Codger column: After Jim

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Supervisor Jim Dougherty
Supervisor Jim Dougherty

Codger first met Jim Dougherty in the big city a quarter-century ago.

Codger was writing a column for a different newspaper and Dougherty, a corporate CEO, was running a volunteer civic organization in his Gramercy Park neighborhood. Codger was so impressed by Dougherty’s enthusiasm, intelligence and grasp of issues that he was heard to mutter publicly that Dougherty should run for mayor of New York City.

So imagine Codger’s delight and surprise a few years later when they were homies again, on Shelter Island. Dougherty became supervisor, still assertive, engaged, seemingly tireless. Yet, his defeat last week (barring  a long-shot surge of absentee ballots) after 10 years of stalwart service, by someone who has never held elective office on or off the Island or served on prominent committees here, was a clear mandate for change, a particularly critical mandate for a town that needs to make some hard decisions about its character and its future.

As always, only the future will let us know if the voters’ decision was wise.
Codger will miss the Dougherty of Gramercy Park and of most of his supervisory years here. Perhaps he lingered too long at the fair, although no replacement emerged and his sense of responsibility to the town prevented him from bailing out. Codger hopes people will remember those best years, when

Dougherty adroitly balanced the two most prominent aspects of his personality.

There was “Beau James,” as he was dubbed by my colleague Gary Paul Gates, in a tip of his cap to the jaunty mayor of New York in the Roaring Twenties, Jimmy Walker, a rascal who could raise the city’s spirits with a wink. Imagine Dougherty roaring up to a summery event in his convertible blue roadster, a straw hat perched rakishly over a grin.

And then there was Beau James’ serious alter-ego, “Papa Jim,” named by Codger for the hard-working executive who saw himself as the Island’s paterfamilias. Papa Jim showed up — his life became those endless meetings, those numbing documents, the stressful negotiations that make progress happen.

He showed up right after surgeries, he showed up through his wife’s long illness.

When Beau James and Papa Jim were working together like a double-play combination, there was political magic. For example, it was Dougherty’s gregarious networking on- and off-Island, combined with his sophisticated legal and corporate experience, that led to the town’s improving relationship with utilities. Credit the fewer and shorter blackouts to Beau and Papa at their best.

And credit Dougherty for keeping taxes low.

His mantra of taxes, ticks and the aquifer reflected the major ongoing concerns of most residents.

Codger sometimes wonders if that focus — especially on taxes — comes with a reckoning. Would more money in the budget have made a difference toward solving the health problems caused by Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, as well as drinking water contaminated by nitrogens and salt water? What about the infrastructure?

Only Codger is perfect.

Beau James could become snarky when challenged and Papa Jim’s paternalism could seem arrogant, which wasn’t helpful when the community was already at odds over such divisive issues as affordable housing and short-term rental regulations.

Despite the welcome continuance of council members Paul Shepherd, Jim Colligan and Amber Brach-Williams, all justly admired as hard-working and devoted to the issues, the new administration will surely be different. It will miss the sensible and steady hand of the retiring Chris Lewis, and while

Codger has found both contenders for her seat, Albert Dickson and Marcus Kaasik, thoughtful and interesting, a new voice in elective politics always changes the dynamic.

The key, of course, is the incoming supervisor, Gary Gerth, who has so far not revealed himself. The last time Codger asked Gerth a direct question about his plans, at a pre-election Senior Citizens Foundation program on environmental issues, Gerth replied with a hearty confidence that he had “an action plan.”

What was it, asked Codger? Gerth turned coy — he would only disclose it after the election. Codger hoped that meant it was so powerful and innovative that to reveal it now would give the opposition a chance to steal it.

We’ll soon find out. Gerth will need all the action plans he can summon as he tries to balance the needs of the Island’s disparate populations — tourists, renters, second-home owners, working people with kids in school, retirees, also rich and poor, old and young  — while working out the details of culling the herd, cleaning the water, de-choppering the skies and crafting a desperately needed 10-year strategy.

Good luck, Supervisor Gerth, we’ll be rooting for you. Your success will be ours. There’s plenty on your plate, not to mention those two big pairs of shoes left by Beau James and Papa Jim.

We hope you’ll be able to replace them with fine footwear of your own.