Heppner selected as new Ulster County Legislature majority leader

Jon Heppner (photo by Dion Ogust)

At age of 30, Woodstock’s Jon Heppner is now the Majority Leader in the Ulster County Legislature. 

“I am, I am that,” he says, over a hot toddy at the Station Bar on a weeknight. “I’m very proud to have that responsibility to have been chosen by my caucus to lead them, especially in this very new and unfamiliar time in county government. This is definitely the most turbulent year we’re going into since the charter transition. But I’m proud, and from what I’m told I’m the youngest Democratic majority leader in the county’s history.” 

The turbulence of which he speaks comes not only from the 12-11 vote squeaker that put independent legislator Tracey Bartels of Gardiner, whom Heppner calls “a true hardworking progressive,” into the Legislature Chairwomanship, following the never-been-done-before ousting of a legislature chairman, Republican Ken Ronk, midway through the two year term of office. It also includes the resignation of Mike Hein as the only county executive Ulster has ever had coupled with the potential for three elections in the next 11 months to decide on his successor. (That is, a special election within 90 days of Hein’s actual resignation, yet to become official, to decide who fills the next year of Hein’s unexpired term; a potential primary by either or both parties to decide candidates for the November general election, and then that general election, which will fill the seat for the next four years.) 

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But what does Heppner think of all this? 

“Well, it’ll be potentially turbulent, but also opportunistic, in getting things done. It’s been amazing going into the mid-term…never before has a party lost its majority mid term. But the rules of the county charter allow for that, calls for a chair vote very year. It’s funny, two years ago, the Republican majority tried to change that, and we were able, by just a hair, to keep them from pulling that off. 

“I think a Democratic majority in these times is crucial. We’ll have one year to make our case to the people of Ulster County, going into another crucial election year, that we’re the best caucus to be running county government. But also, it’ll be turbulent because we don’t know what the county executive seat is going to look like. I wish executive Hein the best. He’s put in his time as [deputy] county treasurer, county administrator and then county executive. He’s in a spot to go on (Commissionership of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance), and it’s a great honor to be named by the Governor of New York, but also, county government needs to go on. We’ll need to work with the team he leaves in place. And there’ll be a special election, and then work with whoever the county voters choose…”

Asked if he has a preference in the early position jockeying, Heppner demurs.
“I do not have a dog in the fight. Not at this moment. I’m not saying that I won’t throw in with someone, but at the time, it’s a bit early in the process, there are a lot of good people out there starting to make the case and I have the feeling that there will be more people getting into the race.” 

And what about the potential for three elections?
“I think that’s not an enviable position to be in, but politics are unpredictable and this is one of those crazy scenarios in politics, and this might be the process by which we find our new county executive.” 

He says that it’s possible someone could win the special election and then lose a primary. 

“The one benefit is that the voters are going to have a lot of face time with those seeking the position…it’s a very important position in these times. Again, the more face time the voters get, the more exposure and the more people make their case, might not be such a bad thing, difficult as it may be. 

“What I’ve learned is that its a unique situation but its still the same 23 members (in the legislature) as at the beginning of the year. And in that year, we’ve been able to pass a fiscally responsible budget with our amendments along with the County Executive’s administration and budgeting…”

Heppner touts the legislature’s amendments to the Hein documents.   

“Well, he didn’t veto any, including additional funding for future programming for the new restorative justice center, additional funding for department of the environment, additional staffing support, these are things that we added and were not vetoed.”

And he gives Hein credit.

“At the same time the executive has continued to keep us within the tax cap, which is not easy, especially as unfunded mandates continue, approximately 70 percent of a $365 million budget. But these are things that we have to find ways to keep within the cost of living. In addition the county provides a lot of senior support and environmental efforts, so its a very tight process. Working with these 23 members is our greatest responsibility.”

Heppner can list his own accomplishments, items he calls “pragmatic progressive” legislating. “My legislation to ban conversion therapy (what Wikipedia calls ‘the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological or spiritual interventions’)

for minors passed with full bipartisan support, every single Republican voted for it…and people forget approving conversion therapy was on the Republican platform during the 2016 elections, has been strongly supported by Vice President Mike Pence, but here, in our corner, we were able to do the right thing and pass this legislation. The State Senate and State Assembly have now, subsequently, passed it statewide, but there was no reason for us to wait in the wind while our neighbors, in Erie County did it successfully, so we were second…”

He cites another piece of legislation he was involved with. 

“We passed an historic plastic bag ban legislation. While that continues to founder on the state level, our version is now being lauded across New York State, as an environmental policy people should be looking at.” 

It was pointed out to him that you still get plastic bags from the supermarket. 

“There’s an education process, but it will be implemented going into next year. But you’ll also notice that places like Hannaford have already started taking the steps to start selling reusable bags at the register for under a dollar. Also you see popular stores like Sam’s Club don’t even provide bags at all. But we want there to be an educational component to all this, to educate the people of Ulster County on why this is such an important step for us. They just did a study — Suffolk County led the way on this — their most recent study showed that plastic bag use was reduced by almost 80 percent, and that’s incredible…but its about doing it right, with the right formula. 

“These are policies that have been coming from the Democratic caucus, even before we took a voting majority. We were able to get members of the Republican caucus to be influential supporters and be willing to cast their vote for these types of initiatives, so I’m confident that we can make this more of an opportunistic year than a turbulent year.”

The majority leader was asked if he voted to support Executive Hein’s veto of a term limits measure, as passed by the legislature. Hein’s veto was legislatively overridden. As such, there will likely be a referendum on the question in November, though Hein, while still in office, has vowed to challenge the veto override in court. 

“I voted to override. It was an issue that is very mixed among people of all political strokes. There’s a lot of different viewpoints, but because the legislators were willing to make it a public referendum, to go to the voters to choose whether they wanted me and my colleagues to be term limited, that was an opportunity for the voters on a non-partisan issue. I felt most comfortable giving it to the voters, rather than making a back-room decision by legislators.” 

Though the issue was pressed in the county legislature by Joe Maloney of Saugerties and Dave Donaldson of Kingston, Heppner pointed out changes from the original idea. 

“We were able to push it back a year, so it would come up when us county officials were up, rather than the year that we weren’t and there is a congressional election. I think that’s the right thing, that we should be on the ballot when it comes up.” 

But are you actually for it? 

“I’ve gone back and forth…ask me what day in the legislature it is, and who I’m dealing with.”

He pointed out another difficulty. “At the time, there was a resolution that went along with it to extend the terms of office of the legislators to four years. But one of the things with that was the four year term at one point was attached as one referendum, and others thought it should be separated. It thought it should be separated, it’s two different issues. Somebody may think I deserve to be term limited, at the same time have no reason to believe I should have a four year term without going back to the voters. 

“Also, if we then potentially put all county officials on a four year term, we get into the issue of staggering the terms…I don’t like the idea that voters would vote for legislators and executives at the same time…then, that’s four years they have to wait to vote again. That’s why the federal government in the Madison Papers set up terms to be staggered so there’s no whole turnover at once. That’s not productive government…So it was a much more complicated issue that we debated for about two years before Legislator Maloney was here…obviously he pushed it and was very clear on it. But it went through much more legislative debate before the county executive vetoed it.” 

Heppner sees the need for a strong governmental foundation. “Issues like this constantly come up in the county. We have to make sure we have the stability to solve them, and I think now that we’re going into a new year and things are a little bit more known in terms of the legislature’s leadership and the direction of the executive’s office, we’ll be able to work out solutions.”

And the year ahead? 

“Right now I’m excited about Chairwoman Bartels. She can hold her progressive cards with just about anyone in the caucus. She’d been a leading voice on the ways and means committee, chaired the jail commission investigation. She was the one at the end of the day to get the support of 12 members of the Democratic caucus and get the votes that were needed to beat their 11 votes. She’s been talked about as a candidate for the chair for some time now. As long as I’ve been there, she’s always been a strong legitimate candidate for the chairmanship.” 

We come back to the age thing.

“30 years old. I didn’t exactly expect to be discussing IDAs and term limits on a Tuesday evening at the bar when I was 30, but it’s not a bad outlook.”

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