From Vassar’s halls to NYS politics: An interview with Karen Smythe ’82

Courtesy of Karen Smythe 4 NY State Senate

In many regards, Karen Smythe ’82 was the quintessential Vassar student. She fondly recounts her time serving as the soccer team’s five-foot-three goalie, singing with the Night Owls and practicing squash—the whole time maintaining a delicate balancing act of running back and forth between the soccer field, Skinner Hall and the squash courts in Kenyon at all hours of the day. 

A few decades later, Smythe is vying to represent the district of her alma mater in the New York state Senate. Last week, The Miscellany News spoke with Smythe on a variety of topics, from racial justice reform, to running a small business, to empowering young people to vote.

To be clear, Smythe is no career politician. After college, she worked as a marketing executive before returning to Poughkeepsie to run her family’s union construction business, C.B. Strain & Son, for 16 years (which, coincidentally, installed the HVAC for Vassar’s Bridge for Laboratory Sciences). 

Her attention didn’t shift to politics until after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which affirmed for-profit companies’ right to deny their employees health coverage for contraception in the case of religious objection. For Smythe, it was a shock to come to terms with the fact that women’s access to contraception is still up for debate. “I thought this is crazy… that was the realization for me that I was taking for granted the fact that we were moving forward,” she explains. In 2016, as the country listened to Donald Trump repeatedly making controversial comments about women across the airwaves, she reached her breaking point: “I need to now stop yelling at my TV, yelling at my radio, and I need to channel that energy into something productive.” 

The next year, she was approached by a leader of the Dutchess County Democratic Committee at an event for Planned Parenthood and, suddenly, the foundation of her first senate bid began to fall into place. Smythe readily admitted, “I’d never knocked on a door before, I’d never made a voter call, I’d never made a campaign fundraising call before—it was all new.” Nonetheless, that first campaign was full of successes—one of the most gratifying was seeing her first two union endorsements come from the two largest unions she worked with at C.B. Strain & Son. She credits these endorsements to her insistence on seeing her union employees as partners, not adversaries.

Smythe ultimately came just 0.6 percent—688 votes—away from toppling GOP Senator Sue Serino. Two years later, Smythe, unfazed by her narrow loss and more confident than ever, is challenging Serino to a rematch. 

Smythe’s priorities—health care reform, preventing the climate crisis, eliminating systemic racism in education—haven’t changed much from the last time around, but in the midst of a pandemic, with the scourges of ecological destruction and racism simultaneously reaching an inflection point, her campaign has a newfound urgency.

COVID-19 has highlighted the failures of the U.S. healthcare system, a problem Smythe is passionate about mitigating. “Health care is something that we need to address…maybe we don’t have the right financial model for our health care system, because when we need it most, it’s actually hurting,” she said. She noted the rise in hospital layoffs resulting from the financial hardships before the pandemic before explaining the challenges that come with tying healthcare to employment, such as managing gaps in coverage during lapses of employment. In her experience as a small business owner, working to maintain quality health insurance for employees while insurance costs rise by double digits each year has been extremely difficult to manage.

Smythe emphasized the necessity of reproductive rights within the healthcare system, the very issue that inspired her to enter the political arena in the first place. After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday evening, Smythe’s campaign released a statement saying that Smythe will “commit to carrying on her fight.” In the statement, Smythe insisted that Serino “is not a woman who supports women,” and lambasted Serino’s vote against the Reproductive Health Act. Smythe’s campaign has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List and the National Institute of Reproductive Health.

Speaking about the impetus for sweeping racial justice reform, Smythe mentioned the fatal shooting of Dutchess Community College student Maurice Gordon by a New Jersey State Trooper on May 23, 2020. The dash cam audio from that day points to Gordon experiencing a mental health crisis over the several times he was stopped by police before he was shot in his last traffic stop. Smythe explained, “In the state of New York, we have been pulling away funding in support of mental health services, and that is absolutely the wrong direction. We use our criminal justice system to manage mental health issues, which is absolutely the wrong place to put it.” Regarding the racialized disparity between drug use and drug-related convictions, Smythe insisted that community safety programs, not fully armed police officers on the doorstep, are the right answer in many situations. She identified Poughkeepsie’s recent hiring of a mental health professional to accompany police officers on calls as a step in the right direction.

Policing isn’t the only racial justice issue that Smythe hopes to tackle: she hopes to dismantle inequality in education and housing. She also identified a wealth gap among Poughkeepsie residents, the effects of which have only been exacerbated since the pandemic. “The way we fund our public schools is fundamentally inequitable. Again, the City of Poughkeepsie schools have a very significant poverty rate…and yet they don’t get the funding that really covers those issues,” she explained. “Right now, the situation that we’re in with all this online learning, there’s going to be a disproportionate negative effect on low-income families, and certainly families of color.”  

According to Smythe, the capital required to start a business is distributed just as disproportionately. Her solution? Create a targeted community fund that gives Poughkeepsie’s middle-to-low income community—predominately people of color—the capital and tools to start their own businesses.  

Building pathways to home ownership and expanding affordable housing are just as important to Smythe. “If you keep a certain group of people away from being able to own desirable property, you’ve also kept them from being able to accumulate wealth,” she explained. She elaborated on how the eventual lifting of eviction restrictions will pose a serious problem for renters in the district. 

Smythe does recognize that some reforms will come easier than others. She discussed an incident in July when a Black Lives Matter rally in Pleasant Valley erupted in violence upon the arrival of Support the Blue counter protesters. Having marched with the Black Lives Matter group that day, Smythe recalls how their organizer did everything right, and how deeply troubling it was to look into the faces of those spouting intense anger and hate. Smythe blames this hatred on leadership that seeks to divide instead of bring people together: “It really broke my heart, because that’s not who we are…and yet, I was also very happy to be there, because, if I’m going to be there for the Black Lives movement, I need to be there when it’s ugly, not only when it’s easy.”

When asked what else she hopes to tackle in the state Senate, Smythe quickly turned to the need to champion legislation that will aggressively attack the climate crisis—which, she insisted, can no longer be ignored. She plans to ensure that the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act is followed through to completion. Passed in 2019, the act sets binding goals for the state on reducing carbon emissions and moving towards 100 percent clean energy—an 85 percent emissions reduction is required by 2050. Just as importantly, the bill ensures that at least 35-40 percent of spending on climate infrastructure is directed towards disadvantaged communities that have been the most harmed by the fossil fuel industry. The sitting senator, Sue Serino, voted against the legislation. “If she isn’t even willing to agree to the goals, she certainly isn’t going to support the steps we need to take to achieve those goals,” Smythe asserted.

Also on the docket: broadband, the most used and high-quality form of internet access. “[Broadband is] clearly something that is no longer a luxury,” Smythe pointed out, “There are plenty of people who don’t have access, and then there’s areas where you have access but you can’t afford it.” In such a geographically diverse state, strengthening broadband accessibility does not come easy. She explained that in cities like Poughkeepsie, municipal broadband would be an option, yet she would have to pursue other possibilities for more rural areas.

Of course, there’s one new obstacle to running on a progressive platform this time around: When Smythe ran in 2018, the GOP held control of the Senate. Today, that’s no longer the case, and conservative criticisms of Democratic leadership have become a popular GOP campaign strategy. Just last month, Senator Serino made a pointed jab at Democrats in a virtual press conference, saying that Democrats left citizens adrift and afraid by refusing to provide even a timeline of reopening the economy. In response to Serino’s criticisms, Smythe acknowledged that the state’s response to COVID-19 was flawed. Because the situation in New York State escalated so quickly, she said that learning how to manage the pandemic fast enough to keep the infection rate under control was difficult. She continued, “It’s all well and good to say ‘All Democrats are terrible,’ however, she’s the elected official, so it’s her job to engage with her fellow senators to come up with solutions that actually work,” Smythe said. 

She made sure to credit this Democratic majority for the major voting reforms passed since 2019—none of which came to the floor for a vote until Democrats took control of the state chamber. Earlier this year, New York voters discovered that COVID-19 was not acceptable grounds on which to apply for an absentee ballot, but legislation subsequently passed making fear of illness, including COVID-19, proper justification—a bill that Serino opposed, along with a bill establishing a nine-day early voting period. 

Smythe implores the Vassar community to take advantage of these voting reforms. 

Her advice for young voters? “The reason why young people are not as listened to by politicians is because, as a block, you don’t vote enough. Seniors all vote, and you can count on their vote. Young, college-aged people, if you look at the percentage of that age group that votes, it’s quite low. Which means that you can, as a politician, ignore [young voters], because if you don’t vote, it’s someone else who’s going to get you elected,” she said. “You have power in your vote. Don’t give up your power to someone else. Use it.”

Students can change their registration to Dutchess County until Oct. 9 and request an absentee ballot electronically until Oct. 27 (although the application deadline is seven days prior to the election, the Post Office has stated that they cannot guarantee timely ballot delivery for applications submitted less than 15 days before the election—Oct. 20).

With less than 50 days until the election, Smythe feels confident. This year, her campaign seems to have hit its stride—after all, 2018 was just unfinished business. “This is the year that I’m going to win,” she declared.

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