On June 26, 2018, Pat Ryan made his way through a crowd packed tightly between brewing tanks in the back room at Keegan Ales in Kingston to stand at a lectern and announce that after a grinding seven-way Democratic primary, he would not be his party’s nominee for Congress.
On April 30, 2019, the crowd at the brewery was smaller, but for the 37-year-old Kingston native, Gardiner resident and former Army officer, the results were much sweeter. In a special election Tuesday to fill out the remainder of former county executive Mike Hein’s term, Ryan — who ran on the Democratic and Independence Party lines — had prevailed over his opponent, Ulster County Conservative Party Chairman Jack Hayes, running on both his own party’s line as well as the Republicans’, by a nearly three-to-one margin. On Wednesday, with all 163 districts reporting, unofficial results showed Ryan leading by a margin of 11,729 votes to Hayes’ 4,084.
“This is an incredible mandate to bring us forward with a progressive vision for this county,” said Ryan.
Tuesday’s election marked the culmination of a breakneck campaign that began in January when Hein announced that he was stepping down after a decade in office to take over the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
Hein’s term was set to end on Dec. 31; the County Charter requires a special election to fill the remainder of a county executive’s unfinished term within 60 days of the post becoming vacant.
Ryan, who finished second in the Congressional primary behind now-Congressman Antonio Delgado and retained a network of supporters, donors and strong name recognition in Ulster County, announced that he would run for the spot just days after Hein’s announcement. He was followed by Kingston businesswoman Pat Courtney Strong. Strong, like Ryan, was banking on support and name recognition garnered during a robust, but ultimately unsuccessful run for office, in her case for state Senate.
With no time for a primary election, the decision came down a vote among members of the Ulster County Democratic Committee, won by Ryan.
Two other would-be candidates, former Woodstock town supervisor Jeff Moran and current Deputy County Executive Marc Rider, did not compete in the February committee vote. Rider backed out and decided to back Ryan; Moran attempted to force a June primary but couldn’t get enough signatures on his petitions.
While Democrats had their pick of candidates, Republicans struggled. Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III declined to run, citing challenges facing his town and his belief that Republicans could no longer compete in countywide elections, given skyrocketing Democratic enrollment and leftover energy from 2018’s “Blue Wave” election. A Feb. 23 GOP nominating convention ended without a candidate for the special election. But Hayes, a 76-year-old retired state trooper and onetime Gardiner town supervisor was nominated as the Republican candidate on April 4, just ahead of a deadline for entry into the race.
Ryan used his head start in the campaign to aggressively push a detailed policy platform centered on a local version of the “Green New Deal” proposed by some Democrats in Congress. Ryan’s plan called for blocking “dirty” energy projects in the county, immediately transitioning county government to renewable energy sources and setting a goal of 100 percent reliance on renewable energy countywide by 2030. Ryan’s proposal also included partnerships with Ulster County BOCES, SUNY Ulster and the private sector to train residents for jobs in the green economy. Ryan, who helped found and run several companies which produced intelligence software for the military and law enforcement, also promised to support “equitable development” to ensure that the county’s poor and working families share in economic growth and to funnel more resources to combat the opioid epidemic. Ryan also pledged to uphold Hein’s record of holding the line on taxes.
Turnout in Tuesday’s election was extremely light. Just 15,790 voters cast ballots. By comparison, nearly 80,000 people voted in November’s general election which saw hotly contested races for Congress, the State Legislature and Sheriff. Despite the low turnout, Ryan claimed the wide margin as a mandate for progressive governance in Ulster County.
“We had a pretty decisive result here and I think that said a lot,” said Ryan addressing the crowd at Keegan Ales. “It sent a very strong message, a loud and clear message that what happened in Ulster County — and in our country — in 2018 was not an anomaly, it is going to be the future of our county and we’re going to build on that.”
Ryan, who will face Hayes again in November for a full-four year term in the County Executive’s seat, said the early days of his administration would focus on soliciting ideas from county residents by way of town hall meetings in all 24 Ulster County municipalities.
Ryan also praised the county’s workforce and senior leadership, and said that he expected to work closely with current staff on developing a 2020 budget.
“I’m here to listen and to learn from our department heads who have been doing great work,” said Ryan. “And then figure out how to integrate that with my vision.”
Ryan, who by law must take office within 30 days of Tuesday, will have to win this November’s general election if he wants to continue being county executive past the end of this year. Hayes has said he will run for the post again this fall.
Hayes did not return a call seeking comment.