Mary “Betsy” Kraat has personally experienced the Hudson Valley’s housing crisis, having been evicted twice in her hometown of Kingston, the second time after refusing to pay rent during a bedbug infestation.
Trying to find housing on a limited budget with two children proved impossible in the city. Every rental advertisement received dozens of responses within a couple days.
“If you can rent to somebody who’s only going to be there on the weekends, or to a couple renting a two-bedroom, of course you’re going to, and not to me and my two kids and my SSI,” says Kraat, who receives supplemental security income because her son is autistic. “I had to get out.”
Kraat now lives in Section 8 housing with her children in Hunter in the northern Catskills. She became part of the Kingston Tenants Union in 2018 and testified to a state Senate committee about the region’s housing crisis during the push for rent stabilization last year.
Now she’s set her sights on the state legislature. A progressive political activist and master’s candidate for social work at Fordham University, Kraat, 46, is looking to unseat Assemblyman Chris Tague, the freshman Republican representing New York’s 102nd district, which includes all of Greene and Schoharie counties, as well as parts of Delaware, Columbia, and Ostego counties, and Saugerties in Ulster County.
Kraat supports statewide universal health care, marijuana reform, tenant protections, and restrictions on short-term rentals (STRs) such as Airbnbs.
It will be an uphill battle.
The 102nd district leans right, with more than 33,300 residents registered with the Republican or Conservative parties, compared to about 24,700 registered Democrats, according to the New York State Board of Elections (BOE).
The district held its first election in 2012 after being created during the state’s decennial redistricting. Republican Pete Lopez crushed the Democratic nominee, James Miller, receiving nearly double the votes as his opponent, according to the BOE.
Though the number of registered Democrats has steadily grown in the district since then, Democrats have failed to ever capture the seat. They came close during a special election in 2018 to replace Pete Lopez, when Aidan O’Connor lost by fewer than 300 votes to Tague.
But turnout that year was miniscule, and when O’Connor ran against Tague during the 2018 midterm elections, he lost, receiving only 44 percent of the vote.
Greene and Schoharie counties, which make up the bulk of the district’s population, heavily favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012, and came out in even greater numbers to help elect Donald Trump—more than twice the number of Schoharie voters selected the celebrity businessman than Hiliary Clinton.
Kraft released her first campaign video on June 22, but her campaign has been stymied by the pandemic. Although she has appeared at several Black Lives Matters protests, one of her sons has impaired lung function, and she has to be careful.
“No one can really do anything, and if you do, it’s at your peril,” she says.
Kraat first worked in electoral politics back in 2018, when she phone-banked and organized events for Gareth Rhodes during the 2018 Democratic congressional primary. Rhodes ultimately lost to Antonio Delgado, who went on to defeat incumbent John Faso in New York’s 17th Congressional district.
Health care was major issue in the 2018 primaries, and Kraat is currently pushing for the New York Health Act, which would provide universal, single-payer health insurance to all New Yorkers. It would rely on a massive state income tax hike—the RAND Corporation, a centrist think tank, estimated an additional $139 billion in taxes would be needed to fund the revamped healthcare system, a 156-percent increase over current total tax revenue. But it also estimates that the bottom 90 percent of income-earners would actually come out ahead, because they would save more on health costs than they would pay in new taxes.
These estimates were made before state coffers took a massive hit from the coronavirus pandemic, and I asked Kraat if this was a still a good time for the program.
“I don’t think we have any choice, honestly,” she says.
Kraat believes that the state needs a solid healthcare system to streamline the response to the pandemic. To her, it’s an ethical issue.
“It is morally wrong to have someone’s death connected to the kind of work that they do and whether they have health insurance,” she says. “We’ve accepted this, that certain kinds of jobs…mean you don’t live as long. It’s insanity.”
Universal health care is all the more imperative because of the pandemic, Kraat says, when essential workers, whose jobs rarely offer insurance, are at risk.
“We’re saying, ‘Go risk your lives, but we don’t think you’re worth health insurance,’” she says, adding that it’s time for a revolutionary way of thinking involving strong government actions. The alternative “is death.”
Kraat is in favor of marijuana legalization and wants farmers in the 102nd district to be able to profit from the cash crop. She favors requiring marijuana to be locally produced, especially because farmers who grow CBD cannabis could easily convert to growing marijuana. CBD cannabis contains only minimal amounts of the psychotropic chemical THC and can be legally grown in the state.
“That’s going to be a growth area for us, and I want to find a way to bring that money to our district, because we need it,” Kraat says.
Kraat wants to regulate STRs so only homes occupied by their owners could be rented out. She would also support a state-wide occupancy tax on the rentals.
STRs have inundated the Catskills in recent years. In 2019, there were more Airbnb guests in Greene County than there were residents.
Kraat is familiar with the effect STRs have on communities in the Catskills, saying some visitors from New York City ended up buying properties, then opening businesses that catered only to other visitors from the city.
“When you hashtag #EscapeBrooklyn in a social media post, it’s a slap in the face to me,” she says.
Kraat entered the race after the most recent campaign contribution filing date, in January, so it is unknown how much cash she has raised thus far. Tague listed $2,300 in contributions at that point, according to the BOE.
The next round of filings must be turned in July 15.
As for Tague, Kraat says he has only defined his tenure in opposition to Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, instead of setting up and achieving his own list of priorities. “All Chris Tague has done is vote no.”
Of Tague’s last 10 news releases, nine of them are about opposing an action of Cuomo’s, such as the governor’s continuing State of Emergency powers and his reversal on allowing gyms to operate in Phase Four of the state’s reopening plan.
Tague could not be reached for comment.
The election for the 102nd Assembly district is Tuesday, November 4.
Roger Hannigan Gilson is a Hudson Valley journalist and humorist. A former crime reporter for the Register Star, he now runs the news site The Other Hudson Valley.