As the shock begins to wear off from last Friday’s news of Mike Hein’s departure from the role of Ulster County executive, the election season has been thrust upon us far earlier than expected. There will now be an open seat at the top of what would have already been a crowded ballot sheet in November. While 2018 was a pivotal year for national politics, 2019 will be a hugely significant year for local politics.
In 2010 I interned in County Executive Hein’s office. Mr. Hein was in his first term of the newly created role, and I was in my first year out of college at SUNY New Paltz. I quickly learned how important the work was that executive’s office was undertaking.
While I spent my hours researching various and often minute aspects of county-run programs that would incrementally help trim excess spending, I could hear Mike’s voice as he paced around the office already doing what he would become known for over the course of the next decade: fighting entrenched interests to protect Ulster County’s residents and taxpayers. At that time, it was fighting New York City to put an end to the turbid water releases that were clogging the irrigation systems of area farmers.
We were working on nuts-and-bolts issues, and we were a team. There was no playbook for the role, and Mike expected everyone in his office to step up, even the intern on his first day in the office. A decade later as a result of Mike’s uncompromising focus, the county executive’s office has completely transformed the way county government runs. Some may argue about the merits of a centralized executive office, although more and more counties seem to be following this example, but no one can refute that the bar has been set very high as we consider who our next county executive might be.”
If you have unexpectedly found yourself, as I have, reflecting back on Mike Hein’s tenure as county executive, you might also find yourself jotting down a list of traits you’d like to see in his successor. Here’s mine:
Our next county executive should be someone who is ready to focus on local issues, always putting these before national politics. It would certainly be reasonable for the role to seem attractive to anyone who was a candidate in the whirling dervish of the 2018 election, especially for a candidate whose electoral prospects didn’t come to fruition. However, a platform that seeks to shoehorn national issues into a local spotlight would not be a platform that would serve best the people of Ulster County.
Our next county executive should be someone who has seen first hand the county services that our residents rely on. It should be someone who knows the stories of the homeless families that are placed in hotel rooms by the Department of Social Services on cold nights when there is no where else to turn, someone who will stay up at night thinking about the mother who will be able to drive to work via clear roads on a snowy day.
Our next county executive should be someone who appreciates the complex web of partners that actually deliver the services that the county provides. Though the county government directs and funds the safety net that protects our most vulnerable citizens, non-governmental agencies like Family of Woodstock play a crucial role in delivering the services that make up that safety net. Ulster County’s future will depend on more and stronger partnerships, and we need a leader who like Mike Hein understands that effective partnerships require constant effort and cultivation.
Our next county executive should be someone who is finally ready to put aside the tribalism that has haunted our county’s politics, and the Democratic Party in particular, for far too long. Like Trump reversing course on so many Obama-era policies, for a candidate to view this as opportunity for the pendulum to swing back the other way on a zero-sum battlefield would be to put politics above the people of Ulster County. A strong candidate will not refer to what they will undo from the previous administration, but will instead offer a vision of how to build upon a strong foundation. We should not focus on who will be the political winners and losers from factions of our community that have fought for years, but instead focus on how to make the people of Ulster County the ultimate winners from the county’s work.
Our next county executive should be someone who understands the complexity of the organization they are stepping in to lead. Setting aside the difference between a role in the executive branch of government and the legislative branch from a political-theory perspective, the county executive’s office is the core of a highly complex organization. While the calls decrying candidates who have or haven’t previously held public office have already begun, consider this: what we are talking about here is the chief executive of a $329 million organization, who is responsible for overseeing 25 departments and employing 1,300 people. The county executive is the CEO of the largest employer in Ulster County.
Mike Hein succeeded because his tenacity never wavered. For many, the indelible memory of his tenure may well be grand events like the recent ribbon-cutting of the Restorative Justice & Community Empowerment Center. While programs like that have the ability to completely transform lives, the moments I’ll never forget are a little different. I saw that same tenacity in a conversation one winter about Mike’s philosophical approach to road-plowing schedules and snow removal.
That ability to boldly pursue big ideas that change people’s lives while diligently executing our county’s vital day-to-day services is what we need in our next county executive.
The writer is president of Dragon360, which is a national marketing and consulting firm based on Kingston.