On a recent Saturday morning in upstate New York, Pramilla Malick, a candidate for State Senate, returned to the spot where she had once been arrested, the construction site of a controversial power plant in Orange County.
Malick joined residents of Wawayanda, where the $900 million power plant is being built, who had gathered with picket signs along the Route 6 highway.
The group was protesting the gas-fired plant being built by Competitive Power Ventures (CPV), and also the construction of the largest LegoLand theme park in the world, being built in nearby Goshen. Residents say the power plant will destroy wetlands and protected farmlands, and that the 170-acre park will draw 2 million visitors to the quaint town, and negatively impact water resources there.
For a year, Malick had led these protests as an environmental activist and community organizer. In December 2015, she was arrested at the CPV site along with actor James Cromwell for “obstructing traffic.” Now, dressed in a red coat, she stood before the group as their Democratic candidate asking for their vote – the first candidate to contest the Senate seat in six years.
“I’m not a career politician, I’m just a mom from Minisink,” Malick told the Voice, borrowing a line from her campaign. “But I’m tired of the corruption. Both projects are being built for New York markets at the expense of upstate rural communities, with the worst kind of pay-to-play politics.”
In New York’s 42nd Senate district, this grassroots messaging has earned her the support of an unlikely group: Trump boosters who say they want to “drain the swamp” in both Washington, and Albany. Malick was able to get her name on the ballot as a write-in candidate after 2,439 voters across four counties wrote her in during the primary.
The 42nd Senate district falls within Hudson Valley, traditionally a Republican stronghold. Orange County is often known as place of “Guns and Hoses,” home to many retired policemen, fire fighters, and 9/11 first responders. Republicans have long dominated the county legislature, and only one Democrat has been elected as County executive.
“I will be voting Democrat for the first time in my life,” said Vanessa Kolk, a single mother and registered Republican who belongs to a family of wealthy small business owners. In a deeply polarizing election season, Kolk’s home displays yard signs supporting both parties: Malick and Trump. Her email signature is “Proud Deplorable.”
“I want someone who will put our interests first,” she said. “Our town is being threatened by outside companies who want to take our water resources, while we are in the middle of a drought. Pramilla is one of us.” Yet, she sees no contradiction in supporting Trump.
“I strongly agree with Mr. Trump’s views on immigration, taxes and trade policy,” Kolk added. “Our borders must be tightened and everyone must be here legally. Why should I be penalized with more taxes because I’m wealthy? I also believe that Hillary Clinton belongs in prison. How can she lead our country when she let four Americans get killed in Benghazi? This is not about being Republican or Democrat, it’s about the corruption. It’s time to get our country under control. I trust both Trump and Pramilla to clean up the system.”
Malick is running against John Bonacic, a state senator for 18 years and a Republican heavyweight who has been opposed only twice in the last eight elections. While Bonacic supports the CPV power plant as crucial for “meeting electricity needs,” Malick asserts irregularities in the review process and nepotism.
The project has already been the subject of a federal investigation – a CPV executive and aides of Gov. Andrew Cuomo were named in a bribery indictment. Further, as an Orange County attorney, Bonacic’s son, Scott Bonacic, was involved in drafting the environmental impact statement for the power plant.
“We are being bulldozed by the powers that be and I’m tired of it,” said Jeanne Ryan, a retired NYPD police officer who supports Malick. “We moved here for a rural life to raise our children in the country. Our towns are not for politicians to profit from. People are really angry at all back door deals.”
Ryan too is a long-time Republican who will vote for Trump. “I have no faith in generic politicians giving us same song and dance. I want someone to who has built something, whether it’s their own business or a community resistance.”
For Ann Marie Rolo, a paralegal, supporting Trump was the more difficult decision. “I’m a feminist. I wrestle with Mr Trump, but overall I do stand with most of his policies,” she said. “There is no perfect candidate, I don’t want to see four more years of Obama’s policies, and at the end of the day, I’m Republican.”
Yet, that doesn’t stop her from voting for a Democrat in the Senate. For Rolo, the driving factor is trust: Her father-in-law was a 9/11 first responder who died from health complications after working on the site. “The EPA said you can go back there to work, but they were wrong,” Rolo said. “So who is keeping us safe? Who can we trust?”
Rolo says she finds that kind of trust in both Malick and Trump. “Pramilla is not a seasoned politician. She’s not in it for the money and power, but for the service. Trump too is disconnected from Washington. He’s his own man, he can walk away his job and still have his businesses.”
She adds, “We have a huge problem in the Orange County and both Republicans and Democrats are coming together to fight that.”