Nearly 200 years after Sojourner Truth made history by arguing for her son’s freedom at the Ulster County Courthouse, Uptown Kingston’s venerable edifice on Friday once again hosted a momentous event — the inauguration of Juan Figueroa, the first person of color ever elected to countywide office in Ulster, as sheriff.
In a ceremonial courtroom filled to the gills with dignitaries, friends and supporters, Figueroa, a Plattekill resident who defeated incumbent Paul VanBlarcum in both the Democratic primary and the general election, pledged to get to work right away.
“Next week starts the process,” Figueroa said. “I intend to work and tackle the opioid epidemic affecting our youth and the issues that are tearing apart our families. I intend to confront recidivism. I plan to work to strengthen our community ties because without our communities, we will not be able to do our jobs. … I am honored and privileged to represent you in this office and I will not let you down.”
Figueroa’s oath was administered by his old Wallkill High School social studies teacher John Lenio, whom Figueroa credited with inspiring him to seek a life in public service.
In his remarks, Figueroa, a veteran of both the U.S. Marine Corps and the state police, thanked God, his family, and friends, as well as his “other family” — his colleagues from the Marines and his colleagues from the state police, noting that he was at the state police academy with current Troop F commander Pierce Gallagher. “The state police and Marine Corps are elite units that I was so happy to be a part of,” said Figueroa. “But I’m more happy today to be part of the Ulster County sheriff’s family. Nobody knows the untold sacrifices our men and women make every single day when they’re out there, giving up their New Year’s Eve, or their Christmas Eve to go out and patrol the roads. The things that they see and do to protect us, every single day. … I know the tremendous responsibilities that lay before me. I know that, because I know the work that you do, and I know this community because I’ve lived here for over 40 years.”
Figueroa had kind words for VanBlarcum — “He was very gracious” at the final sheriff’s office staff meeting, Figueroa said. “I wish him well and luck … I have big shoes to fill.”
After being sworn in, Figueroa immediately appointed sheriff’s office veteran Eric Benjamin as undersheriff.
Prior to the oath, both County Executive Mike Hein and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill spoke briefly.
“How about this? A pretty special moment, huh?” began Hein, who noted he’s known Figueroa for over 20 years and that his late brother served with Figueroa in the state police. “[My brother] always said the same thing to me — he’s a special human being. That is the highest praise you’re going to get from one trooper to another.”
“I am confident our entire community will benefit from [Figueroa’s] leadership,” said Hein, adding that Figueroa will serve “all 180,000 of us with honor and dignity.”
Said Hein, Figueroa is “a man who embraces social justice. A man who understands we can’t incarcerate our way to solutions. A man who understands that those who have been victims of opioid abuse should not find themselves in a never-ending cycle behind bars, but find treatment and care and compassion. … I am honored to be the county executive of a place that elects a man like Juan Figueroa.”
“This is an important day for this county,” said Cahill, “as important a day for this county as it is for my friend Juan.”
Cahill took a moment to recognize VanBlarcum and his 44 years of service in both the sheriff’s department and as sheriff. “I think we should all thank Paul VanBlarcum,” he said, followed by applause from the crowd. “I ran into Paul last night and he looked … relaxed. I told him I would be here today and he sent his congratulations.”
“Juan has already committed himself to a sense of inclusion,” said Cahill. “He said he wants to involve the sheriff’s department more in the community. He says he wants to do his part to tackle the opioid crisis that’s stripping us of so many family members, so many friends, so many neighbors. … The sheriff’s department is about to take a different direction … a direction that will respect every single individual for who they are without prejudgment.”