“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
— Emily Dickinson
Personality can be all-important in politics, as we all know. It was clear in the crowded Kingston courthouse room where Gardiner resident Pat Ryan was sworn in at 12:43 p.m. Friday June 7, that a page was being turned. Judging from his public performance, Ryan will present a contrast in personality to previous county executive Mike Hein. That difference may well over time be as important for the economic future as the political future of Ulster County.
It is hard to imagine the buttoned-up Hein exulting in the enthusiastic way Ryan did toward the end of his acceptance speech, “Public service is where it’s at. It’s the coolest gig around.”
Ryan hit the ground running. The different style in the county office building is extending beyond the sixth-floor office of the county executive. Ryan was at the entrance of the building Monday morning shaking hands with the county employees starting their work week. He thought he detected guilty looks from a few who were a couple of minutes late. He wasn’t there to check on them, he said with a smile later than morning.
On Monday, Ryan also toured the county solar array on the site of a former landfill in the Town of Ulster. That 5940-panel array, which began operating last year, is intended to produce 20 percent of the county government’s power demand. The project, funded by other entities, was one of the great successes of the Hein administration. It won praise from the state. DEC commissioner Basil Seggos said it was the kind of initiative that bolstered community resiliency and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.
On May 14 of last year, a release “from the executive’s desk” had lauded the project. In this case, Hein’s administration deserved full credit.
Of the hundreds of releases (it took 67 pages on the county website just to list them) Hein’s office sent out over the years, however, to my knowledge every single one mentioned Hein in its first sentence, no matter how large or small his and his administration’s role was. Judging from the image Pat Ryan was projecting last Friday, it’s hard to imagine the self-effacing new county executive, who presented himself as the ultimate team player, eclipsing this record of compulsive self-presentation.
Ryan’s address was inclusive toward the entire audience of close to 300 persons crowded in the courtroom (with a televised overflow room next to it). Any successful politician’s inauguration would have been inclusionary. But Pat Ryan’s 15-minute speech was more emotional than most.
He was willing to take risks, Ryan said. He had an almost indescribable pride in the rich heritage of the community. He was going to embark on a listening tour in each of the county’s municipalities. He wouldn’t be limited by political partisanship. He’d encourage teamwork. “A collective is better than any individual,” he said.
As a military man (West Point, Class of 2004), he said, he had learned that no matter what, you don’t leave anyone behind: Ulster County had a moral responsibility always to help the neediest and least privileged of its people. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about us.”
The ultimate community he served was the people of Ulster County, the 37-year-old Ryan said. He promised that the last thing he would think of every night and the first thing he would think of every morning was the 180,000 people of Ulster County.
“Leadership is about priorities,” Ryan said in his speech, presenting a five-layered club sandwich of policy areas requiring close executive attention: a Green New Deal, tackling the opioid crisis, growing and diversifying the county economy, redefining the justice system to emphasize rehabilitative and restorative elements, and making county government more responsive and responsible. Those would be his policy emphases, he said.
It was an ecumenical message. None of these policies represent a radical departure from the professed priorities of the Hein administration. The change in style would be the big difference. Hein’s administration was a team, too, but a top-down team not slow to express executive displeasure at dissent whether from inside or outside government. Too much stick, too little carrot.
Pat Ryan has started with a mandate. “You are the people’s choice here in Ulster County,” state comptroller Tom DiNapoli told him from the podium on Friday, referencing Ryan’s overwhelming electoral victory against Republican opponent Jack Hayes. “You will have to make the tough calls. You don’t know where the journey ends.”
The state comptroller assured Ryan that DiNapoli’s office would continue its auditing responsibilities even over governments with whose leadership he was on friendly terms. DiNapoli drew one of the biggest laughs in the 45-minute ceremony when he told Ryan he had only two words of warning for him: “Elliott Auerbach.” Auerbach is of course the former Ulster County comptroller recently appointed by DiNapoli as head of the state office auditing local governments.
Without criticizing Hein or his interim successor and deputy, Adele Reiter, Ryan has been sending out clear signals. He’s now listed his top priorities, but he’s not yet tipped his hand on the staff changes to come. All department heads are preparing two-page summaries of the strengths, issues and mission of their department. Ryan will discuss what they write with them in one-on-one interviews. He’ll of course be listening to input from other sources as well.
The numerous county department heads and other political appointees in the courthouse audience last Friday had of course a significant stake in Ryan’s decisions. So did Ryan’s most passionate campaign supporters and advisors, also present in substantial numbers.
Growing the economy is a particular area where teamwork between public and private sectors is vital. There’s concern in some circles that this priority area was not one of the Hein administration’s strengths. As we can see every day on the national level, the operation of a free-market economy and top-down problem-solving don’t easily coexist.
Here in Ulster County, Ryan is seeking advice from a wide variety of people. As a former intelligence officer, he’s gathering intelligence.
Don’t mistake an inquiring spirit for an inability to get things done. In my long conversation with him Monday morning on economic matters, I found Ryan far more cognizant of how an economy works than any member of the county government staff in charge of matters of economic development.
As I left his office, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: This ought to be Interesting. Very interesting.