Whatever happens on November 8, come January at least two of the Mid-Hudson region’s county executive offices will be managed by a relatively young, dark and toothsome gentleman sporting a haircut you can set your watch to. Call it a trend. The greater Hudson Valley, and particularly this region, is becoming renowned for fast-tracking young, ambitious, photogenic political talent. Kirsten Gillibrand catapulted herself through the House of Representatives and into the U.S. Senate in short order, running with the boundless energy and cunning of a real-life Tracy Flick, craftily harnessing her camera-ready blue-eyed blonde dish factor into votes and dinners with D.C. kingmakers.
Then came Mike Hein, flashing his Cheshire Cat grin and effortlessly cruising into office as Ulster County’s first chief executive at age 44. An active and savvy pragmatist, he’s flooded the political and legislative docket with do-able, voter-friendly reforms while cozying up to the state’s Democratic power elite, which has a lot to say about what happens nationally as well. Running unopposed for his second term, he’s on Chuck Schumer’s fast track for bigger stuff, having already been on Mario Cuomo’s shortlist of potential lieutenant governors.
Now the retirement of the once-young-and-hungry Bill Steinhaus has cleared the deck for new blood in the executive office in Dutchess County. And new blood it will be. The Republican contender is New York State Assemblyman Marcus Molinaro, a political old-timer at 36, who cut his pearly whites as America’s youngest mayor (of Tivoli) at age 19. Says he: “I was 18 in 1994 when I was elected to the village board and 19 when I was elected mayor in 1995. So I’ve been around for a little while — 17 years now. Somebody told me … you may be only 36, but it seems like you’ve been around since the Eisenhower administration. I don’t know that that’s a compliment …”
The tireless and preternaturally wonky Molinaro also put in a stint as a Dutchess County legislator, and as an assemblyman has quickly ascended the ladder to the number-two spot in the GOP minority. He was a member of Cuomo’s transition team, and is a notorious bipartisan-minded centrist — every bit as Tracy Flick as is the redoubtable Ms. Gillibrand.
Molinaro’s competition on the Democratic ticket is Beekman Town Supervisor Dan French, 30, who started a bit later in his career but seems hell-bent on making up for lost time by leapfrogging over his relative political elder. Indeed, French is looking at this race as a scrappy underdog, and has been the aggressor, taking shots at Molinaro’s youthful mayoral record and attempting to turn the assemblyman’s easy rapport with the local and regional business and power elite into a liability.
French’s supervisor position is part-time. In July he left his full-time job as Dutchess County’s deputy elections commissioner for the Democratic side, which he held for the past five years. “I resigned that position so I could put my full-time effort into meeting voters and talking about the issues that are important to people,” he says. “My commitment is to this race; I didn’t feel I could run a campaign that was going to win unless I resigned that position. It really freed me up to do a tremendous amount of doors, which is the focus of my campaign — a door-to-door, grass-roots effort.”
He has apparently worn out at least one pair of good shoes on his long safari for votes.
Although he wasn’t focused on a political career early on, French’s tenure in the elections office gave him a front-row seat in the hurly-burly theater of Dutchess County government, and in conversation he seems every bit as wonky and process-driven as Molinaro.
Both men can fill up your tape recorder with dense, 100-words-per-minute policy rants, turn on an intellectual dime and make a strong, well-defined case for their candidacy. Indeed, during a series of long interviews with both, I often felt as if I were talking to, if not the same person, someone remarkably similar to the other. And luckily for you, dear voter, I also came away with the feeling that I’d be comfortable with either of them leading my home county out of the creeping stasis that has marked it through the waning, closed-door Steinhaus years. Both have drive, intelligence, sweeping plans to open up county government and make it more accountable, accessible and shimmering with, as everyone says these days, “greater transparency.” Both see the economy, taxes and jobs as their priority. Both want to end the budget-crippling practice of paying $4 million a year to other counties to house out all the prisoners who can’t fit inside the county’s pitiful old stump of a jail. Both think the state should help out by offering to help retrofit Greenhaven or another state facility to ease the congestion. Both prefer a balanced approach to economic development. Both agree the Resource Recovery Agency (RRA) that runs big deficits managing the county’s chronically under-performing garbage-burning power plant needs an overhaul, and that single-stream recycling of the sort being pioneered down in Beacon by Hudson Baler will go a long way toward making the county a better, cleaner, more environmentally friendly place.
In person, both French and Molinaro are effusive, direct and charming, treating one as a compadre as opposed to a potential mark or an annoying journalist. And, although young, both have faced the sort of life-altering challenges that serve to humanize them, deepen their character, attract the sensitive voter and keep annoying journalists and other potential hurdles in their corner. We won’t go into those challenges here — you can read them on their websites.
Not that there aren’t differences. They are significant in certain areas, most notably with regard to what to do with the RRA and the burn plant (French wants to stop “doubling down” on the thing and close it, exporting garbage as a cheaper interim measure on the way to eventual “zero-waste” management in which all, or nearly all, of our filthy, toxic leavings will be re-employed in some productive manner, providing jobs to a new army of green sanitation specialists. Molinaro thinks that we should stay the course, because we can’t get out of paying for the bonds that funded the emission-scrubbing technology to bring the plant up to snuff a few years ago, and we have a signed multi-year management contract with the operator, Covanta. “It’s not the kind of thing you just walk away from,” says Molinaro.
The two aren’t on the same page — or even in the same chapter — when it comes to a permanent solution for the jail overcrowding problem, which results in Dutchess being responsible for fully one-third of all the inmates housed out in the entire state.
“Clearly there’s something wrong,” says French. “But the question becomes: do we do a bricks-and-mortar approach like Steinhaus wants to do, and presumably my opponent wants to do? Because that would cost from 75 to 100 million dollars, for a full build-out at that jail, when you put the principal and interest into it as well. I mean it’s pretty clear to me that the bricks-and-mortar solution is not the way to go. We need to increase alternatives to incarceration. We need to make sure that we process people in a very efficient and effective way. Because SUNY New Paltz — I have a study right here on my desk — they said that the number of arrests here in Dutchess County has not increased. It’s that the average stay of a prisoner in our jail is overly long. It means they’re not being moved through quickly enough, and that’s costing you and I dollars, every single time. So I would push for a rocket docket system, to get people through the system quicker, more alternatives to incarceration, and then tackling the problem of recidivism, which is something that a local jail and a local community can do. If we can cut the number of people that actually get back into the system, obviously that saves us dollars and improves the quality of life for those people. It gets them back on the right track, toward a productive life.
“The other option would be a regional shared approach, with another county,” continues French. “The county jail has four populations of prisoners: male, female, adult and minor. So if you have an overflow, that every county can identify as an overflow, and then you have a regional jail approach that would house all of that overflow for just one or two of those population groups. That might be a very cost-beneficial approach.
“Which brings me to another thing. Greenhaven; there’s an annex there. This SUNY New Paltz study also says that maybe you can refab that prison annex, which might have up to 70 beds. You can work with the state; maybe share the cost with them. Greenhaven is already off the tax rolls; it’s in my town, and it’s already set up in such a way that it’s prepared to house inmates. There’s also the Mid-Hudson Psych Center, which is closing down as we speak. That might have some opportunities for rehabilitation of some of those buildings into extra beds. It’s these kind of outside-the-box approaches that I bring to the table, and that’s why when I say, ‘It’s a new day,’ it’s more than just a slogan. It’s more about drilling down, taking a fresh approach and having a brand-new perspective on the biggest problems that face our county.”
While agreeing with French on the need to involve the state in helping out with Greenhaven and other facilities, Molinaro is firmly in favor of rehabbing and expanding the capacity of the current jail. “Well, we need to expand capacity; we have no choice,” he says. “We need to evaluate retrofitting the existing jail structure. We have a wing of the jail that’s very, very old. It’s high labor intensity with low numbers. Twenty years ago the technology didn’t exist, but today you can gut a jail and install what are called dormitory-style pods, resulting in low labor costs and higher numbers, Then you install some kind of regional overflow capacity. Now, the problem with any regional solution is that, right now Dutchess County and Sullivan County are the only two that need capacity; all the rest have capacity. So convincing Mike Hein that we need to build a regional jail facility when really all he wants is to get our revenue, is going to take a lot of conversation. … The sheriff wants more jail space. The professionals in the field, even those involved with the ATI program, say they need more capacity. And I think that’s the way to go. Now, Dan’s approach is — he said something like: ‘I don’t subscribe to a bricks-and-mortar approach.’ And then he goes on to describe the creation of a regional jail or the rehabbing of Greenhaven or making use of Hudson River Psych. Well, those are bricks-and-mortar approaches. You’re going to have to retrofit them. Not to mention that you’re going to have to have access to Hudson River Psych. It’s in a community neighborhood in the Town of Poughkeepsie, and I’m not sure that’s what they want.
“But they’re all options, and I think that the relationship I have with the state legislative delegation and Governor Cuomo would be very helpful, and the governor has acknowledged that this is an area where there could be relief to counties.”
Molinaro is running on his 17-year record, which is considerable, as well as trying to capitalize on the positive aspects of Steinhaus’s long reign while promising to tackle any negative baggage head-on. “From my perspective, I’ve seen this county and this community really go through some of its best days and some of its most difficult,” he says. “I know it’s not the most politically correct thing to say, but every day of my adult life has been in public service, and I’ve served through a lot. I’ve been involved in a lot of major projects. In Tivoli we did infrastructure projects, parks improvements — we transformed the village. There are very few who would argue with that. It was an amazing recapturing of the village’s spirit. We improved the water system; we invested in a reed-bed sewer system — the first in the county and an example that they used in other municipalities. I’ve worked through major snowstorms; that April Snowbud in 1997 … and we’ve had some very bad days: the rapes in Tivoli Bays, which was an overwhelming challenge for the community and a horrific event for a young woman and her daughter. I just reference that because I almost feel that every day of the last 17 years has prepared me for running for this job now.
“I’m not saying Steinhaus was this way and I’m that way,” continues Molinaro. “He’s leaving Dutchess County with a very strong financial foundation, fiscally speaking. We have among the highest bond ratings in the state. We have the ability to weather minor economic downturns while balancing cash flow in the county. We have a small workforce, we have a lean county government, and we’ve been an example. Dutchess County has been recognized for its alternatives to incarceration, for its parks, for its website and technology, for its response to crime. But I have my own approach, and it is going to be different. My approach has always been consensus-oriented. I have never allowed my party affiliation to affect how we make decisions or with whom we work. I think that in a very difficult economic condition where resources are scarce and people are demanding more from each other, that consensus-oriented decision-making is so much better.
“ I want this county to be an example of accountability and transparency, meaning that department heads will really be encouraged to be out in the community, reach out to the community, have very strong relationships with the not-for-profits whom we partner with, and be really responsive to the taxpayers. I’ve said to both civil service and political appointees: we are public servants. And whether it’s a resident waiting on line for food stamps or someone needing to go to the DMV or to get a sanitary sewer permit, we treat those people with respect, because those are the people who pay our salaries and expect government to serve them without regard for who they are or what their party affiliation or background is.
“And then I’d like to use technology, both through social media and the county’s web capacity, to put information out before the public, to look at ideas and opinions on policymaking, but also to provide average residents, business owners, or anyone who wishes, with basic indicators — benchmarks — for county government. So you can go and evaluate where we are economically, to see what our response has been in particular areas of crime, where we have community projects, and so on. And I’d like residents to go and see the county government — not only how it works, but they’d have the capacity to evaluate the way in which the county government is providing service and responding to incidents.
“It’s always been my approach. When we had power outages and snowstorms, I’d be out on the fire truck announcing to the residents what the situation was. I don’t think we can drive a fire truck with a PA all throughout Dutchess County. We’ll use the traditional and new ways of communicating, to have people understand that residents, taxpayers, voters are part of determining how this county goes in the future.”
French takes the same village mayor record that Molinaro cites and attempts to turn it on its head, explaining that things are different now that flush times are over. “Contrast his record with mine, as supervisor of one of the largest and the fastest growing towns in the county,” says French. “During terrible economic times when we couldn’t rely on the mortgage tax or sales tax, I found a way to balance the budget — without using money from the rainy day fund as was done by my predecessor — with no increase in the tax levy. So before Albany ever told me that I needed to do a tax cap of 2 percent, I already knew that my taxpayers demanded it at zero percent. We’ve done two zero-percent tax increase budgets in a row. That’s my real record, and that’s his real record. I would hope the press and everyone else would make a real discussion out of that. It’s nothing to do with him personally. My problem is that many times over during the campaign he has said he wants to build on the solid foundation that we’ve been given by Bill Steinhaus. In my opinion, that is not a solid foundation. The county government is broken, in many ways. And he is out there defending almost everything that we do wrong. So it would seem to me that if you’re declaring that the county government isn’t broken, then you’re not listening. You’re not talking to the people who are literally impacted on a day-to-day basis by the decisions that have been made by county government. I’ve knocked on 5,000 doors and I’ve heard every story. I’ve heard the same story over and over, sometimes five or six times in a row. How seniors don’t have enough programs. Our youth don’t have enough positive outlets for them to stay out of trouble. Our county jail is a mess. The Resource Recovery Agency is a mess. People don’t have enough jobs locally. So if you’re saying county government’s not broken, then you’re reading the wrong book.”
While both men are cognizant of the manner in which power and influence are conveyed regionally by a handful of well-placed individuals, French takes a more activist approach to the issue. He knows Dutchess County is a place where a single real estate developer can position himself as the decision-maker in what happens with myriad big-ticket public projects: water infrastructure, resource recovery and the community college, among others. “Do you know how many contracts go through those three agencies? A tremendous amount,” he says. “Unfortunately, part of it is the way the system is set up: our campaign finance disclosure laws and the way that you can donate to candidates for public office. It’s a legal way to basically purchase influence.
“Is there a direct link saying that just because you give money to someone they’ll do want you want?” he queries to the four walls of his small Arlington office. “Maybe not, but if you look at the disclosure reports for Bill Steinhaus, it’s the same people — the same business interests, engineers, architects, contractors and vendors — giving him money, year after year. Then all of a sudden six months later those same people pop up getting county contracts. Now if you can look at that and say it’s not a good-old-boy system, then once again you have your eyes closed. What we need is someone who is not answerable to those special interests, but is only answerable to the people. And when I win — if I win — it’s going to be clear. I’m going to win because I have a grass-roots effort, not because I have the most money or have business interests behind me; I don’t. I have the people behind me, and that’s powerful.
“And let’s be clear,” concludes French: “The business interests don’t want to lose that cozy relationship. So one of the first fundraisers that my opponent had was held by Bill Steinhaus. All the people who have given thousands of dollars to Steinhaus are now giving money to my opponent. I think people should make their own judgments about whether they want that kind of person in office or not.”
Molinaro acknowledges the issue as one that holds back change and threatens good government. Although he is somewhat more circumspect in his response to the specter of cronyism and possible corruption, he promises that he will be no one’s rubber-stamp patsy. “I guess I would have to say that any time people are involved, you always run the risk of having both corruption and stagnancy,” says Molinaro. “I think that certainly there are some community leaders who have been involved in managing Dutchess County who obviously have a specific interest in making sure that things don’t change too much. But this is the first time in 20 years that we’re going to have a new county executive. And I think that there isn’t anyone who believes that things will remain the same. So if there is this concern for the existence of corruption, or even, not in a nefarious way, the maintaining of advantageous relationships among people in influential positions, I think the people will expect change because we’re going to have a new executive. And I think that a smart county executive will take advantage of the moment. The economic condition, the social demand, and the fact that we will have a new executive, will provide an opportunity to challenge the status quo. But I do think there’s a way you do that. And I’m respectful of the foundation that’s been built; I’m respectful of the fact that there are countless volunteers over the years whose contributions have meant a lot to Dutchess County. But if there is an air of concern over possible wrongdoing, we have to confront it. My policy was always: we establish policy and law to protect ourselves from ourselves. This is why, in the aftermath of the Paroli scandal, we rewrote the county’s ethics law; I was on the county legislature with Jim Hammond when we did it. And then we wrote the nepotism law — and I’ll tell you, everybody follows the nepotism law except the board of elections, which will change if I get elected. I have no tolerance for that kind of thing.”
So there you have it. These two have turned me, a sorely opinionated old curmudgeon, into one of those entities for which I harbor the greatest disdain: an “undecided voter.” It doesn’t help that I came into this liking both of them personally, and that neither did anything to put me off.
If this election seems to be a foregone conclusion, it shouldn’t be. There is a very real choice, and it comes down to this: French is a progressive Democrat through and through, and will try his damnedest to do what a progressive Democrat would do. If that’s your bag, he’s your man, and you should vote for him. Molinaro is a “Republican” — in the manner that Bill Clinton was a “Democrat,” and he won’t be bound by ideology. No matter who you are, if you think you know him, or what he’ll do in a pinch, you’re probably wrong.
Whichever gentleman wins, he can count on hearing a lot from this annoying journalist, who will be watching like a hawk. Good luck, guys, and do us right.