It was a risk for Shea to take Ailes on over zoning. For decades, ever since local activists defeated ConEd’s plan to build a massive power station atop nearby Storm King Mountain, zoning had been the third rail of Philipstown politics, the one issue that brought all the various cultural and economic resentments into stark relief. The first time Shea met Ailes was at a town forum, sponsored by the PCN&R and moderated by Joe Lindsley, in October 2009. Afterward, Ailes went up to Shea and told him that he was dodging Lindsley’s questions about zoning. “What are you trying to hide from me?” Ailes said. “I own the newspaper.” (Ailes claimed that he simply asked for Shea’s phone number and complained about the local environmentalist “zealots.”)
The next month, Shea won the election. Immediately, he set about making good on his campaign promise to push through a rezoning plan. A few weeks later, Shea discovered just what life with Roger Ailes as a constituent would mean. On Sunday morning, January 10, he received a string of frantic phone calls from friends in town. Ailes had been calling around ranting about a front-page New York Times profile of him that appeared in that morning’s paper. “My takeaway was that this guy is pretty much threatening me,” Shea was quoted saying about the town forum.
Later that day, his phone rang. “You have no fucking idea what you’ve done!” Shea immediately recognized the voice. “You have no idea what you’re up against. If you want a war, you’ll have a battle, but it won’t be a long battle.”
“It was an accurate portrayal of the exchange,” Shea said calmly. “If you’re offended, I’m sorry about that, but it was accurate.”
“Listen,” Ailes seethed, “don’t be naive about these things. I will destroy your life.” (Shea declined to comment on his meetings with Ailes.)
Throughout the winter, the PCN&R filled with stories and editorials questioning Shea’s zoning plan as avidly as Fox attacked Obama’s policies. According to the PCN&R, an out-of-control band of tree-huggers and Manhattan elites was over-running the town, dictating to the little guy how he could use his land.
The emotions stirred up in part by the PCN&R’s crusade drew extreme elements into the debate. Anti-zoning factions had begun making posters displaying photos of guns and the slogan “They’re Taking Away Your Property Rights.” To lower the temperature, Shea decided to call a townwide meeting at Haldane High School. It would be a chance for all the citizens to get in a room together and clear the air.
Shortly before 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7, 2010, Ailes walked across the parking lot of the high school with a white-haired lawyer from Poughkeepsie named Scott Volkman. Hundreds of townspeople were streaming into the school’s gymnasium. Inside the gym, the mood had the electric energy of a political rally. Ailes and Volkman, seemingly the only two men in suits, sat in the middle of the main floor as Shea brought the meeting to order. “Let us observe civility above all,” he said, instructing citizens to keep their remarks to two minutes.
It was a futile request. Jeannette Yannitelli, a Fox News fan whose son ran a liquor store near Main Street, took to the mike. “Fifty-two percent of this town is now tax exempt!” she said.
“Stop right there, that’s not true,” Shea said.
But Yannitelli pressed on. “If you were stealing from me, I’d call 911!”
An hour into the meeting, Ailes’s lawyer got up from his seat and took the microphone. After he tangled with Shea for a few minutes, demanding a one-on-one meeting, Shea jokingly asked if Volkman wanted him to burn the zoning proposal on the spot. At that, Ailes stood up and intervened. Without giving his name—he was a man who acted as if he needed no introduction—Ailes began to lecture the supervisor.
“Civility above everything, please, Mr. Shea,” Ailes said, pointing the fingers of his right hand at him. “Civility above everything, Mr. Shea. Sarcasm is not useful here, Mr. Shea.”
Ailes buttoned his suit jacket, lowered the microphone, and plunged his left hand into his pants pocket. He had the floor now.
“Apparently this process has been going on since before the Civil War,” he said. “This is, as you explained to me, the first night that private property owners were going to have a workshop.”
“Can I ask you why Mr. Volkman is here?” asked Democratic town board member Nancy Montgomery, who was sitting next to Shea. “He’s not a private property owner in this town.”
“In America you are allowed to have an attorney represent you who understands the law!” Ailes replied. Cheers, whoops, and whistles rang out from the balcony and the sides of the parquet. “But this is Philipstown,” Montgomery said. “This is a civil meeting where our community has come together to discuss—”