SOUTHEAST, N.Y. -- In the Hudson River Valley's picturesque Putnam County, Republican politicians typically just smile and nod and get elected. Not anymore. The problem isn't the Democrats--it's a mutiny in their own party.
The rebellion began last year with a young Air Force veteran, Greg Ball, who upended decades of political legacy to win a New York State Assembly seat by saying what had become unsayable: illegal immigration is illegal.
Now a group of upstarts, inspired and led by Ball, is seizing town office from a shocked Republican establishment, giving the region's newest state legislator local partners to clean up the village of Brewster. Along the way, these conservatives may provide a model for activists to take the reins of their local parties and solve the immigration crisis in their own backyards. The national party should pay attention, for after taking back their own towns and state government, these rebels have their eyes on Washington.
The village of Brewster, a division of the larger town of Southeast, has become a choice destination for illegal Guatemalan immigrants. Just as the federal government has neglected to enforce immigration laws, so local politicians have ignored violations of labor and housing ordinances. What was once a quaint village, home to many Big Apple commuters, has become a ghetto where landlords exploit immigrants, as immigrants exploit the town's tolerance. Signs of decay are everywhere: while the old Cameo theater remains shuttered, an adult video store has opened on Main Street, and a strip club just debuted across from a mom-and-pop supermarket.
Predictably, as longtime residents have abandoned the village, slumlords have come in, packing the town's new arrivals 15 or 20 to a room, often charging them by the night. MS-13 gang symbols scar Progress Street. Two months ago, immigrants held up Brewster residents with machetes, that gang's signature weapon. Less reported, though just as troubling, illegal alien on illegal alien crime is skyrocketing. One immigrant was recently drowned. The county sheriff's department concluded that over 50 percent of all violent crime in Putnam County occurs in the village of Brewster. Local outrage was bound to boil over.
"We reached a breaking point in this community where you just say, 'Enough is enough,'" explained Matt Neuringer, a 20-year-old student at Fordham University. Neuringer knows something about this indignation. As a campaign manager on Greg Ball's improbable run for state assemblyman, Neuringer turned popular outrage into votes. "He was the first local politician to broach the subject of illegal immigration," Neuringer says. The response overwhelmed them. Together, they are rewriting the rules of Hudson Valley politics.
In 2005, Ball, just 29 years old, explored running a primary campaign against Willis Stephens, a 12-year Republican incumbent assemblyman from New York's 99th district. Neuringer, then a senior in high school, reached out to him with a poll he had completed as a project for class. "The poll showed that Willis Stephens had a 26-percent name recognition, which is horrible for an incumbent," Neuringer recounted gleefully. "All the rhetoric--'Hey Greg Ball, you can't take out the political machine'--we found out was just a hollow brick."
Ball brought Neuringer on to his staff and together they canvassed every neighborhood, covering the district in blue and white signs reading "Illegal Immigration is Illegal." After holding several rallies and printing tens of thousands of pieces of direct mail, Ball rolled over Stephens, with over 70 percent of the vote.
"To get involved in local politics you have two options," Neuringer explained. "You either kiss the ring of the party bosses and wait 30 years for when they tap you to run, or you challenge them in a primary. That's what we did." Now everyone is doing it.
In the year after Ball's 2006 success, Putnam County's normally silent primary season is seeing more races than it has in three decades. …