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Hudson Valley Political Elections 2011: Republican Marc Molinaro and Democrat Dan French Campaign for Dutchess County Executive

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It’s an off-year in local elections, but one of the bigger races around the mid-Hudson Valley is the race for Dutchess County executive. William Steinhaus is retiring after 20 years on the job and two young guns are looking to take his place.

Republican Marc Molinaro, now 36, made political headlines when he was elected to the Tivoli Board of Trustees at age 18 — making him the youngest person ever elected to office in New York State. The following year, he was elected mayor of Tivoli, making him the youngest mayor in the United States. He also served in the Dutchess County Legislature for four years before his election to the New York State Assembly from the 103rd District. He and his wife Christy, a registered nurse at Northern Dutchess Hospital, live in Red Hook with their children, Abigail Faith, age seven, and Jack Henry, two.

Democrat Dan French, 30, first ran for Beekman Town Council at age 22. He lost, but tried again and won the following year. He served on the council for five years — the only Democrat on the board — and was elected Beekman Town Supervisor in 2009. He lives in Beekman and has recently become engaged to schoolteacher Melissa Wessels.

HV chatted with both Molinaro and French about the election, the issues facing the county, and what they each enjoy about living in the Valley.

 

 
marc molinaro

Marc Molinaro

Both you and your opponent are very young. Is that what Dutchess County needs right now?
I think it is more of a coincidence than anything. I started in politics at 18, and funny enough, many young people ran for office after I did. There are a good number of talented young officials here, a significant number of colleges in Dutchess, and we have an intense base of young community volunteers and young entrepreneurs. So I think that in this election, the fact that we share a young age is more coincidence, though an inevitable coincidence.

What is the number one issue facing Dutchess County?
Jobs and economic growth. We need to restrict government to the delivery of core services. That’s the absolute priority. It goes hand-in-hand with reducing the tax burden and controlling government spending, so we don’t end up with a county government that isn’t financially sound.
We also need to position Dutchess County as the most competitive in the state. We have been down this road before, in the aftermath of IBM downsizing. The county reorganized and focused on growing the economy again.

Leaders can have strong ideas and ideals, but in a democracy it’s about balancing personal ideals with delivering results
– Marc Molinaro

I think the problem is more complex and severe today, and it’s more of a national and international crisis, but I think by restructuring again we can become not only competitive but also successful.

What else is on your agenda?
I marry economic growth with quality of life and public protection. I want to continue to improve our response to child abuse and child neglect. Domestic violence cases grow in hard economic times, and we need to better identify risks, prevent violence, and have a better response system in place. We need a more innovative model, and perhaps we can create a model that can be replicated elsewhere in the state or the country. I also want to address the aging infrastructure. We need a real repair-and-replacement schedule.

Why do you want this job?
This is where the rubber hits the road. In the current economy, if we challenge ourselves, we can really redefine democracy and government. We can establish a leadership position and show the rest of the state and country that a government that tackles its core responsibilities can be effective. With complex problems, when is there a better time to be innovative? I used to joke that the best part of going to Albany is coming home again. Well, it’s not a joke anymore. There is no better time to come back home and put to use the skills I’ve gained.

What has been the most surprising thing about being in politics?
Two things: one is more social, one is structural. I have seen that too many people are comfortable being partisan and not considering those they disagree with. Even when people agree they tend not to admit it. Leaders can have strong ideas and ideals, but in a democracy it’s about balancing personal ideals with delivering results. The pragmatic approach is what’s needed, because after all we are really a service-delivery organization.

From an institutional point, it’s the challenge of getting government to be more agile and responsive. I have seen that all levels of government are, shall we say, sluggish in nature. It shouldn’t take years to accomplish small goals.

What is your favorite Dutchess County restaurant?
You can’t make me do that! I like all of them! Okay, I will say I have been and always will be a fan of Santa Fe in Tivoli. I also like the Flatiron in Red Hook, and Alex’s in Poughkeepsie. I should also point out that I am Italian, and can eat a good meal anywhere.

What the best part about living in the Hudson Valley and what is the most frustrating thing?
The best is quality of life, no question. We have among the finest restaurants and natural resources, we are a hotbed of cultural and historical centers, and we have proximity to the city. We can enjoy everything that life is about in the valley, and in the city as well.

Most frustrating? Sadly, it’s the high cost of living. It shouldn’t be so difficult to make ends meet. After I pay all our bills, I think, “Why is there no more money in our bank account?”

What is your favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the Valley?
Biking, either with my family or alone. My wife and I have tandem bikes with trailers, and we take the kids. We do all the rail trails or bike around the villages. I do about 25 miles a ride, three to four times a week. There is nothing like biking in the Hudson Valley.

What else do you do for fun?
Fishing, both in the Hudson and elsewhere. I do a lot hiking and wandering around Dutchess with my daughter. She really likes the Walkway Over the Hudson. And when I need to recharge, give me a ticket to any movie theater. I can recharge, quietly.

 

 
dan french

Dan French

Both you and your opponent are very young. Is that what Dutchess County needs right now?
I think maybe there is a need — I know people are ready for someone new, are thirsting for a new approach, a new generation of leadership. People want candidates with proven experience but who are not tied to the old system.

What is the number one issue facing Dutchess County right now?
I think it’s one and one-A. First: property taxes. For years, voters have been looking for someone to put taxpayers first. I’ve done that. I crafted a lean, effective budget that did not raise taxes.

One-A is jobs. We need to focus on economic development and bring great-paying jobs to the county. That takes a multifaceted approach that includes getting rid of some of regulatory burdens to development here, to help developers get through the municipal planning process in a way that lets them invest quickly and in a streamlined manner. And of course, we have to do it in an environmentally sound way.

What else is on your agenda?
This is part of my idea about a new approach — we really need to brand ourselves as a great place for the next generation of clean manufacturing. We are uniquely positioned for this. We have a skilled technology workforce and lots of empty workspace that can be retrofitted for new tech work. We should brand ourselves as the southern pole of Tech Valley, which runs from Westchester up to Albany/Saratoga. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get some of those firms coming here.

Why do you want the job?
I consider myself a public servant, not a politician. When I was young — younger — I didn’t aspire to elected life, but September 11 changed my whole mode of thinking. Not just me but a whole generation of people my age, in their 20s, went into public service. And as I have seen in my work in Beekman, government can have a real, positive impact on people’s lives. If I can play a small part in moving the county forward, I want to do that.

If not public service, what did you want to do back then?
I was looking to be a historian. I thought that would be a great career, learning history, maybe become a college professor and write some books. I was on track for a BA in history at SUNY Binghamton, but after September 11 I started taking more poly-sci courses. I did an internship for Rep. Maurice Hinchey. I would do case work, helping people with federal agency problems, like if they weren’t getting a Social Security check on time — all kinds of things. It was a tremendous way to see how government can help people. I really caught the public service bug.

What has been the most surprising thing about being in politics?
Besides learning what “frenemy” means? (Laughs.) Probably how close local government is to the people you serve. You go to the post office, the store, the gas station, and people come up and tell you what they think. Sometimes they thank you, sometimes they yell at you. But it’s an amazing thing.

What is your favorite Dutchess County restaurant?
Hmmm. I don’t want to make anyone angry here; I guess I have to say Beech Tree Grill, near Vassar. It’s a small, really nice place. They feature local stuff and have different specials every night. It’s a really cool spot.

What do you do for fun?
My top thing is playing soccer, but the hardest thing about this campaign is that I don’t have time to play. I had to hang up my cleats. Once the campaign is over, I am looking forward to getting back to that.

The most frustrating thing is that the area clearly is not affordable, especially for the next generation. This is the Empire State. They should be making their dreams come true here
– Dan French

What’s the best part about living in the Hudson Valley and what is the most frustrating thing?
I love the natural beauty of the area. The more I see of the rest of the country, the better it is to come home. And we have everything here — culture, history, wonderful resorts like the Mohonk Mountain House and proximity to New York City. There is no other place like it that I’ve seen.

The most frustrating thing is that the area clearly is not affordable, especially for the next generation. If we are not keeping young professionals here, it will really hurt the whole community. It’s so frustrating that far too many of my college peers and some of my best friends have moved away. This is the Empire State. They should be making their dreams come true here.

What’s your favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the Valley?
Sundays are great. I go to church in the morning, and then if I’m not watching football — I can’t do that anymore either — I go into one of the villages. My sister is in Rhinebeck, and I’ll go check it out there, then maybe do something outdoors. That’s the ideal way to spend a beautiful weekend, especially in the fall.

How did you meet your fiancé?
I got engaged this summer, and it’s a funny story. Her best friend was dating one of my best friends, and they invited us on a double date. Those two cancelled, but we went out anyway, and we hit it right off. We knew it right away. She’s been very helpful in the campaign, coming to events, making phone calls, but the main thing is just to be there as a friend. She’s my best friend as well as my fiancé.

 

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