Chasing Antonio

Ulster Executive Pat Ryan probably won’t catch Rep. Antonio Delgado in their informal town hall meeting race, but at least he’s trying. Delgado, with a four-month head start, and almost four times as many constituents, currently leads 22-12.

Democrat Ryan, who took office on June 7 and is on the ballot for a full four-year term in November against Republican hopeful Jack Hayes, brought his road show to Kingston’s venerable Temple Emanuel on Thursday night.

Given the hour, an inconvenient 6 p.m., only about 65 were in attendance in a hall set up for twice as many when the guest of honor took the floor at 6:11.

Billed as a town hall meeting, it might more accurately be called “a conversation with Pat Ryan.” And that’s a good thing. People feel shut off from their public officials, ignored even, so it’s refreshing to find at least one politician who goes out of his way to listen, commiserate and offer his take on issues that people raise. That it’s also good politics is a bonus. Ryan, in his few short months in office, has been to places that almost no county official has ever visited, like Denning and Hardenburgh.

Kingston, despite the many empty seats, was probably the biggest audience he’s faced since a Chamber of Commerce candidate breakfast last March in Saugerties.

Ryan, who calls himself a progressive, in the real sense of the word, does not dwell on the past. “We’re about the future, of looking forward,” he said. That said, Ryan was well-grounded in statistics that matter, like job growth in Ulster County. We added 1,400 new jobs last year he told his audience (there are about 60,000 private sector jobs overall) of which 1,100 were in the low-paying tourism area.

He speaks to inconvenient truths. Ulster County, he said, is the third worse in the state in terms of the ability of its people to access affordable housing. Fourteen towns in the county have a rental vacancy of one percent or less, he said. A three-percent vacancy is considered desirable. Kingston’s is one-tenth of a percent. Stats like that have consequences. Rents have risen by double digits at some places.

“We need a full conversation about affordable housing across the county,” he said. “Crisis is not too strong a word.” I didn’t hear a plan, but recognition of a problem can be an important first step. For the record, the county has been compiling affordable housing stats for decades. It has not been a subject of public debate on the county level. It is now.

Ryan quite deliberately avoids criticism or comparisons to the 10-year Mike Hein administration which ended with Hein taking a position with the Cuomo administration last winter. He calls Hein “my predecessor.”

While it’s hard to imagine the carefully-managed Hein in an unscripted Q&A situation like at the temple, there was some sense of his presence. One speaker deplored the lack of activity at Hein’s last big public relations triumph, the grand opening of the Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center at the top of Broadway in Kingston in December. “There’s nothing happening there except probation. Nothing really happening now,” a speaker complained.

“I completely agree, Ryan shot back. “There was a clear vision laid out. Now we have to do it.”

In deference to the dearly departed exec, he left for greener pastures only weeks after the justice center was dedicated.

Other speakers took Hein to task for his “penny-wise, pound foolish” “dismantling” of the county’s mental health department (merging it with public health) at a time when the opioid crisis was coming home.

“It was a tough decision and we have seen the impact,” he said. “We need to reassess that. It is my belief that investing (in mental health services) will produce dramatic savings over time.”

With staff futilely and figuratively tugging at his coattails, Ryan overstayed his schedule by half an hour and remained to converse one-on-one with attendees.

I may regret this should Ryan turn into an ogre like so many others somewhere down the line, but from my perch, it was a productive conversation.

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