History professor elected to Dutchess County Legislature

[Full Disclosure: Kelly Vinett interned with the Dutchess County Democratic Committee, but did not work directly with Rebecca Edwards.]

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, over 60,000 Dutchess County residents exercised their constitutional right to vote in the County and New York State elections. An increase in Democratic turnout this year heavily influenced the election results for Dutchess County. Democratic victories include Vassar College Professor of History Rebecca Edwards for Dutchess County Legislature District 6, Robin Lois for Dutchess County Comptroller and Judge Christi Acker for New York Supreme Court.

Edwards has high hopes that this year’s local election results will help sway future political decisions. Her grassroots campaign, along with countless other liberal reactions to the current conservative national climate, has the potential to start a Democratic domino effect that political analysts now refer to as “The New Blue.” While only time will tell whether this Democratic comeback will last, Edwards firmly believes, “What we did this year will lay a good groundwork for next year.”

Intense competition characterized the race for Dutchess County Legislature. Among the 25 county voting districts, 14 Republicans and 11 Democrats won seats in the Legislature. Although law makers in Dutchess County are still predominantly Republican, the election results appear to be a major victory for Dutchess County Democrats. Last year, 16 Republican and two Independent seats in the Legislature left only seven seats for the Democrats (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess County Election Results”, 2017).

Edwards won the sixth district by a margin of 150 out of 2,654 district votes in total. Democracy Matters Campus Coordinator Samuel Beckenhauer ’18 reflected, “There is a tendency for people to vote in the presidential or midterm elections, but these are usually the races where your vote matters least. There were several local races in Poughkeepsie that were decided by single-digit votes and this happens every single year.” Republican campaigns supported plans to expand the local jail. Edwards’ opponent William E. Biskup was a 64-year-old retired banker whose campaign also advocated more governmental funding for seniors and veterans (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Voter Guide: Dutchess County Legislature”, 11.06.2017).

Democratic legislators Edwards, Giancarlo Llaverias for District 1 and Craig Brendli for District 8 presented a policy platform focused on social issues. Cecilia Bobbitt ’19 of the Vassar Democrats explained, “The most pressing issues are the opioid crisis, immigration, the prison, the sales tax being incredibly high and economic stagnation. Giancarlo Llaverias ran on his personal experiences losing friends to drug and gun violence. All of these candidates ran on abolishing the sales tax for certain necessities, such as clothes and shoes under $100, and eliminating pay-to-play in Dutchess County.” The Vassar Democrats are optimistic that the election results will help Democrats in local government play a more important role in developing policy responses to these issues.

When asked about the foreseeable challenges that lay ahead, Edwards talked about tackling electoral corruption. She noted, “What’s going to be really tough on the agenda is ending what people call pay-to-play legislation … Political contributions and county contracts don’t mix. No one who’s doing business with the county should be making political contributions. It’s just not appropriate.” Edwards considered ending pay-to-play legislation in areas like Rockland County and indicated, however, “This is going to take some really hard pushing.”

Student organizations such as Democracy Matters share this vision of political reform that shifts the focus from large political contributors to everyday citizens at the city, county and state level. Beckenhauer elaborated, “This year all three county legislators who won offices ran on removing the pay-to-play system, which refers to banning contractors who donate to campaigns from receiving any public contracts. This is a huge victory for us as it demonstrates that removing corruption is something we all agree on, and it attracts a lot of members to our cause.” Beckenhauer also noted that Democracy Matters supported grassroots political participation by answering questions about absentee ballots and voter identification requirements, assisting students with voter registration and providing a nonpartisan pamphlet on policy platforms of candidates in the local election.

The campus administration also contributed to voter participation by arranging transport to voting sites and reminding students to vote in the days leading up to the local election. Dean of Students Adriana di Bartolo indicated, “I am grateful to provide students with non-biased candidate information, information about voting location and transportation. This was a resource and service that was offered to students long before I got to Vassar and I think it is imperative we continue to do this on voting day. Our students’ voices matter in both local and national elections!”

Edwards also has a vision of changing the county’s economic development using a plan she calls community wealth building. Edwards expanded, “Part of community wealth building is something called anchor-based procurement. The idea is to get local hospitals, colleges and other anchor institutions to commit to buying locally, and that’s something I think Vassar could play a really big role in. We’re facing issues like the collapse of retail and people buying more online.” To Edwards, buying local is an important practice for building up the local community and its economy.

Reducing local government expenses remains a priority. Edwards recalled that the county legislature makes 470,000 paper copies of bureaucratic documents each year and admitted, “It just seems incredible to me that something like that is possible. I certainly think we should try to go paperless.”

Edwards believes that party lines come second to making substantial legislative change. Willing to collaborate with Republican leadership, she said, “I truly think there are opportunities to work across the aisle.”

Speaking about Vassar, Edwards noted the different levels of political commitment across different members of the campus community, including union employees, faculty and administrators. Edwards elaborated, “Employees have a different relationship to the community than students do, by the very nature that students are always coming in and coming out.” Edwards further considered the relationship that students have with local politics, suggesting, “I think it’s a challenge to make sure that people get the information they need and stay tied into politics. Our social media and press are very much at the national level.” Edwards has experimented with ways to combat this lack of local representation in the press. She found that getting her message across through radio and podcasts during her campaign was an effective strategy.

The elections also led to a change to several other positions in local government. Lois, the newly elected Comptroller, is tasked with managing Dutchess County’s current budget surplus of 430 million dollars. With over 30 years of accounting experience, Lois plans to improve county procedures in finance that Dutchess County residents have been fervently passionate about fixing for years. Her message included a non-partisan, independent auditing system that would reveal how taxes are spent and whether they are spent wisely.

Her system contrasts to Dutchess County’s previous system, noted for its potentially fraudulent tax practices and limited governmental transparency under former Comptroller Jim Coughlan. Compared to 32 audits and published reports by nearby Ulster County, Dutchess performed only nine audits and published reports in 2016. Lois’ approach to auditing identifies areas of economic waste and inefficiency, as well as possible governmental corruption (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Lois would bring fresh perspective to comptroller’s position”, 10.13.2017).

Edwards concluded, “I think we all have Trump trauma, and so doing something concrete and positive has been really important for me this year. Putting the newspapers aside and working on the campaign has been great.” She also thanks her Vassar team of supporters who encouraged her along the campaign trail that ultimately led to her victory.

Bobbitt observed, “We are really happy that Professor Edwards won. She ran a great campaign that uplifted other candidates too. Local Democrats helped each other in a way that was very unifying and effective.” She concluded, “Although students are only on campus for four years, they are parts of the Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County communities and develop relationships with faculty and staff who live here permanently and are impacted by local issues. Getting involved in local politics while in college prepares students for future political involvement especially because Dutchess County is an incredibly diverse community.”

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