Dutchess County Executive-elect Sue Serino won her race by a healthy margin on Nov. 7. It was a winding road to get there. Serino, a Republican, served as a state senator for eight years before losing a tight race to Democratic state Sen. Michelle Hinchey in 2022. The two lawmakers were colleagues but faced each other as a result of redistricting.
Before that, Serino served on the Hyde Park Town Board and in the Dutchess County Legislature. Alluding to gridlock in the statehouse and an abundance of red tape, Serino said she got into government due to her frustrations as a business owner and stayed because she liked helping people.
After the election, Serino was buzzing with plans and ideas to improve Dutchess County and said she couldn’t wait to start talking to her new constituents and identifying their needs. The question is how will her approach as a lawmaker change now that she’ll be an executive. According to her, not very much.
Serino spoke with City & State to discuss her plans as county executive, reflections on local politics and the issues facing Dutchess County residents. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For starters, how are you feeling after your victory?
I’m just so humbled by our community coming out and putting their faith and trust in me. It’s a very humbling feeling. On Wednesday, I got to sleep a little after picking up about 300 signs, but I feel good and ready to go. I’m somebody who always likes to keep busy, so I can’t wait to start talking to our community partners and talk about the subjects at hand that we need to concentrate on like affordability, public safety, things that we were hearing during our campaign, even child care – the lack of available and affordable child care. For me too, talking about the trades because I didn’t take the traditional path. So, very exciting times.
What led you to want to run for Dutchess County executive?
I’ve been somebody who never liked politics. I got into it because of my business. Just seeing how the government just runs a little backward maybe, with trying to get approvals on a building that I’ve made absolutely beautiful for my real estate business and the stumbling blocks that I had to go through. I said this just seems like a system that doesn’t work, and then found a real passion for helping people, and when I was elected to the state Senate, I always had in the back of my mind that I would love to be county executive. But then, you know, I made the commitment to run for the state Senate and stay in the state Senate and of course, redistricting happened. So I just feel very lucky and honored to be able to be in this role now and work on all of the things. Between being on a town board, a county legislature and the state Senate, being able to bring all of those things to the county and work on them is a really exciting time.
That transition from being a state senator to being a county executive, what sort of experiences are you hoping to transfer over to this new role and what things are you assuming that you’re going to have to get yourself up to speed on?
Well, I’ve been so entrenched in the community for all of these years like I said, town board, county legislature and then state Legislature, being a business owner in the community, to going through a recession where I had to make some really tough choices to keep all of my agents working, to downsizing a building and knowing what it’s like to go through those tough times and to come out of it not only surviving, but thriving. I think those are the things that I bring to the county. From the time I was in my early 20s, I owned my first business and then eventually owned a day care. So I know what the day care providers are going through. People who are working and can’t find day care or like you’ll talk to some people and they have a couple of kids in day care. It’s like paying a mortgage payment. So it’s how do we work on these things to make it more affordable and work with some companies to see what we can offer for people with child care services. There’s just a whole gamut that I’m just very excited about. For me, I learn a lot by listening to the public, so I can’t wait to have some of those listening roundtables about the subjects at hand and seeing how we can get things accomplished together.
It sounds like affordability is one of your bigger priorities. How do you plan to start making things more affordable for Dutchess County residents?
We’ve been very fortunate. Here in Dutchess County, they’ve done a great job running the county and keeping our taxes affordable. But there’s so much more because when you think about what’s happened with inflation – from groceries to housing – we have to make sure at the county level that we keep things affordable. That’s going to be having those conversations with our county partners and community partners, talking to them and seeing shared services. There’s going to be so many things because I’m somebody who thinks outside of the box, just from my variety of experiences through life that I think I bring to the table and, for me, it’s about listening to people to see what we can do to make it more affordable for people to live here. It’s not just our seniors, of course, they live on a fixed income, but it’s our young families too that are struggling to stay here. So we have to make it affordable, keep it affordable.
How do you plan to combat the housing crisis? Throughout the Hudson Valley, it’s been pretty rough and Dutchess County is a part of that.
Dutchess County had the Housing Trust and they had received $12 million in (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. So they used about $9 million, so there’s $3 million left over. The $9 million went toward seven different projects, and I believe a lot of these projects are utilizing existing buildings, and I’d like to build upon the Housing Trust. There’s a great desire for it. Look at what the governor did. She knew we needed to address it, but I think she just went about it the wrong way. Instead of having conversations with different municipalities and community partners, she kind of threw a plan out there. And I think you need to have those conversations with people first because every city, town and village is different and see what their needs are and where we can do it.
I’m sure you noticed that across the river Alison Esposito announced her campaign against Rep. Pat Ryan. Could your win in Dutchess County foretell a growing conservative constituency in the Hudson Valley?
You know, it’s interesting because when you look at the elections that just took place, there were not a lot of people that came out to vote. You know, when I just think back to me being a single mom years ago working two jobs having a day care during the day and waitressing and managing a restaurant at night, I think that people are so busy just trying to make it and survive that they think that the politics, the political part, doesn’t really play an important role in their life when it absolutely, especially local politics, does play a huge role in their lives. I think it’s not until somebody has something that directly affects them like me with my business and the rules and regulations that overburdened some that sparked me to get involved and I’m very happy that I did. I hate the politics, but I love helping people.
Is that something that worries you at all? That in these off-year elections, people just seem to not really get that involved, at least not as much as they would if it was a presidential election, even though their county executive directly affects them?
I think maybe we have to do a better job. That’s why I want to have a community engagement program at the office, and I think that’s really important. With my previous office in the state Senate, they used our office as a role model for constituent services and it was because we always wanted to listen to what people had to say and I really want to engage the community. I think if you engage the community and you let them know about what you’re doing, I think then there’s more of a motivation because a lot of times people say, “I’m so busy trying just to make it like what are they going to do for me.” And I think you have to show people what you are going to do for them and that you are listening to them. That’s why I’m always out in the community. There are a lot of people who probably don’t do what I do every year, but I enjoy that part of it because I get to hear from people and know what they need.
You mentioned child care before and I believe first lady Jill Biden was actually in Poughkeepsie not too long ago, advocating for more funding and support for the industry. What ideas do you have to make that more affordable?
One of the things is our community college is going to be offering classes for kids I think starting, I’m not sure if it’s 11th grade, where they can learn what it’s like to be a day care provider, and also talking to some of the companies here that might want to include having some sort of a child care section of their business too, because look at what’s happening right now. There are a lot of people who are making choices about staying home because child care is so unaffordable. So how do we work together to maybe have some child care services with businesses, just like the community college is going to do by getting young people involved and thinking about working in child care, or opening up their own day care.
We touched on it earlier but what does Dutchess County need to get even better?
Well, we have an AA bond rating, which is amazing and I think they’ve done a great job. There’s just things in our communities, I think about eastern Dutchess County because it’s very rural. I know that they don’t have all the services that seem to be here in Poughkeepsie, so it’s a struggle for people to get here. I’d like to bring some of the services out there, maybe have some satellite offices, to give people the availability to come in. When I was a senator we had Putnam County, I was able to open up a small office there in the senior center, so people were able to come to me right there. They didn’t have to come up to Dutchess County, because I think getting to the services is really difficult. I also have an idea for transportation bills. I always say bills in Albany, good bills go there to die. My bill would be where we would have a pilot program and probably eastern Dutchess would be a great place to do it, where seniors could trade in their cars, and they would get a credit toward rides so that they would be able to have transportation because, you know, so often thats a huge issue with our seniors, and not just our seniors, also the health care providers that are going into people’s homes. So it’s those kinds of things to kind of think outside of the box to try to see what we can do for our community.