A Drink With ...
Michael Hein, Ulster County executive
A chat with Ulster Magazine's James Nani
Photos by Michael Bloom
MIKE HEIN DOESN'T MIND IF YOU THINK HE"S a wonk. He embraces the title. When talking about a subject he loves, such as public policy, Hein's words are deliberate, careful and passionate. He looks up to fiscal-crisis veterans such as Richard Ravitch, the lieutenant governor under former Gov. David Paterson; Ravitch was credited with preventing New York City from going bust in the 1970s.
Hein's new PAYGo NY campaign will have him traveling the state to look at local governments, find the best ideas, identify fiscal and bureaucratic problems and fight underfunded or unfunded mandates. It also will have the advantage of raising his profile outside the county.
Hein looks you in the eye and rattles off with ease the programs and initiatives implemented since he became Ulster County's first executive. He credits things to "we" and "us" instead of "I." He uses words like "collective solutions." To understand "us," Hein says, you need to know that "we" don't have to "sacrifice social responsibility for fiscal responsibility if you're willing to really embrace creative solutions."
Yet, when you ask him about more personal issues, Hein slows down a bit. He says he and his family are "fiercely" private people, and his family obviously means a lot to him. You can tell the loss of his brother four years ago to a heart attack is still tender territory. And he recalls his Brooklyn-born shoe cobbler grandfather as a hard-nosed role model who taught him the value of giving back to the community.
But before he was Ulster County executive, or county administrator, or manager at a Kingston bank or jewelry store, Hein was waking up before dawn feeding cows and collecting eggs from chickens on his family's 60-acre farm on Floyd Ackert Road in Esopus. He calls it a wonderful experience where he learned the value of a handshake.
Ulster Magazine's James Nani chats with Hein about his rural upbringing and the power of family in his life.
So a farm in Esopus? Are we talking cows and chickens?
All of the above. We obviously had large gardens and large fields. It was both a combination of cattle, chickens and it was a really idyllic upbringing in many ways. We didn't have any money.
And just so you understand where it was at, I came to realize this over time, you know. It's on the same road that's considered the Sojourner Truth Freedom Trail, which she walked to freedom. She was obviously an enormous figure in the abolition movement. In addition to that, it's literally right down the road from a place called Slabsides, which is John Burroughs' home, famous poet and friend of FDR.
About the drinkWhat are you drinking?A coffee. Light with milk. At Coffee Traders on Wall Street, Kingston.I had a brother who was two years older than I, who unfortunately ... four years ago ... he was a 20-year State Police officer. And unfortunately four years ago on New Year's Eve he died of a heart attack at 44 years old. He was my best friend, and it was obviously a very tragic moment for our family. He was a special guy.
My grandmother came from coal miners in Pennsylvania, and my grandfather was an Italian-American shoemaker. They had three daughters. They wanted to move them out of the city and provide an opportunity for a better life.
My grandfather was one of the toughest people I've ever known. I never saw him shed a tear. Not at weddings, funerals, the birth of babies. But he insisted when I graduated from college — I went to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. — that I bring back the diploma. And so I went to the farm when I got home from Florida and when I brought him the diploma and showed it to him, he started to weep. And I remember it like it was yesterday. He looked at me. It's hard to put it into words. It was so important to him.
So how did you get from the farm to banking?
I was very fortunate in that I had the ability to play baseball. I had great success locally and I went to play baseball in college and it was very helpful in being able to go to such a great school. It afforded me the ability to get a tremendous education.
Was there that push to stay on the farm?
There was a clear understanding that they wanted our family to continue to move forward. And the nice part about it was there was never any pressure from my grandparents. They wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to make a difference and give back to the community. In many ways I think it's why my brother served as a police officer; it was his way of giving back to the community.
So no more baseball? (He played left field and first base.)
At 47 years old, I have a clear understanding that centerfield for the Yankees is an unlikely outcome. But my best friend growing up became the featherweight (boxing) champion of the world. His name is Tracy Patterson, Floyd Patterson's son. We were in each other's weddings. He's from New Paltz.
How would you describe the character of Ulster County?
What I love about Ulster County the most is that it is an eclectic, diverse, wonderful community. I just had the opportunity to be able to deal with, before he passed away, Levon Helm. What an amazing talent who chose Ulster County as his home. And also he was a spokesperson for our tourism efforts. And he wanted to be able to make a difference. To be with people like that in our community ... and also, to be able to deal with people who simply try to make a difference every single day of their life. The best part of my job is I get to interact with the entire county. I just look the scope of what we're able to have here to be able to see things like Horses in the Sun that takes place in Saugerties, that's made Saugerties one of the 10 coolest towns in America. That a place a place like Rocking Horse Ranch, that's rated the third best family resort in the world, on planet Earth. That you can have a place like Mohonk (Mountain House) that you can't find anywhere.
What do you see as your biggest achievement in the last five years?
From my perspective, we were facing huge challenges as a county, not unlike many around the entire state. Had we not acted in the course of the last four years, Ulster County was facing 66 percent property tax increase. I'll give you a good example. The fact that there are homeless veterans. There weren't clear models to address those issues in rural counties. We looked at it and said we can devise a new model that can work here. We scoured the state inventory for properties we knew existed and we found this great project. It was a former group home on Wurts Street in the City of Kingston. It was spectacular.
Personally? I regret my brother wasn't here to see all this.