Three Democrats have officially jumped into the race to replace County Executive Mike Hein, hoping to get an early lead in the process of wooing a few hundred town committee members who will select a candidate to run in a special election later this year. On the Republican side, one veteran elected official said that he’s weighing a run, in part because he’s alarmed by the lack of experience among the presumptive frontrunners.
Hein’s announcement earlier this month that he would step down to take a job as state commissioner of Temporary and Disability Services set off a dash among Democrats to capture the party’s banner in what will be a compressed election season. Under the county charter, a new executive must be elected via a special election within 90 days of the office becoming vacant. While Hein must still be confirmed by the state Senate, most observers believe he will likely leave office by the end of the month or early February. In the absence of a primary, county Democratic Party leaders have said they expect to hold a convention to nominate a candidate for the special election. Republican leaders say the county executive committee will choose a candidate.
Two candidates were first to declare for the race for the Democratic nomination. Patrick Ryan, a 36-year-old former Army officer and tech entrepreneur, and Pat Courtney Strong, a 63-year-old clean energy consultant.
A third, Deputy County Executive Mark Rider, entered the race on Jan. 14.
Both Ryan and Strong are veterans of the 2018 election cycle. Ryan was runner-up in a hard-fought seven-way Democratic primary for the 19th Congressional District seat eventually won by Antonio Delgado. Strong ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat state Sen. George Amedore (R-Rotterdam).
In addition to Ryan and Strong and Rider, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach has publicly said he was considering a run. Another potential candidate, Gareth Rhodes, announced over the weekend that he would not seek the Democratic nomination after initially signaling that he was weighing a run. Among Republicans, Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III and Ulster County Legislature Minority Leader Ken Ronk have both indicated they’re considering a run.
Ryan comes to the contest seven months after losing to Delgado in a primary campaign that lasted over a year. During the campaign, Ryan, a Kingston native and West Point grad who moved to Gardiner in 2016, was consistently in the top tier in terms of fundraising and ended the primary in second place. The effort, Ryan said, showed that he could be a viable candidate to continue Democrats’ hold on the county executive’s seat and build on Hein’s legacy. Ryan, who announced his candidacy just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Hein’s nomination, said that he had a “clear vision” for his role as county executive. It includes a localized version of the “Green New Deal” taking shape at the national level. The concept calls for heavy investment in renewable energy to address climate change and provide good-paying jobs. Ryan said he also wanted to continue to promote economic development in the county in part by using his experience in the tech sector to help nurture startups and provide job training.
Whoever is elected to the county executive post will take on the task of managing a 1,300 member workforce and maintaining an annual budget in excess of $383 million. Ryan said his experiences running an infantry battalion intelligence section in Iraq and growing his firm Praescient Analytics had given him the experience necessary to run the county.
“This is a leadership job,” said Ryan. “And I feel very strong in my leadership experience and executive ability.”
Like Ryan, Strong comes to the campaign after a hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful first foray into politics. Strong moved to Kingston in 1983 worked as a journalist specializing in the intersection of business and the environment. More recently she has worked as a contractor for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on a series of renewable energy initiatives. Strong said that her long experience in the renewable energy sector had given her both a deep familiarity with environmental issues and forged relationships with elected officials, nonprofits and institutions across Ulster County. Strong praised Hein’s efforts in environmental protection and advancing social justice and said she wanted to preserve and expand on his work. Strong noted that she had beat Amedore by 20 points in Ulster County demonstrating her viability in a special election.
“We progressive Democrats have a legacy we want to continue,” said Strong. During her run against Amedore, she said, “we enjoyed support all across the county, so why not build on that.”
On Monday, Rider announced on Facebook that he, too, wanted Hein’s job. “For the last 11 years County Executive Mike Hein has reformed county government, and turned Ulster County into a spectacular place to live, but there is still work to do, and projects left to complete,” wrote Rider. “Over the next few months, I look forward to sharing my own vision for continuing to make Ulster County the place you are proud to call home.”
The competition for the Democratic Party nomination in a special election will be an insiders’ game decided by the votes of a few hundred party loyalists who sit on Ulster’s various city and town party committees at an upcoming convention. Strong has already picked up early support from two potentially key Kingston Democrats, Mayor Steve Noble and County Legislator Lynn Eckert. Both spoke at Strong’s campaign kickoff event last Saturday in Midtown Kingston.
Noble, who in the past has shied away from intra-party politicking, said the dynamics of the nominating process compelled him to take an early stance.
“I’ve known Pat for a long time and I feel she demonstrates all of the qualities we want in a county executive,” said Noble. “The time frame for this election is very condensed and I felt it was important that we get our ducks in a row for this special election that could come very soon.”
No Republican has yet publicly announced their intention to seek the party’s nomination for the special election. But last week county GOP Chair Roger Rascoe said Quigley, mentioned in years past as a potential county exec candidate, had reached out to express his interest in the race. Ronk said that he was also weighing a run. Ronk has served in the county legislature for 12 years, including three has chairman. Ronk said that he initially had no interest in running to succeed Hein. But, he said, he had been lobbied by community members of both major parties to throw his hat in the ring.
“The one thing I don’t see from either of the people I guess you would call the frontrunners,” said Ronk, speaking of Rhodes and Ryan before Rhodes announced that he would not run, and before Rider announced his candidacy, “is any semblance of experience that would qualify them to be our next county executive.”
The winner of a special election that could come by the end of April (should Hein’s appointment be confirmed by February) might also have to face a party primary in June, based on New York’s new election reforms, before competing again in yet a third election in November.