A life in politics
Joe Pickreign looks back on 36 years as a Democrat
LAKE CLEAR — From overseeing small-town caucuses to working with big-time politicians, Joe Pickreign Jr. has run the political gamut for the last three-plus decades.
The Lake Clear resident, who turned 81 earlier this year, recently sat down with the Enterprise to reflect on his 36 years as a Democrat, along with the projects and initiatives he’s been involved in locally and around the region.
Hosting President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton at the Saranac Lake Civic Center, visiting the White House, helping secure funding and support for upgrades to the Saranac Lake Adult Center and boosting Democratic candidates at all levels have been among the highlights, Pickreign said.
Pickreign said he got his start in politics in 1981 when Cliff Donaldson of Saranac Lake was running for Franklin County legislator.
“He came to me and asked to help with his campaign,” Pickreign said. “I said, ‘I’d love to do that Cliff but my family’s Republican.’ He said, ‘I can take care of that tomorrow.’ I said, ‘You take care of it, and I’ll be working for you the next day.’ That’s how it happened. I switched parties, and I’ve been a Democrat ever since.”
Donaldson won that campaign, and Pickreign has been involved in countless others since then for Democratic candidates in local, county, state and national races. He served 13 years as chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Committee.
“I took over from Joann Hannon,” Pickreign said. “I got a call at night saying if I did not take the chairmanship there would not be a Franklin County Democratic Chairman the next day. I spoke with two of my Democratic friends in Malone — Gary Dumas and Wanda Murtaugh — to get their opinion. They said they would back my decision, so I called Joann back and accepted the position.”
In addition to the county Democratic Committee, Pickreign has also served as chairman of the town of Harrietstown’s Democratic Committee and as a New York State Democratic Committee member.
As county chairman, Pickreign welcomed Hillary Clinton to Franklin County twice during her 2000 campaign for senator, once by herself in May of that year and again that August with her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea.
The August visit, a chicken barbecue at the Saranac Lake Civic Center, took place while the Clintons were on vacation in Lake Placid.
“My main goal is for the first lady to leave with a good impression of Saranac Lake,” Pickreign told the Enterprise in a story published several days before the event. “I haven’t slept well the past few nights. I just kept thinking about getting everything perfect.”
A crowd of 1,100 people packed the civic center for the reception, which featured a string of speeches from local leaders, including Pickreign, remarks from President Clinton and a campaign speech from candidate Clinton.
White House visit
A few months after the civic center event, in December 2000, Pickreign got what he called the honor of his lifetime. He and his wife Shirley were invited to the White House for the first family’s annual Christmas celebration.
“I think that pretty much takes care of my all-time goal for my political career,” Pickreign told the Enterprise at the time. “Words can’t describe how honored I was.”
Pickreign spent three hours or so at the White House with a group of about 500 people from all walks of life. Guests were given unrestricted access to rooms on two floors of the East Wing, like the Map Room, library, and the Red, Green and Blue rooms. Lavish decorations were set out everywhere and music groups played Christmas songs in the hallways and rooms.
Near the end of the festivities, the Clintons hosted a reception line for their guests, and the Pickreigns got to talk with the president and first lady.
“I thanked them for coming to Saranac Lake and thanked them for the invitation to the White House,” Pickreign said. “I could have said something else, but I don’t remember. I was on cloud nine.”
Among other highlights of his political career, Pickreign was a delegate to the 2006 state Democratic Convention in Buffalo, when Eliot Spitzer was picked as the party’s candidate for governor. He was also delegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, when Clinton lost the party’s nomination to Barack Obama. He was also on the executive board of the New York Democratic Rural Conference.
Pickreign has kept plenty of mementos from the political campaigns he’s been involved in over the years — some successful, others not. He has folders of campaign bumper stickers, pamphlets and flyers for, among many others, gubernatorial candidates H. Carl McCall, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson and Andrew Cuomo; state Senate candidate Boyce Sherwin, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican Betty Little in 2002; U.S. Rep. Bill Owens; and more recently, Billy Jones, who last year won the state Assembly seat vacated by Republican Janet Duprey.
In addition to being a man behind the political scenes, Pickreign has also held elected office. He was elected to the Harrietstown town board in 1989 and served two, four-year terms. Pickreign also was Harrietstown’s supervisor from 1999 to 2001. In addition to elected positions, Pickreign has also served as a board member of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management Authority and on the executive board of the Franklin County Association of Senior Citizens.
Pickreign said he’s used his connections in Albany and Washington to try to help get things done in the county.
One year, he was invited by then-Gov. David Paterson to a Christmas celebration in Albany. While he was there, Pickreign and county Legislator Guy “Tim” Smith met with Paterson and made a pitch for funds to bring a natural gas line to the northern end of the county.
“A short time later, Gov. Paterson brought a check to a meeting in Malone for the installation of the gas line,” Pickreign said.
Pickreign also recalled getting a phone call one day from Les Parker, who was director of the Adirondack Arc, which provides services to people with developmental disabilities. Legislation was pending in the U.S. Senate that could impact parents and disabled children.
“He asked if I could help,” Pickreign said. “I called Sen. Clinton’s office and set up an appointment in Washington. Les, my daughter Luann, myself and a few of the parents this legislation would impact met with the senator. She went back to the Senate with our concerns and the legislation passed.”
Pickreign and his wife Shirley have been actively involved with the Saranac Lake Adult Center over the years, and Joe Pickreign has used his political contacts, with both Republicans and Democrats, to help improve the center.
Several years ago, the adult center proposed adding a wellness facility for seniors in part of its basement.
“They asked if I would give them a hand,” Pickreign said. “I contacted Senator Little and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, who started the funds with a $10,000 member item. It just happened that there was a $400,000 grant available through the village. (Then-villlage Community Development Director) Debbie McDonnell contacted me and asked if we could work with the village to obtain the grant, which was ultimately awarded to the adult center.”
The seniors raised another $35,000 for the project, and the wellness center opened in 2010.
The adult center later borrowed $275,000 to renovate the other half of its basement, which it rents to Franklin County Public Health. Before the county could move in, however, it needed 20 parking spaces near the building. Pickreign said he approached Tom Hyde of Hyde Fuel, who owns the property behind the center, and Hyde was willing to provide parking for the public health staff.
“There was enough parking to allow Franklin County Social Services staff, and they rented the unused portion of the upstairs of the adult center,” Pickreign said. “The loan was paid with the rent that was collected, and it was paid off this year.”
The citations, awards and commendations Pickreign has received over the years are enough to fill up several tables in his Lake Clear home.
“A Democrat but most of all a friend,” reads a certificate he was awarded from the Hamilton County Democratic Committee for his dedication to his party and his neighbors.
In 1997, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages commended Pickreign for “unselfish efforts on behalf of local governments within the Adirondack Park.”
In 2002, the Franklin County Democratic Committee named Pickreign its Citizen of the Year for his contributions to the county.
“This is precious,” Pickreign said as he held up a state Assembly citation signed by Republican Janet Duprey. “It’s from my opposition, so I was very proud of that.
“My attitude has always been if you need help, I don’t care what party you are, you’d get it.”
Pickreign is continuing to stay involved in politics, although he’s slowed down a little since he had triple bypass surgery in January.
“I had silent heart attacks for the last 30 years, with no indication, no pain or whatever,” he said. “After the operation, I’m feeling no pain, so I’m thankful for that.”
Pickreign also said he’s thankful for all the help and support he’s received over the years from people in the North Country and beyond.
“I’ve had a lot of fun, and it’s been an honor to serve the people of Franklin County and the state,” he said. “I’d like to thank the people in all the counties, and I can’t leave out anybody because I’ve been to all of them.”