County Executive Mike Hein’s surprise announcement last week that he’s stepping down to take a post in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, along with a quirk in the county charter, has upended Ulster County’s political scene as candidates emerge for a novel back-to-back electoral contest to succeed him.
On Friday, Hein, who was elected back in 2008 as Ulster’s first county executive under a new county charter, announced he would leave office to take over as commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The announcement comes as Hein begins the final year of a four-year term.
Over the course of his decade-long tenure, Hein has proven a formidable politician and shrewd administrator whom many local Democrats had pegged as bound for higher office. Early in his administration, he pushed through politically fraught initiative — notably giving up control of the county-run Golden Hill nursing home — that trimmed the county’s workforce and budget. He would go on to deliver a series of budgets that cut taxes while increasing county spending on infrastructure and enacting new progressive-minded programs like the just-opened Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center in Midtown Kingston which aims to divert at-risk youth from the criminal justice system.
In late 2016, all 11 county Democratic Committee Chairs in New York’s 19th Congressional District signed onto an effort to draft Hein to run against U.S. Rep. John Faso, citing Hein’s moderate credentials and proven political track record. Hein declined the offer and in November, Faso was ousted by Democrat Antonio Delgado.
“Mike is a very special person, I’ve been amazed at the things he has accomplished year after year,” said Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale this week. “Other people noticed too. In this case, the governor.”
The timing of Hein’s resignation is unclear; his appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate. But when it happens, it will trigger a clause in the county charter that calls for a special election within 90 days of the executive’s post becoming vacant. Should Hein leave office later this month, the special election would come sometime in April. (Current Hein chief of staff Adele Reiter will serve as acting county executive until someone wins the special election.) The winner of that election would fill the remainder of Hein’s term, ending Dec. 31, 2019. Meanwhile, a second election in November will determine who will hold the post through 2023.
Party panels to pick
Republican and Democratic county committee chairs both said that the compressed time frame for the special election will not allow for a primary. Instead, it will be up to party leaders to determine how to select a candidate for the contest. Cardinale said Democrats would likely choose their candidate in a convention. County GOP Chairman Roger Rascoe said that he expected the committee’s executive committee to make the call.
“We’ve got a few feelers out,” said Rascoe. “We’re going to work to get the best candidate we can out there.”
Ulster County Democrats are still riding 2018’s “Blue Wave” that saw an unprecedented outpouring of grassroots energy and fundraising. In addition to Delgado’s victory in the Congressional race, Ulster County Democratic candidates ousted longtime incumbent Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum and took a state Senate seat long held by Republicans. Cardinale said that he expected that momentum to translate into a crowded field.
“Several people have already outright declared and I know there’s a few more out there kicking tires,” said Cardinale. “They know they’re going to have the wind at their back and [The county executive’s office] is just too big for us to lose.”
Indeed, less than 24 hours after Hein announced his impending departure, Democrat Patrick Ryan announced that he would seek the county executive post. Ryan, a former Army officer and security software entrepreneur, was one of seven Democrats who sought the party’s nomination to take on Faso in last year’s congressional race. Ryan is a Kingston native who currently lives in Gardiner. During the hard-fought primary campaign, he consistently ranked in the top tier in fundraising and finished a close third in the overall vote count. Another veteran of the NY-19 primary, Esopus native and Kerhonkson resident Gareth Rhodes, announced that same day that he was “exploring” a run. One week later he issued another announcement saying he had decided against it.
Like Ryan, Pat Courtney Strong of Kingston, who fell short in her bid to unseat George Amedore for state Senate in November, could make use of a volunteer list still warm from the fall campaign. Strong said Tuesday that she too was interested in the job. “As an environmentalist, I want to see Mike Hein’s terrific legacy of environmental stewardship continued and expanded,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “The county’s forward movement on social justice issues, such as the opening of the Restorative Justice Center, is critical to preserve. And as a small business owner, I am deeply interested in growing our local economy so that there are broad-based opportunities for good-paying jobs here, in the creative economy, health care, education, manufacturing and tech.”
Village of New Paltz Deputy Mayor KT Tobin has, according to reports, been considering joining the race.
Auerbach a possibility
County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, who has clashed frequently with Hein over his office’s role in county affairs, is also weighing a run. Auerbach, who is entering the second year of his four-year term, said he was taken off guard by Hein’s announcement.
“If you had told me Friday morning what was going to happen Friday afternoon, I would have said you were crazy,” said Auerbach.
Since Friday, Auerbach said, he had been in touch with party leaders and elected officials to gauge support for a possible run. Auerbach ticked off the names of three other Democrats besides Rhodes and Ryan who he said were similarly testing the waters.
“It’s really about finding that one person who has the ability to transition from 10 years of Hein,” said Auerbach. “They have to be able to successfully move the county forward and they have to be able to win an election.”
With a surplus of qualified candidates, Cardinale said Democrats’ challenge will be to rally the party around a single standard-bearer without creating divisions or generating intra-party ill will.
“As a chair I want to make sure that whoever emerges is a consensus candidate that everyone can get behind,” said Cardinale.
On the Republican side, Rascoe declined to offer specifics pending a meeting of the committee later this month. But, Rascoe said, Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III had reached out to him to express interest in the race. In 2008, Quigley narrowly lost to Auerbach in the race to become Ulster County’s first elected comptroller.
Former county legislature chair Ken Ronk of Wallkill said this week he too is thinking of a run.