantage in the district from 1.4 percent to 3.6 percent, a significant increase considering Mr. Ball initially won his seat in 2010 by a margin of just about 2 percent.

“This Republican primary is just another example of the fact that Greg Ball can’t bring people together,” Mr. Wagner said. “I’m very optimistic.”

 

hwalker@observer.com