Hein won his first bid for the job in 2008, handily defeating Republican Len Bernardo. Come 2011, county Republicans chose not to run a candidate of their own. And for a while this spring, it looked like the GOP was going to forgo the opportunity once again.
But former legislature chairwoman Terry Bernardo — Len Bernardo’s wife — had other ideas. After what appeared to be a rebuff from the county GOP’s nominating convention in June, Bernardo stepped into the breach and was finally endorsed by the party.
How do you beat an incumbent with a campaign war chest more than ten times the size of yours, an incumbent who’s spent seven years making his bones in the public eye, an incumbent who barely acknowledges your existence?
The answer, Bernardo says, is shoe leather. You fill your days with visits to church breakfasts, ethnic holiday celebrations, town board meetings, going to as many as ten such down-home venues on a Saturday or Sunday, going wherever you can find a willing audience.
“Money doesn’t win elections,” she said during a break at one such gathering this past Sunday. “Nor do yard signs or giant billboards. I may not have his money but I’m working very, very hard to meet and listen to residents.”
If Bernardo sounds a bit like Pollyanna, you’ve got the wrong movie: Think “The Sound of Music.” Bernardo favors what she calls the “Mary Poppins approach” to electioneering.
“I’m very passionate about what I do, and I believe in what I’m trying accomplish and try to have fun when I’m doing it — the Mary Poppins approach. Take rigid rules and turn them into something fun or creative. Everybody wants to join the team.”
Bernardo and her husband came to Ulster County permanently following 9/11; they had lived until then in the shadow of the Twin Towers. The attack convinced them to move north to what had been their second home in Accord.
She’s spent most of her professional life in the management side of the hospitality industry, working in corporate environments larger (Sheridan Hotels) and smaller (Ian Schrager’s New York boutique hotels). Bernardo characterized herself as being a good team player with good people skills.
Once ensconced in Accord, the Bernardos built SkateTime 209. Later, she became a Pilates instructor. When former county legislator Sue Cummings suggested that the former competitive roller figure skater try her hand at politics, Bernardo said she told Cummings, “That sounds like fun.”
With that, the Mary Poppins approach came to county politics.
She ran unsuccessfully for legislative office in 2007, was elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2011, during which time she served as chairwoman of the legislature before being defeated in 2013.
When Bernardo talks about what she considers the economic engine that’s her number one campaign issue, it’s metaphorically. She said she decided to run in an effort to “rescue” the Catskill Mountain Railroad from what she views as his effort to kill off the private railroad in favor of a walking trail funded by New York City along the northern shore of the Ashokan Reservoir.
The fate of the Catskill Mountain Railroad, which has operated on county-owned land for nearly 25 years, is probably her most contentious and longstanding campaign issue. Bernardo sees Hein’s acceptance of $3.4 million in funding from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection for trail development as being tantamount to destroying the railroad’s history-rich existence, an example of what she calls “urban removal.”
Pointing to last year’s Polar Express tourist operation, Bernardo contends the CMRR has demonstrated its economic vitality as an attraction. She provided an unusual measure by which to assess the holiday-themed ride’s importance to local businesses along the train’s route: “They [CMRR] aren’t buying from Sam’s Club or online — they go to Deisings! Do you know how many cookies Deisings sold last year? Fifteen thousand cookies! The businesses making money off this train — it’s fantastic for them.”
She acknowledged that the Polar Express was a seasonal operation, but the railroad operation has attracted other holiday-themed rides.
Bernardo wants to see the railroad’s track repaired with available FEMA funds to allow it to run from Kingston to Phoenicia. If Hein is re-elected, she says, he’ll be free to impose his plan to use the DEP funds to create a rail-trail while allowing the railroad’s lease to expire next spring, a one-two punch that would kill the railroad’s chances of survival.
Bernardo is skeptical of Hein’s quick acceptance of federal or state funds for a variety of programs and needs. When such funds become available — she mentioned money for bike lanes and the DEP’s money — she said she would only accept them if there were no strings attached.
“Let’s keep it local,” she said. “I don’t want to be told what to do by Washington, without a say in things.”