Mike Hein, consummate politician
Spend an hour talking with Mike Hein and just try to find a chink in his political armor.
After all, he’s the most successful county executive Ulster County has ever seen. He’s also the only one the county’s ever seen.
Hein’s been on the job for seven years, since the legislature adopted the county executive form of governance. He ran against Republican Len Bernardo in 2008 and swamped him. Three years later, he ran unopposed. This year, another Bernardo — Len’s wife Terry, a former legislature chairwoman — has volunteered for the task.
And that’s just to give you an outline of Hein’s electoral success. What contributed to that success — the obstacles overcome, the innovative programs installed, the kudos from other quarters, and the endorsements that he can and does very happily lay claim to.
Success like his is supposed to breed happy feet; when governor Andrew Cuomo was looking for a lieutenant governor, Hein’s was a prominent name. More recently, with congressman Chris Gibson on the cusp of leaving his congressional seat, presumably for greener and broader statewide pastures, Hein is almost everybody’s best guess for reclaiming the seat for the Democrats.
But success like this also breeds tactical silence. Try to pry a hint of a suggestion of a whiff of whether he’s planning to move on to congressional pastures and here’s what you get: a very wide smile, a small shrug and a quick dismissal of the question.
“I don’t speculate. I just don’t.”
Nor does he have to. Bernardo has called him out on whether he’ll pledge to serve the next four years should he win, and he’s given her the same smile and shrug. With a campaign war chest reported in July to be in excess of $280,000, versus Bernardo’s $28,000, he can well afford to ignore Bernardo’s demands.
“Political pledges are normally designed by slick politicians.”
The fact is, Mike Hein is about as bullet-proof a candidate — some would say as slick a candidate — as you’ll find running for any office in or near Ulster County this year. He’s a consummate politician who pays close attention to the details — the infrastructure, if you will — of a campaign. You’ll see him pressing the flesh at the county fair, cutting ribbons at well-rehearsed ceremonial openings, and posing with anyone with any clout who’s willing to endorse him.
And if kissing babies isn’t as politically acceptable as it once was, Hein recently found the modern-day equivalent when he accepted a big sloppy kiss from a dog at a ceremonial signing of a law creating an animal abuse registry. Then he sent a social-media valentine to the TV news crew who broadcast the smooching pooch.
Hein has a classic political backstory that’s almost Horatio Alger-ian. He grew up on a farm in the Town of Esopus, the kind of place that develops either a strong work ethic or a craving to escape the rigors of the hay barn and the early risings. Hein developed the former inclination.
Both his grandparents were immigrants, hailing from Germany on his father’s side and Italy on his mother’s. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college. And when he came home after graduation, he surveyed a political landscape populated only by Republicans and Conservatives. “I didn’t like most politicians,” he recalled. “They were mostly self-serving, backslapping good old boys.”
Instead, he pursued a career in the jewelry business, then banking, where he became manager of a local branch of Fleet Bank.
Hein, then a registered Republican, was brought into the public sector by long-time county Democratic treasurer Lew Kirschner and served as deputy county treasurer from 2003 to 2006.
The county by this time was suffering the effects of its nepotistic ways, he said. The financial sinkhole that was the county jail (39 percent tax levy increase, anyone?) was the most characteristic legacy of those days. And if nepotism — those good old boys again — was the illness affecting county taxpayers, Hein saw and continues to see himself as the cure.
Aided and abetted by the new county charter that gave him the power once enjoyed only by majority party chairmen, Hein calls his seven years in office a period during which he’s restructured government from being a “who you know” operation to a “what you know” kind of place.
It’s his “grand experiment,” and he loves pointing to evidence that it’s working.
Hein describes the employment landscape he inherited as being composed of between 70 and 80 percent middle-aged white men. These days, he said, 52 percent of county employees are women.
Early in his administration, he oversaw the privatization of a venerable county institution — the Golden Hill infirmary — a controversial effort that neighboring Orange County has been trying to accomplish for years, with plenty of political fatalities along the way.
That move alone should have poisoned his relationship to the county’s labor unions, but while the CSEA, the county’s largest labor union, refused to back his candidacy in 2011 and again this year, the CSEA also declined to endorse Bernardo. At the same time, Hein said, all the county’s labor force is under contract, including the CSEA. “Our negotiations CSEA took about 15 minutes. It was very successful.”
Other labor unions have endorsed him, along with all the county’s local law-enforcement unions, as well as the state’s Democratic senators.
Trail on the Ashokan shore
His other successes have included the purchase and conversion of the former Sophie Finn Elementary School to the SUNY Ulster satellite campus, development of a free smartphone application aimed at preventing suicide, and perhaps most prominently an agreement between the county and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to open 11.5 miles of hiking trails along the northern shore of the Ashokan Reservoir.
That agreement has triggered bitter criticism from supporters of the privately owned Catskill Mountain Railroad, which wants the county to support its rail line to the reservoir and from Terry Bernardo, who has made the issue of rail versus trail her main campaign issue. State assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a fellow Democrat who has crossed swords with Hein over the county’s assumption of Safety-Net payments from the towns, has also taken the railroad’s side in the dispute.
Hein, while favoring the rail-trail plan, says his is not an either-or approach. “Extremists” on both sides have captured the debate, he says. His plan, as he sees it, is a compromise that would allow rail development along two sections of the existing track but not a full-scale Kingston-to-Phoenicia rail line he says is favored by railroad proponents.
Oh, and by the way, county property taxes will decline by one percent in 2016.
All in all, Hein is only too happy to stand on a record he sees as offering the maximum good for the maximum number of people, whether they be hikers, homeowners, taxpayers or dog lovers.