It’s summertime, a period of legislative torpor on all levels, as politicians of every stripe are usually back home doing the daily work of constituent service while the grander projects — the bills, laws, taxes that keep society churning — are on the low burners of state capitals and county seats everywhere.
But for Jonathan Heppner, it’s catch up time in his dual role as Deputy Press Secretary for the New York State Senate Democratic Caucus, and, at age 28, as the youngest member of the Ulster County Legislature.
“It’s the post session lull,” he says now of the Senate’s recess. “I’m not complaining, it gives me more time back here. I still have to put in long hours up there (in Albany) and there’s always something to do…”
Heppner won election to the county legislature’s 23rd district last November, taking the seat that was held by the retiring Don Gregorius, representing all of Woodstock and parts of the town of Hurley, including West Hurley and Glenford.
What has he learned in this short period thus far as a representative of the people?
“The biggest thing has been building relationships and being out and around in the community,” he says “It’s amazing, you grow up somewhere and you live there for 27 years, 28 now, and I’m still meeting new people and hearing about new organizations. The fun part is that it’s a very civically engaged community. Whether it’s the Lake Hill Fire Department breakfast or meeting with WAAM, or the Rt. 212 coalition…we’re fortunate to have a lot of engaged groups. It makes my job easier…”
“It is fun. The most fun is when you get things done. Whether it’s helping a local business that’s having a problem with a county road or solving simple problems like protecting our swimming holes…”
He says he’s been able, due to his experience at the state level, to understand how to get things done.
“As it is now, I’ve been able to pass the most resolutions of all freshman legislators.” There are four freshman in the county — Heppner, Jennifer Schwartz-Berky of Kingston, James Delaune from the New Paltz area, and Robert Lapp, of Rochester.
“I’ve passed policy changes, establishing new policies, insuring towns are made aware whenever the government calls for a state of emergency…so they can be aware of requirements for funding reimbursements, what they need to do to receive it. After Irene we were still dealing with outstanding reimbursements…you can’t wait when roads are down. It’s something we’re adapting to now, because we’re getting 100 year storms every could of years now…when the federal government opens up these fundings with very strict requirements, or you have to get waivers, such as having to get x amount of minority and women owned businesses to put in bids…we need to make sure towns can get reimbursed…”
He’s proud that the county “just invested a big chunk of money into SUNY Ulster for their infrastructure. We helped them balance their own budget without any extreme rate hikes.”
He’s also on the environment and energy committee, which is helping to put solar panels at SUNY Ulster. “We approved another phase putting solar panels at the old town of Ulster landfill. Unfortunately you won’t be able to see it from the road, but it will be a massive solar project, pretty awesome.”
He’s a proponent of ride sharing services.
“The first resolution I passed was urging the state to allow Ulster County to have Uber. It’s a big thing, and I found common ground with the Republican chairman, Ken Ronk, on it. We are the two youngest members serving on the legislature. But we can’t get Uber and regulate and begin to establish a policy for the county to bring in ride-sharing until the state changes its insurance regulation. It’s getting closer, but it will take one more [state] legislative session.”
Will it happen?
“I sure hope so. It passed the Senate but not the Assembly. But we have hope. Our Assemblyman Kevin Cahill carried the legislation in the assembly, Senator Seward in the Senate. We just have to get it done, it will be a great economic stimulus for our communities. They just did a study in Hoboken, New Jersey, where it showed over 30 percent of all Uber rides either started and ended at a small business. What that would mean for Woodstock, connecting folks that are here to Saugerties and Kingston, or Ellenville…”
What about worries for underpaid drivers, insurance, peak pricing?
“We can’t even begin to regulate it in our community until it passes the state. I have confidence in our ability to do that, because Ulster County is a perfect example of a place that would benefit strongly from ride-sharing.”
And what else?
“I co-sponsored a resolution with Legislator John Parete, the former chairman, establishing that when the state passed the medical marijuana program, the counties that housed dispensaries got a portion of the excise taxes associated with the sale of medical marijuana. We worked with the exec’s office, we established a policy that every cent the county brings in, in the future in excise tax, will go directly to an account to be used for addiction prevention, rather than going into a slush fund, or general fund. We just want to make sure it’s a directly dedicated revenue source, because we need to dig deeper for every cent to put toward this issue.
How’s your relationship with County Executive Michael Hein?
“It’s been good, he’s been very open,” says Heppner. “I’ve come to him with concerns for my district, specifically, to get the county’s alternative sentencing crew to clean up our swimming holes after summer weekends — they just started doing that and took out bags of trash. The county will be installing receptacles on the inside of the guard rails.
“The first time I went to his (Hein’s) office it was about opioid addiction, a problem that’s very close to my generation, with kids I’ve known growing up here. They’re very committed to it. We brought in Route 212 Coalition to link with department of health to get more resources.”
How does one so young get so immersed in the political world? It’s been a steady progression for Heppner, who, at 28, is no novice.
“Well, during the campaign I joked that the seeds were planted sitting around the table in my grandmother, Jane Allen’s house. Even though she was not an elected official, there was a lot of public discourse happening around that table.
“It’s an experience I’ve grown into. I started out covering local government for this paper. I slowly started working on the other side, when I’d moved back here, and was involved with Woodstock Environmental Commission. Then Don (Gregorius) retired and I spoke to some local people who urged me to consider running. At the time there were other candidates, but I decided to take the opportunity to see if people were receptive. It all worked out. I still say the best thing I’ve done was to move back to Woodstock.”
First Heppner worked as an intern out of college for the legendary congressman, Charles Rangel, of Harlem. After that it was off to Virginia for the Obama campaign in 2012.
“It was wild, I was in a rural county, Caroline County, Virginia. Their claim to fame is that that’s where Secretariat (the Triple Crown winning racehorse) was born. It’s very rural, a soybean farming community, soybean plants right up to the houses, and still a very socially divided county, with African Americans and white communities. And it was a big swing county at the time, a county that had gone red for Bush and was named by AP as in the top 100 swing counties in the country. I was practically parachuted in and told to organize the county and win the county, and we actually did, we won by four points. That was when I decided I was definitely going to stay working in politics. I was a 23 year old kid from Woodstock in the middle of Virginia. It was a great experience. I met some wonderful people and I learned and saw some very sad things and some very inspiring things.”