Leaders of both major political parties are asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to nix a special election for county executive, calling the contest — which will occur just months before a general election for the post — confusing, undemocratic and a waste of taxpayer money.
“This election will cost upwards of $300,000 and it means we could potentially have four different county executives in one year,” said Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale on Monday, Feb. 4. “If someone can explain to me how that’s beneficial to the people of Ulster County, I’d love to hear it.”
The special election controversy comes in the wake of County Executive Mike Hein’s announcement last month that he would step down to take a post as the state commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Hein, who has served as county executive since 2009, was up for re-election in November. A provision in the county charter requires that, in the event of a vacancy in the county executive’s office that occurs more than 180 days prior to Election Day, a special election be held within 90 days. The 90-day countdown will begin as soon as Hein is confirmed by the state Senate and officially resigns his post. Hein’s chief of staff, attorney Adele Reiter, would then serve as county executive after his resignation and before the special election. The winner of the special election would then have to defend the seat in November’s general election. They may also have to defend their spot on the ballot in a June 25 primary. The dual elections are expected to cost county taxpayers about $300,000 each.
But the special election must be called by the governor. Cardinale and his Republican counterpart, Roger Rascoe, have both requested that Cuomo simply not schedule it and allow the contest to take its course with a June primary and a November election.
“I’ve spoken with Frank Cardinale and we’re both on the same page with this,” said Ulster County Republican Committee Chairman Rascoe on Monday. “[The special election] will cost a lot of money and there are all these different scenarios that could play out. I think it would better to just have one election in November.”
Besides concerns over the cost, Cardinale said he’s uncomfortable with the process of choosing candidates for the special election. Because of the compressed time frame, there will not be a primary to allow rank-and-file members to choose who will hold the party line. Instead, the candidate will be chosen by party committee members at conventions later this month.
“[The committee] would choose the county executive [nominee] and I’m very uncomfortable with the process,” said Cardinale. “That decision should be in the hands of rank-and-file Democrats, all of them.”
Moran jumps in
So far, four Democrats have emerged as candidates to succeed Hein. They include Kingston businesswoman and recent state Senate Candidate Pat Courtney Strong, security tech entrepreneur and onetime 19th Congressional District candidate Pat Ryan, Deputy County Executive Marc Rider and former Woodstock town supervisor Jeff Moran. Thus far, no Republican has formally announced their candidacy; Rascoe said he would not discuss specific candidates pending the committee’s convention of February 23.
Moran, Woodstock supervisor from 2008-2011, announced his candidacy in an email Monday. “I feel strongly that our next county executive should have experience as an elected official — ideally as an executive rather than a legislator — with a strong background in personnel management, budget preparation, and union negotiations in — again, ideally — both the public and private sectors,” Moran wrote. “I believe that I meet those criteria, and I have both the time and the inclination to pursue the office.”
One name that will not be on the ballot in November is that of Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III. Quigley has held the town supervisor’s office for a decade and is widely seen as the most viable Republican candidate for countywide office. But on Tuesday, Quigley expressed pessimism about Republican chances of winning any countywide seat and anger at Democrats for “putting politics ahead of progress” and failing to recruit candidates with the experience to effectively guide the county.
“[Democrats] are going to be the governing party in Ulster County for every county office going forward,” said Quigley. “Because of the demographics.”
Quigley said he had been contacted by Democrats concerned with the party’s current crop of candidates, who urged him to enter the race. Quigley, meanwhile offered his own scathing assessment of the Democratic field.
“You’ve got two retreads who failed to be elected to higher office and who think they’re qualified to be county executive and a guy who has worked in county government, but hasn’t even been there long enough to get through his probationary period.”
Out on the trail
In the teeth of a blustery snowstorm on Jan. 30, the Olive Democratic Committee hosted Rider, Ryan and Strong at a forum which drew about 15 people. (A Super Bowl Sunday gathering at Gardiner Town Hall drew over 50.) Mark Rider of the Town of Ulster, who has been a part of Mike Hein’s administration since 2013 as the director of purchasing and more recently the deputy county executive, boiled his platform down to lowering the burden of county taxes, finding solutions to the opioid crisis, keeping Ulster County affordable for its residents in the wake of gentrification and lessening the impact of generational poverty on residents. “If there’s a special election, whoever the Democrats choose to be our candidate will sit down in June and spend the next four months drawing up a budget,” said Rider. “I feel like I am equipped to do so — I have the experience to do so.”
Rider spoke of advancing existing county projects, such as the Ulster County Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center, which currently only serves youths 17 and under. He also spoke of fleshing out the Brighter Future Initiative, a program that will allot $4 million over five years toward a multi-faceted approach to breaking the pattern of poverty for Ulster County families. He said he would follow the lead of the state, implementing a 10 percent contract-awarding goal to minority and/or women owned businesses for all county projects, and that he would pursue the creation of low-income housing, possibly using the site of the old Ulster County Jail. In the same vein he spoke of expanding the curriculum of Ulster BOCES and working with their office of employment and training in an attempt to get county residents into high-paying government jobs. “Our UCAT bus system and Adirondack Trailways — they cannot find bus mechanics so they go out of the county,” said Rider. “It could go to a county resident, but we don’t have the training here right now. The position pays around $80,000 per year.”
Rider also suggested creating a fund to help pay the legal fees of residents facing foreclosures, which he said is a practice already used for the county’s elderly. On some matters outside of the purview of the executive, Rider said that he would be an advocate on the county’s behalf . He said that he planned to push for the state to take over all funding for local school districts and work for more broadband throughout the county. Rider also spoke of his brothers who fought with heroin addiction, and said that “we shouldn’t jail our way through this crisis.”
Ryan of Gardiner, a former Army officer and tech executive who was one of the six runners-up for the Democratic line for Congress last year, also spoke of his family. He said his cousin, one of 19, was able to sign up for classes at the Kingston Center of SUNY Ulster after struggling and ultimately dropping out of high school.
“She didn’t say it exactly in these words but [she said], ‘I feel like I have a path forward now,’” said Ryan. “Mike [Hein] and a whole coalition of others including not-for-profits and the state [raised] $8 million to build that project. At least for my cousin, it fundamentally changed her pathway in life — that is what someone in this job of county executive [can do], that is the kind of impact you can have.”
Ryan also spoke of a “Green New Deal” on a county level, which would use a shift to renewable energy sources to create jobs, Once the head of a “tech company that employed 150,” Ryan had a few bright ideas for telecommunications improvements that could be implemented — he wants online services that would allow Ulsterites to be as up-to-date as possible with county considerations and developments. Ryan also talked of bolstering local eligibility for high-paying trade positions so that companies coming to the county wouldn’t need to recruit elsewhere.
Pat Strong, who also had an unsuccessful run at a seat on the State Senate last year, was initially a reporter and editor with the Daily Freeman and founded the local group the Business Alliance of Kingston. She cited her experience as a business owner and consultant in the environmental and green energy fields as a strength. Most recently in her environmentally-friendly track record, Strong said, [her business] guided 24 municipalities to switch entirely to LED street lighting. Strong is for a Green New Deal: “[The executive’s office has] an exemplary Department of the Environment — they are a ball of fire. Because I work at the state level, I know all the programs that they’re participating in,” she said. “The state is raising the bar so that municipalities and counties are challenged to reduce their carbon footprint. We need to continue in that direction, but the next step has to be connected to the economy, to creating jobs.”
Bemoaning the number of people lost to gentrification and a rising cost of living in Ulster County, Strong suggested a land bank to help first-time homeowners and lower-income residents: “We can do [it] countywide — take derelict properties, clear the title which is preventing their sale, and then the county can offer them for sale again … and make it specific so that you have to be a first-time homebuyer or of low income. … We can’t keep saying [about rising housing costs], ‘This is inevitable — Brooklyn is coming.’”
To remedy opioid crisis, Strong suggested that the county provide recovery coaches to those who just survived an overdose, recently recovered addicts and those leaving prison. Strong offered the innovative idea of governmentally-supported home care for the disabled and elderly: “It’s frankly, a dead end job now, we don’t train people for it and they don’t get paid well — that’s just a failure of imagination. We can professionalize it, create stackable certificates. The legislature is looking to provide support to that industry.”
With additional reporting by Christina Coulter