In September, the Ulster County Democratic Committee elected a new chair, Kelleigh McKenzie of Rosendale, who in many ways exemplifies the party’s desire to reshape itself for a more inclusive future. While more visible hereabouts as a singer/songwriter, McKenzie has been an effective behind-the-scenes political operative for the past decade.
“As a little child, my two big passions were music and democracy. Either I was going to become a singer/dancer/actor or a lawyer,” she recalls of her upbringing in the rural town of Boring, Oregon. Her parents signed young Kelleigh up for piano, dance and voice lessons, but also made sure that she developed an appreciation for active citizenship.
Upon completing a conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon University, McKenzie moved to New York City, “driven to be an actor,” she says. “I was a working actor for about four years, and I was miserable.” So, she shifted her communication skills into not-for-profit work, landing at the Council on International Educational Exchange, while turning her songwriting hobby into a performing sideline. Banjo – which she first picked up when a stage role called for her to play an instrument poorly – is her axe of choice. She also plays guitar and amplified stompbox.
She and her husband began spending weekends upstate, moved to Rosendale full-time in February 2001, and built their house in Rosendale in 2004. Kelleigh started a business called Mid-Hudson Music Together, providing music-and-movement classes for young children, just in time for the influx of New York City families to the area in the wake of 9/11. “That was my focus until I recorded an album.”
Chances, released in 2008, is an appealing mix of indie-folk tunes, mostly original, that also veer off into blues and jazz, with Scott Petito sitting in on bass. Her debut LP features the haunting “Gin,” written from the point of view of alcohol as both source of solace and enslaver of the human will, which went on to become a winner of the 2008 NewSong Contest on Mountain Stage and the 2009 Independent Music Award for Best Americana Song.
The community side
In the years that followed, McKenzie found a volunteer role as one of the songwriters involved with SageArts, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to preserve the life stories of community elders through song and film. She interviewed and then wrote songs about farmers Abe Waruch of Cherrytown and Jackie Brooks of Stone Ridge, Woodstock visual artist Lois Linet, activist Connie Hogarth of Beacon, and Holocaust survivor Tibor Spitz of Kingston.
But the “democracy” side of McKenzie’s sphere of interests was calling her name as well. She had first plunged into local community service as a volunteer in the 2010 campaign to save the Rosendale Theatre. The following year she joined the town’s zoning board of appeals, where she has served ever since. She’d met Jen Metzger as the mother of twins enrolled in her early-childhood music class, and volunteered to work on Metzger’s 2011 race for town supervisor, which ended in a squeaker loss to Jeanne Walsh. Together they had a happier outcome with the 2018 campaign, managed by McKenzie, that brought Metzger to the state senate.
Working with the Rosendale Democratic Committee, McKenzie became one of the town’s two delegates to the Ulster County Democratic Committee, and by 2016 was representing thje local state assembly district on the New York State Democratic Committee. When Bernie Sanders announced his presidential run in 2015, McKenzie got involved with a local group called Ulster for Bernie and ended up a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
As with many inspired by Sanders’ call for change and greater inclusivity within the party, McKenzie hit the ground running with ideas for reform when she was elected to the state committee in 2016. “When I got there, I read the rules, and saw there were some simple changes that could be made to allow more people at the table,” she says — for example, instituting a save-the-date notification for meetings that would allow members time to ask tor additional items on the agenda. “I tried to pick rule changes that you couldn’t say were a bad idea. I proposed five right away, and three of the five were passed by my second meeting.” By 2018 she had been named to the executive committee.
A search for inclusivity
More recently, McKenzie headed up the get-out-the-vote effort during Dave Clegg’s campaign for Ulster County District Attorney. When the election proved too close to call, she managed Clegg’s side of the absentee-ballot count. “It was really exciting to be able to help him come through successfully,” she says.
Being elected as chair of the county party for the next two years was in large part the result of the relationship-building work she’d done, collaborating with volunteers in these various campaigns, according to McKenzie. With significant reforms written into the organization’s newly adopted by-laws, she’s now looking forward to implementing greater inclusivity in the county structure,
“The old guard had their way of doing things that very much worked for them in their time. But so much has changed in how we communicate,” she explains.
She cites the key role that the Internet and social media now play in our culture. “We’re now transitioning to a new way that’s more collaborative. One of our highest priorities is to engage more young people.”
Five new standing committees have been created at the county level, each headed by an elected vice-chair: Voter Outreach (Amy Fradon of Woodstock), Communications (Sajaa Ahmed of Hurley), Fundraising (Alexandria Wojcik of New Paltz), Campaign Support (Tyler Vanderhaag of Kingston), and Diversity & Party-Building (Nejla Liias of Saugerties). “We want our party to look like our community. We plan to reach out and connect to activist leaders on issues that we as Democrats really care about and support them in their efforts.”
Poll-watching on Election Day was one of the first orders of business following the September organizational meeting. Next on the Ulster County Dems’ agenda are drafting a budget, an annual goals statement and a two-year strategic plan. All are due by January.
Other priorities, according to McKenzie, include streamlining communication with local committees; initiating a “pipeline project” to nurture diverse legal talent for the judicial branch of county government; and addressing the “tremendous gap in wealth and income” resulting from more affluent New York City folks moving to Ulster County. “We already had a housing problem, but it’s on steroids now,” she says.
McKenzie is particularly excited about a neighbor-to-neighbor program of voter outreach that has found great success in the Town of Rochester. Known as “relational canvassing,” the model assigns a particular representative to each neighborhood, responsible for “deep listening” to voters and identifying what issues concern them most. Noting the polarization that characterizes American political culture at this point in time, McKenzie says, “Deep conversations with people you disagree with are crucial to the survival of our country.”
She’s also keen on encouraging more politically engaged people of every demographic to run for office. “You can do something right here, by electing someone really good to your town council, or by being that person,” she urges. “Hope, accompanied by action, is what’s going to move us forward through this dark time.”