With a degree in business management and experience in the banking industry, Mike Hein could have pursued a potentially lucrative career in the financial sector. Instead, he dove into the contentious, flinty world of local politics. He says his grandfather made him do it.
Hein, 46, is the Ulster County Executive. He was reelected last fall, running unopposed, after becoming the first-ever CE when the county changed its form of government in 2008. Before that, he served as deputy county treasurer and county administrator, both appointed positions. Asked why he entered public service, he mentions his grandfather, a Depression-era Italian immigrant. “I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and when I did he asked to see me and to bring my diploma,” Hein remembers. “This was a tough, tough guy. He never cried, he didn’t blink. But when he saw my diploma he began to weep.”
Hein, who graduated from Eckerd College in Florida, was shocked. “I didn’t know just how big a deal college was to him until then,” he says. “He told me, ‘When I came here with my father and mother, they knew they wouldn’t live long enough to see this day.’ He said, ‘Now that you have this great gift, you have an obligation to this country to give back.’ When deciding whether to run, I could hear his voice.”
When the county switched from a legislative to an executive form of government, Hein knew it was time. “I was born and raised here. This is my home. And with my background in finance and knowing how the county operated, I knew that it could be done wrong,” he says. “That was the driving force, to make sure that this new form of government was set up right from the beginning.”
That meant “a more transparent, accountable government,” he says, and his first order of business was signing an antinepotism order. “That happens in local government, and it’s bad public policy,” he says. “It plays into our worst fears of local government, and constituents lose faith.” He then looked to consolidate services that were carrying the fiscal weight of patronage. “For too long government was the biggest employer here, and that doesn’t work,” he says. “Our highway department was double the size of other counties.” He cut the force but signed agreements with neighboring counties to share services like snow plowing. “We actually cut costs and increased service,” he says. Overall, his administration cut millions from the 2009 budget and, for the first time in Ulster County’s history, reduced payroll expenses significantly in 2010. In 2011, he drafted a budget that included no increase in taxes.
Another goal, making Ulster the “healthiest county in the state,” began by reorganizing what Hein calls one of the worst health departments in New York. “We hired Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, a Centers for Disease Control-trained physician, to become the director of public health and are working collectively with the hospitals and schools here to meet that goal.”
Other initiatives include increasing tourism — “it’s a $500 million business but it was a bureaucratic mess,” he says — with the new UlsterCountyAlive.com Web site and advertising in New York taxis and media outlets. To encourage economic growth, he established the Ulster County “Credit for Success” bank consortium, a program that provides access to capital to small businesses. “We need to compete in the global economy with manufacturing and high-tech firms to make sure our kids have a place to come back to,” he says.
That sense of place infuses his drive. Hein, his wife Christine and son Mickey, 12, live in Hurley. They enjoy hiking and biking when his 70-hour-a-week schedule allows. “I feel blessed to live where I live,” he says. “When you come from that perspective, government is a whole different thing.” And although he has been approached about higher office — he was rumored to be on the short list for Andrew Cuomo’s lieutenant governor and admits to being asked to run for Congress — he demurs. “That’s all very flattering,” he says, “but I got into government to make a difference for the people of Ulster County.”